Creative City Project sponsors a series of workshops on creativity leading up to their call for artists

Daniel Ross
Daniel Ross Photo courtesy of Cole Nesmtih

With storms and sunshine already cranking up Orlando's heat and humidity before summer has even officially begun, it can be challenging to cast your mind forward to the cooler months and contemplate enjoying an outdoor art event. But the 2016 Creative City Project is now only four months away, and founding executive director Cole NeSmith is already encouraging local artists to start considering their contributions to downtown's Oct. 15 festival, which holds its first informational meeting July 13 at the City Beautiful Church on Alden Road.

The primary stated mission of the Creative City Project, which was started in 2012, is to "cultivate a thriving arts community in Orlando," and toward that aim they held the first of a planned series of creative workshops at the Gallery at Avalon Island on June 9. "We want to help artists get better at what they do and help them thrive in their careers," NeSemith explained to me before the event, "and we hope to do that in some small way by connecting them with experienced arts professionals through these workshops."

This first seminar attracted a standing-room-only audience to hear Cirque du Soleil artistic director Daniel Ross. Despite being admittedly uncomfortable with the spotlight, Ross gave the crowd of directors, producers and performers plenty of food for thought, as he shared stories and advice from his two decades with the world-famous circus troupe. Here are a few of the most meaningful takeaways from Ross's wide-ranging 90-minute presentation:

A happy cast keeps the show alive. After nearly 18 years of La Nouba, Ross' goal is to get the cast to perform each show as if it's their first time. The key is to assemble a good team and trust them.

Ross is not himself a specialist in each circus art; instead, he serves as the "center of gravity" for the show's creative minds and taps into what they have to say, so that everyone involved is invested in the outcome.

Improvisation is the best way to find materials and create. Create improv rituals and practice them to yield sharper skills and encourage discovery.

New environments provoke inspiration. If you can't afford to travel, simply put yourself in a place you aren't used to being, like a new neighborhood or local restaurant.

Make a regular appointment with yourself, setting aside 30 minutes to write or create every day. Connect with your former childhood self, play and be immediate in the moment.

Don't let the end product overshadow the journey. Stay connected to your root idea or initial impulse, instead of worrying what the finished project will look like.

Skill is important, but don't let a lack of it stop you. The level of talent you have is what you have, and while you should practice to build technique, you can be successful as an artist with your own vocabulary and knowledge. Your voice is what defines you as an artist, so find it and own it.

You learn the most lessons from your failures. Ross worked on a flopped Cirque show that never got on the road, but is still in touch with the fellow artists who worked on it.

If you run around saying your [project] is the "best show you've ever seen, it will blow your mind," Ross doesn't know if he wants to go see it. Believe in what you do, but also have a level of humility.

There is nothing in the world like live theater, but (unless you are Hamilton) it doesn't sell as well as it did in the past. Beware the danger of ending up in a world where only artists go to see other artists' work.

Focus your art on engaging with emerging demographics. Millennials tend to want to be involved, and want to walk out of the theater feeling like they were part of something.

A good director can feel when there is no energy on stage. It's easy to point out what doesn't work, but it's not that easy to understand why. Somebody not hitting their marks on stage is not necessarily the making of a bad show; Ross would rather have someone who doesn't hit their mark but puts their heart into it than somebody who's precise but "looks like they are doing their groceries."

When there are idle moments with actors on stage simply watching, they must still be connected to the action. If not, even though the audience doesn't know it, they will feel it. Similarly, no one notices good sound or lighting, but they will know if it's bad.

Art evolves in front of an audience. The audience is your main collaborator; the more you get your stuff in front of people, the better it will be.

Cirque du Soleil shows always have a primary focus, plus secondary and tertiary action in the background. As a director, Ross likens building a scene to composing a painting with multiple layers. He usually starts with the main action and weaves in additional elements after, but sometimes they develop in parallel. Having a big stage helps, but the technique can work in smaller spaces.

If Ross's advice has inspired you to contribute to the Creative City Project, visit the organization's Facebook page specifically for artists, "Creative City Project 2016 Artist Kickoff," for more details on the July 13 kickoff event.

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