The Cultural Diet: An artists guide to consuming culture

From an early age we are introduced to structure and routine. Forming these allow us to be automatic about many aspects of our lives, cutting down on the level of conscious engagement we require to get through each day. We are creatures of habit. The most traumatic things that can happen to human beings are births, deaths and moving house! As a general rule, we crave consistency. It makes us feel safe. It removes uncertainty and anxiety from our lives. We have a sense of identity. We know who we are, what we want, how to get it and where we are going.

But what if you work in a profession where success and failure are only a phone call away? What if your destiny is constantly in the hands of others? What if there is no real way of measuring progress? What if you have to live from day to day and pay check to pay check? What if you can't help but take every criticism personally? What if every day is about living for tomorrow? And even when you have what you want, you can't enjoy it in that moment, because you fear it may never come again? What if you are only as good as your last job and even then, how good you were is subject to the opinions of anyone and everyone?

This is what it is to work in the arts.

Fear becomes our motivation. The fear of missing out on that chance meeting, that audition for the job that will change your life. Fear of booking a much needed holidays just incase an opportunity comes up that could take you closer to your dream. Fear of being kicked out of your apartment because you can't make the rent. Fear of being seen as a failure in the eyes of those you respect and love. Fear of being a failure in your own eyes.

This is what it is to suffer for your art.

Being an artist is less a choice and more of a calling. When you go to bed at night and wake up the next day, you are an artist. You cannot punch a clock at the end of the day or switch it off. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (366 in a leap year). You are an artist. It consumes every fibre of your being. Doing it well costs your something, and not doing it costs you even more. It is a hunger that can never be satisfied, a thirst that can never be quenched.

This is what it is to live in fear. To be burdened and to be put upon.

But working in the arts is so much more than that. It is a release. They encompass full spectrum of the human experience. They are hope. They are joy. They are community. They are family.

In the act of wanting something badly, we can forget the reason we want it so badly in the first place. The moment we first discovered the spark of creativity brought on by curiosity and talent.

The question of how a person who works in the arts can stay inspired and motivated when they are between jobs is one I have asked myself and been consistently asked by others when teaching at drama schools, workshops or giving individual coaching sessions. Like a chef, an artist is only as good as their ingredients. Knowledge and experience feed our imaginations which, in turn, breeds creativity.

There is a common theory that we are the sum of the 5 people we spend the most time with, so choose who you spend time with wisely. Surround yourself with people you admire, who have positive outlooks on life and are smarter than me. We are also the books we read, so choose your reading material wisely. Our imaginations engage in a completely different way when we read that is so much more engaging than when we watch TV or a movie. It happens when we listen to music too. We use our imaginations much more rigorously - drawing upon our experiences and emotions to conjure and craft our own personal visual and sensorial journeys in response to that material. We connect with it in a personal way. It is this ability to imagine that we must strive to develop. The more we experience, see and understand, the more rich and layered our imaginations become. So whether you are between jobs, a working professional or studying a course at University or Drama School, this method will benefit your continued adventure in the arts.

A diet of any kind operates on the principal – You are what you consume. This one is no different.

1. See a piece of professional performance once a week

2. Read one play a week

3. Listen to an album of music from start to finish – one per week

4. Watch one movie – preferably an art house movie – one per week

5. Read a book – one every two weeks – Fiction or non fiction -20-30 pages a day

6. Spend 2 hours in a museum each week and write about what you saw

7. Spend 2 hours in an art gallery each week and write about what you saw

8. Visit a regional theatre once a month to see a show

9. Once a year – visit a country you have never been to and do one thing you can only do in that country.

Please note that this list is not exhaustive. It is merely a basic minimum template to continue your development rather than treading water or, worse, sinking. It can be adapted and added to in many ways depending on your ambitions, interests and projects. I will present examples of this but for now, here are the basic requirements of the Cultural Diet.

1. See a professional performance once a week

Ideally this should be experienced live and in person. Theatre, opera, concerts and dance are always better when you are in the room, watching it take place there in front of you. Live. Watch the very best and learn from them.

The National Theatre, London. Photo: Milan Gonda/Shutterstock

In London we are spoilt for choice with so many excellent theatres producing and housing fantastic performance. We can also do this at affordable prices at places like the Young Vic, Old Vic, National Theatre, Donmar Warehouse and several West end theatre doing ticket deals.

Here are some helpful links to get you started:

There are also performances of dance and opera at ENO, Royal Opera House and Saddlers Wells as well as many others.

NT Live and other live broadcasts in the cinema offer an even more accessible way of seeing live performance. SKY arts also have a good selection. The V&A and NT Archive offer an opportunity to view past performances. I should say that there is nothing like actually being there and experiencing a performance in the space and this should be the goal.

2. Read one play per week

Get to know extraordinary stories and the greatest playwrights in the world. There is a list below compiled by some of the UK’s top theatre directors and posted on the JMK Award website. These will get you started and then take it from there. Chances are if you are reading this then you already have a bookshelf full of plays – some of which you haven’t got round to reading yet. Feel free to start there too.


Below are lists from previous years in with Michael Boyd, Nicholas Hytner, David Lan, Sam Mendes and Katie Mitchell selected their top 25 'classic' plays.

Michael Boyd

A Delicate Balance – Albee

Scenes from an Execution – Barker

Victory – Howard Barker

Act Without Words 1&2 – Beckett

Endgame – Beckett

Uncle Vanya – Chekhov

The Way of the World – Congreve

The Visit – Dürrenmatt

The Suicide – Erdman

Translations – Friel

The Government Inspector – Gogol

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme - McGuinness

The Crucible – Miller

The Shadow – Schwartz

A Midsummer Night's Dream – Shakespeare

King Lear – Shakespeare

The Oedipus Trilogy – Sophocles

The Real World – Tremblay

Dog in a Manger – de Vega

Fuente Ovejuna – de Vega

The Importance of Being Earnest – Wilde

Camino Real – Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Williams

The York Mystery Cycle

Nicholas Hytner

Hippolytus - Euripides

Oedipus - Seneca

The Little Clay Cart - Sudraka

Arden of Faversham - Anon

Edward II - Marlowe

A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Shakespeare

Titus Andronicus - Shakespeare

Fuente Ovejuna - de Vega

Venice Preserv’d - Otway

The Provoked Wife - Vanbrugh

Nathan the Wise - Lessing

Wolves and Sheep - Ostrovsky

Miss Julie - Strindberg

Pelleas and Melisande - Materlinck

Spring Awakening - Wedekind

The Shadow of a Gunman - O’Casey

The Queen and the Rebels - Betti

Schweik in the Second World War - Brecht

The Hairy Ape - O’Neill

Live Like Pigs - Arden

The Hostage - Behan

Epsom Downs - Brenton

Playboy of The West Indies - Matura

Mad Forest - Churchill

Our Country’s Good – Wertenbaker

David Lan

A Number - Caryl Churchill

American Buffalo - David Mamet

Blue/Orange - Joe Penhall

Far Away - Caryl Churchill

Happy Days - Samuel Beckett

Knives in Hens - David Harrower

Master Harold and the Boys - Athol Fugard

Sizwe Bansi is Dead - Athol Fugard

Miss Julie - Strindberg

Molly Sweeney - Brian Friel

Night Just Before The Forests - Bernard-Marie Koltes

Oleanna - David Mamet

Play - Samuel Beckett

Port Authority - Conor McPhearson

Quartet - Heiner Muller

Someone To Watch Over Me - Frank McGuiness

Le Ronde - Arthur Schnitzler

The Caretaker - Harold Pinter

The Censor - Anthony Neilson

The Country - Martin Crimp

The Dumb Waiter - Harold Pinter

The Lesson - Eugene Ionesco

The Maids - Jean Genet

The Zoo Story - Edward Albee

The Chairs - Eugene Ionesco

Disco Pigs - Enda Walsh

Dublin Carol - Conor McPherson

Sam Mendes

Persians - Aeschylus

Oedipus - Hughes (after Seneca)

Timon of Athens - Shakespeare

The White Devil - Webster

The Misanthrope - Moliere

Man and Superman - Shaw

Phedre - Racine

Fuente Ovejuna - Lope de Vega

Ivanov - Chekov

Ghosts - Ibsen

The Rose Tattoo - Williams

Strife - Galsworthy

Comedians - Griffiths

Mensch Meier - Kroetz

Cloud Nine - Churchill

Racing Demon - Hare

Romeo and Juliet - Shakespeare

The Deep Blue Sea - Rattigan

Man is Man - Brecht

Bingo - Bond

Six Characters in Search of an Author - Pirandello

The Balcony - Genet

Travesties - Stoppard

A Flea in her Ear - Feydeau

The Well of the Saints – Synge

Katie Mitchell

The House of Bernada Alba - Lorca

The Cherry Orchard - Chekhov

The Three Sisters - Chekhov

Hedda Gabler - Ibsen

The Dolls House - Ibsen

The Maids - Genet/Crimp

Dream Play - Strindberg

Antigone - Sophocles

Vassa Zheleznova - Gorky

Iphigenia - Euripides

The Orestia - Aeschylus

The Glass Menagerie - Williams

Footfalls/Rockaby/Not I - Beckett

Krapp’s Last Tape - Beckett

Ashes to Ashes - Pinter

Mourning Becomes Electra - O’Neill

The Jewish Wife - Brecht

A Woman Killed with Kindness - Heywood

This is a Chair - Churchill

Attempts on Her Life - Crimp

A View From The Bridge - Miller

Arden of Faversham - Anon

The Dybbuk - Ansky

Live Like Pigs - Arden

Rutherford and Son - Sowerby

The National Theatre Bookshop is an excellent place to buy books on performance and plays. There is also an excellent theatre, film and television sections in Foyles book shop on Charing Cross Road. The Royal Court also has an excellent bookshop in the new Samuel French.

Amazon is the best place for a bargain. There are many times when I have gone shopping for books at the NT, taken a picture of the book, gone home and ordered it online. When you are buying multiple texts it is the most cost effective way. Libraries also tend to have a good selection of plays so it’s worth checking them out.

Develop this idea into weekly play readings with a group. Read all the stage directions and assign characters. It’s a fun way of doing this since plays are supposed to be spoken aloud. Then you can discuss the play after.

3. Listen to an album of music from start to finish

With apple music and spotify, it is now easier than ever to access music. It is also easier than ever to take it for granted. So often reduced to background ambiance, music is food for the soul. It is rich and delicious. There are so many varieties of it and albums are exhibitions curated by artists in a sonic gallery for the ears.

Put on a set of good headphones – I have Bose quiet comfort noise cancelling headphones (a great investment for train and plane travel). It is a worthwhile investment and helps to immerse you in the world of the music.

Listen to the album from start to finish and then do some reading on the artist.

Classical music is a great place to start. Work your way through genres and try music you know nothing about as well as music you think you won’t like. Be brave.

If you are into, studying or a professional who performs musical theatre, you must listen to the whole show before you attempt to sing a song from it. Context and story are everything to character development.

Here are some to get you started:

4. Watch one film per week – Preferably an art house film

I find art house cinema to be the most engaging and enigmatic of cinema experiences.

I take it for granted that we will watch popular classics, the latest summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. However, film is not purely about entertainment any more than food is purely about enjoyment. Our cultural diet of film must contain the trailblazers who created experiential cinema designed to inspire our imaginations. describes art house as the following:

Art house is a film genre, which encompasses films where the content and style – often artistic or experimental – adhere with as little compromise as possible to the filmmakers’ personal artistic vision. The narrative is often in the social realism style with a focus on the characters’ contemplation of their existence or immediate concerns.

An art house film is typically independently produced, outside of the major film studio system. Major studios are reluctant to pour money into projects, which are unlikely to return a profit due to the limited – often niche market – appeal of the material. Without major studio backing, art house filmmakers rarely acquire the finances for large productions or strongly marketed releases.

Art house filmmakers commonly use a mix of lesser-known and amateur actors, modest production sets – typically using real-world locations – and no large stunts or special effects. The filmmakers may explore and develop new filmmaking conventions in their quest to realise their visions effectively on a limited budget.

To get you started, take a look at these articles in the guardian. These are films to feed your artistic soul.

5. Read a book – one every two weeks – Fiction or non fiction -20-30 pages a day

Since deleting social media from my phone, I found that I read much more in bed. Since charging my phone in a different room and getting an alarm clock, I find I read even more books in bed.

You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with and the books you read. Reading is something that is becoming less and less common but it remains a cornerstone of our cultural diet. Dehydrated bits of ink on paper that take us to worlds in our heads, introduce us to people we couldn’t have dreamed of and take us on adventures in our minds inspired by the words of another human being. Reading is totally interactive because without the reader, the story cannot exist. A book is a unique experience for everyone with no two people having the same experience or interpretation of the same story.

I also find biographies and autobiographies to be inspiring. Kenneth Branagh’s now out of print autobiography Beginning is a wonderful read that I often revisit.

Technique books like Katie Mitchell’s The Directors Craft, Declan Donnellan’s The Actor and the Target and Peter Brook’s The Empty Space are regular reads of mine.

Reading lists here:

6. Spend 2 hours in a museum each week and write about what you saw

The UK has a variety of amazing museums in it. In London we are spoilt for choice in terms of world-class exhibitions and facilities.

Personal favourites of mine are the Science Museum, V&A, British Museum and the Tower of London (Venues of historical significance also count).

You don’t have to do a different museum every week. You could spend weeks looking round any one of the major museums in London and still not see and know everything. Knowing every item has a history adds to our intrigue about the items and why they are on display.

Getting a tour, audio or guided, is always a good idea. It’s great to have an inside track on why what you’re looking at is important. Personally, I love a guided tour. I am a total geek and love to know everything I can and get the most out of the experience.

Exhibitions are always changing. Book in advance and plan your visits. It’s fine to go in and browse but sometimes it’s good to go in with an idea of what you want to look at to maximise your time.

7. Spend 2 hours in an art gallery each week and write about what you saw

London is also home to some of the world’s finest art galleries. The Tate modern, Tate Britain, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are wonderful and have regular curated exhibitions. There are also a lot of amazing smaller galleries for all kinds of work all over London.

A picture says a thousand words. Learning about composition of a picture, whether it’s a painting of a photo is a critical part of any artist learning process. This history and craft that has gone into the creation of that piece of work is worth researching also as the story behind creating the piece is often as interesting (if not more interesting) than the piece itself. Whatever you do, knowing the motivation behind creation can inspire you to solutions that you may not have considered in your medium. Da Vinci once said: It is a poor student who doesn’t surpass his master. Though this kind of research and learning, we can have masters who rank amongst the finest in the world at their calling or chosen discipline.

I also spend time in Museums and Art Galleries with playwrights and designers. I find the surrounding more inspirational than the inside of a café. Chances are they know more about what we are seeing than I do, which is always fun. It’s also great to go with someone who you can to talk to about the experience. They will bring something to the room that is very different to you – their perspective. Write about the experience immediately after it and then again the next day. It might be pages, it could be a few thoughts, but do it. You will process it differently. Also write what you want to know more about. This will help you to continue your quest for knowledge elsewhere.

8. Visit a regional theatre once a month to see a show

The UK has many world-class theatres outside of the M25. Since most actors and artists gravitate towards London to pursue their dream, sometimes you have to question why are you an actor in the first place? Is it the glamour and the glitz of a London opening? Is it because you want to do great work? What matters more, living in London or going to a place that can make great work happen? For me, I want to work with the best and most dedicated of people in the best spaces available to create work and tell stories to audiences of people who come to the theatre with an open mind and a heart to match. If the work, story and the people are brilliant, the rest will follow.

UK theatres are generally filled with wonderful and dedicated people who have a tough time making limited budgets work and tackle the difficulties of programming work they know will be popular with audiences while trying to push forward their own artistic tastes and have a positive impact on the communities they serve.

Many of our greatest actors and directors create work in regional theatres and to tour the UK. It is absolutely worth going to these theatres to see the work and the spaces for yourself. Why write to a casting director or an artistic director saying you want to work with them when you have never seen their work or been to their theatre?

My 12 favourite theatres outside of London in no particular order are:

The Crucible Theatre - Sheffield

Salisbury Playhouse - Salisbury

Birmingham Rep - Birmingham

Liverpool Everyman - Liverpool

The Traverse - Edinburgh

The Citizens - Glasgow

The Nuffield - Southampton

Theatre Royal - Bath

The Royal & Derngate – Northampton

Festival Theatre – Chichester

The Royal Exchange – Manchester

Theatr Clwyd - Mold

The best thing you can do is plan monthly trips well in advance. This will save you money on the train and you can plan to visit museums and art galleries in the towns and cities you visit to shake things up a bit. Train journeys with headphones will be a great way to listen to your albums, read books and plays. Or learn a poem. You can even watch a movie you’ve downloaded on a portable device.

9. Once a year – visit a country you have never been to and do one thing you can only do in that country.

When I was 30, I discovered the joys of travelling. With a job I was doing, I visited 12 major cities across 4 continents in 11 months. It was the most wonderful experience I have ever had. The best thing was it was with work. I learned more travelling to those parts of the world than I had done in years. The feeling of actually being in another country and doing something I could only do there was incredible.

For example: Walking across the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge, dune buggy riding in Doha, visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco, tobogganing down the Great Wall of China.

If travel broadens the mind, the culture of where you travel to will enrich your soul. Lie on a beach by all means, but find time to explore. It is vital to your development as a person to experience other cultures and deepen your understanding of why people behave the way they do. Who we are and where we come from are vitally important to us as creators of art but also as human beings.

10. Learn a poem per week

Start with Shakespeare’s sonnets – 14 lines – 2 per day. He wrote 154 of them so it should keep you going for almost 3 years!

Your memory is a muscle and it can be developed and trained. It will also help to expand your vocabulary and develop the way you speak. Always learn a poem by speaking it aloud. If you don’t understand a word, phrase, image or context, look them up. Only by understanding the poem will you have truly learnt it.

Also consider how the images and words make you feel when you are saying the poem. This is vitally important as poetry is not only a combination of words, but sounds too. The human voice is a musical and emotional instrument. We use it to communicate with each other. Ideas, feelings and thoughts. Owning someone else’s provokes a response in us. Observe what this is and then you can say you know it by heart.

Some inspiration:

Next steps:

The Cultural Diet is the basic minimum that an artist should be doing in order to continue to nourish their creative mind and soul. All too often I meet frustrated creative people who have forgotten why they do what they do in the first place. It is easy to get distracted by the pressures of daily life and to lose our development time to more pressing matters. I would argue that there is no more pressing matter than that of our own development and the development of those around us. So many young people look inward for answers rather than opening their eyes, ears and hearts to the wonders of the world around them. So often we do things because we have to, through necessity or fear. To do things because we want to or because they are good for us seems to be a luxury. It is not.

How often to we hear about people changing lifestyle or eating habits because of a health scare? We allow ourselves to get into a position where our life may be altered or even threatened before doing something about it. By simply making the choice to feel better by doing things that are better for us, we will find our overall quality of life will get better too.

The Cultural Diet is not a solution to a problem but a starting point, an anchor to bring you back to your why. This is not only good for artists but for anyone who wants to think creatively.

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