The Modern day Renaissance Soul: You don’t have to be a genius

Think ‘Renaissance Man’ and the figure that immediately springs to mind is Leonardo Da Vinci. Perhaps the most celebrated polymath of all time, Da Vinci not only painted, but was also famously an anatomist, engineer, botanist, architect and sculptor, amongst other things.

It’s a lot for the aspiring modern day polymath to live up to. In Da Vinci’s day, the world was relatively unknown and one could more easily make a meaningful contribution to any given field. Our knowledge of anatomy, for example, has advanced so far that it’s unlikely any but the most dedicated specialists will make new discoveries. A recent article in Intelligent Life entitled ‘The Last days of Polymath’ discusses this very topic. But should the modern day polymath be put off by the seeming impossibility of becoming ‘expert’ in more than one field? Or should he be contended with embracing his multiple interests simply because he enjoys it?

British writer and explorer Robert Twigger ( promotes the idea that ‘Polymathy has many levels – you don’t have to be a genius’. Creatives with multiple forms of expression often tell me how their different outlets feed one another, and seem relatively unconcerned that they may not reach the ‘top’ of everything that they choose to pursue. If one wants to make a film, or study biology, or set up an online shop, then why not regardless of the outcome? Polymathy can be motivated by a desire to nurture our multiple talents and become more rounded, rather than financial rewards and recognition.

In a world so often obsessed with specialisation, we are constantly encouraged to ‘be the best’ and aspire to reach the top of our chosen career, when perhaps we should be placing more importance on creative fulfilment and personal development. Twigger asserts that we should all broaden our thinking outside our own limited field of knowledge, and sometimes the ‘cross-fertilisation’ of ideas across disciplines leads to the most exciting discoveries. There’s little doubt that it’s harder now than in Da Vinci’s day to make big new contributions across multiple disciplines, but I think we’ve all got something to gain from casting our net a little wider.

How Not to be a Polymath. By Rose Lewenstein

I have enormous admiration for polymaths who make it work, because I have to admit that juggling art forms has caused me nothing but trouble.

As a child, my parents were always supportive and I never felt pressured into pursuing a Real Job* – in fact, my mother always said I should be a writer.  But when I was six, I decided I was going to be an actress.  10 years later, I started training in Musical Theatre, confident I’d be a West End star by the time I turned 20.  When in one of my tutorials I was asked whether I had a Plan B, I answered quite confidently that yes, I did have a Plan B.  If things didn’t work out, I would to move to Paris and become a jazz singer.  (Later that year I received a Rough Guides book as a birthday present from my father.  I told you my parents were supportive).

Somewhere between my diploma in Musical Theatre and my degree in Performance Arts, I decided that what I really wanted to be was a theatre director.  So I set up a theatre company with a friend and we put on a couple of plays and it was great fun and I learnt a lot and I think the main thing I learnt was that I didn’t really want to be a theatre director.

And so, having crossed West End Star and Theatre Director off my list, I was accepted by the (now Royal) Central School of Speech & Drama.  Over the three years we studied Acting, Voice, Movement, Directing, Dramaturgy, Writing, Text Analysis, Creative Producing, Contemporary Theatre Making, Interdisciplinary Theatre Practice and of course Performance Art (I briefly thought it might be the path for me when my friend Julia and I attempted to conduct a civil partnership in front of the class – our backdrop a porn film and our soundtrack Rachmaninoff – to illustrate, um, something about stereotypes and attitudes towards same sex marriage) – so pretty much most things that relate to most jobs in theatre. Continue reading

Pamela Banks: Taking Control

Copyright Garnon Davies

Pamela Banks is an actor, singer & co-founder of Vital Signs Theatre. They recently toured a production of Laura Wade’s play ‘Other Hands’.

“If I could just act, and play the parts that excited me, then I would”. Like many actors, Pamela Banks has occasionally felt frustrated with the range of opportunities the industry throws her way, ‘I’ve done a lot of comedies…farces, which are great fun but the female characters in them can often be quite one-dimensional’. Taking on more meaty roles often involved working for little pay, for small and sometimes rather disorganised set-ups. Whilst appearing in one such production, Pamela got chatting to fellow cast member and friend, Lucy Lill, and they decided to have a go at producing a show. ‘The idea was born out of frustration really…we felt we might be able to do a little better ourselves’.

The girls found themselves a play with two strong female characters, and booked a week at a London fringe venue to stage their experiment. They raised the money through singing at fundraising concerts in Pam’s native Oxfordshire and the production went down a storm, selling out every night. With one under their belt, the pair decided to keep the company alive and have since gone on to produce several more plays, each more ambitious than the last.

Pam describes her feelings towards producing as ‘mixed’, enjoying the challenge and satisfaction of the end result, but not the ‘endless fundraising and funding application forms’. Luckily for her, whilst she looks after the company books, her collaborator Lucy is a natural at that sort of thing, so the division of labour seems pretty harmonious. Continue reading