Make a big difference to The Big Idea.

Help us tell the most creative stories.

Become a supporter

Advice to my 22 year old self: David O’Donnell

As seasoned actor, director and Associate Professor in Theatre, David O’Donnell knows a thing or two to share with those as young and driven as Hamlet.


At the moment I’m directing Hamlet, which is full of great advice for my 22 year old self:

Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
Neither a borrower or a lender be.
Tender yourself more dearly.
O’erstep not the modesty of nature.

O how I wish I knew all these things when I was 22!

Learn more. At the age of 22 I was in my first year at the New Zealand Drama School (now Toi Whakaari). Back then I had no idea how crucial education is to having a good life. Sadly, many people don’t have access to education, and it’s such a life-changing gift, for understanding the world you live in, developing communication skills, forming healthy relationships, being creative and having more agency in your life and career. The theatre was a rather narrow world back then, and I would now advise myself to take classes in other things – learn a language, a musical instrument, a sport, how to make or maintain things. Step outside of your comfort zone, and get a more holistic view of the world.

Get up early: In Scott Hicks’ documentary film Glass he asks composer Philip Glass how he managed to become so successful and juggle so many projects. Glass replies, “Get up early and work all day”. Inspiration and hard work co-exist in a creative spiral but you have to have a basic work discipline and stick to it in order to get anything done.

Build creative discipline: Do something creative every day. It’s a huge leap from being someone who loves the arts to becoming an artist. To be an artist you have to practice regularly.

Study role models and seek out mentors.  I would have been too shy back then to ask anyone to mentor me in a formal way, I thought that asking for help would be a sign of weakness or inadequacy, but actually asking for help is a sign of strength. There are so many talented people to learn from!

Set goals: At drama school I had a vague idea that I might be able to make a living out of acting in the future, but no set plan on how to do this. Rather than stumbling from one random opportunity to another, put down some concrete plans on paper, including fallback plans, exciting alternatives. While no-one can predict the future, opportunities usually grow from proactively planning things.

Listen more: At 22 I thought it was important to talk, not to listen. I met many charismatic theatre people who seemed to effortlessly chat about the major issues in the world with the wit of Oscar Wilde and I longed to emulate this. Years later I realised that a good two-way conversation is one in which each person is talking 50% of the time. Listen to others. Ask them about themselves. Be genuinely interested. Be kind to others and give them respect. Be honest. This is a much better tactic for getting to know people. It’s also an essential skill for an actor.

Lighten up. Being able to live lightly is hard when you’re young, because you feel this great pressure to make something of your life. Ironically this goal will be achieved much more readily if you lighten up, learn to enjoy problem solving, think positively and laugh in the face of adversity. The best thing you can give to your kids is a sense of humour.

Focus on your community not on yourself. In the end a happy life and career comes down to the relationships you form. Seek out like-minded people in various places and to contribute as much as possible to those communities. I’m inspired every day by our Theatre students at Victoria University who contribute to the wider community and seed collaborations that will enhance their lives into the future.

To thine own self be true. For our Summer Shakespeare production, I have cast a female Hamlet because I believe in gender equality and enhancing the relevance of Shakespeare in the modern world.  Hamlet is a young woman, 18 years old. Almost everything that goes wrong in her life is the result of the manipulative actions of the older generation. Ironically it is the person she regards as an “old fool” and murders by accident  (Polonius) who gives the best piece of advice in the play (though not to Hamlet): “To thine own self be true.”

Be happy to be who you are and not try to be anyone else. Develop your own ethics, be canny about who influences you and make the choices that are right for you.

See Stevie Hancox-Monk as Hamlet during Wellington Summer Shakespeare from 15th February to 2nd March 2019 at The Dell, Wellington Botanical Gardens.

Tickets available from Eventfinda.


Written by

The Big Idea Editor

31 Jan 2019

The Big Idea Editor