Interview: Abiola Ogunbiyi

In recent months I’ve become fascinated by the routines and day-to-day practices of creative people, in an effort to understand how they actually get it done. Hence, a new series of interviews where creators talk about how they accomplish anything at all in this busy life.  

Abiola Ogunbiyi is quite possibly one of the most talented and hardworking people I’ve ever met— not only does she sing like a goddess, she’s a wholly remarkable actor, incredible writer and sometimes DJ. She is one of the smartest, brightest people I've ever met. From New York City to the West End in London, her creativity, determination and passion for her work continue to blow me away. 

                                            photo by Crista Leonard

                                            photo by Crista Leonard

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When is a time you felt really successful?

Last year, I had an idea for a short film, based on the title of a film that’d recently been released. I self-produced the picture, and managed, as well as being the only actor in the film, to direct it, squeezing in shots in the rare moments when my videographer and I both had free time. I had to leave London for a theatre job so, with several YouTube tutorials, ended up editing it myself. I submitted it to some small festivals, and it was only accepted into one, which at the time got me down. When that screening came round, I nearly didn’t go, but my mum wouldn’t have it. She drove me to the cinema and bought 2 glasses wine and a slice of cake for us to share. About four films in, my film began. Seeing the opening shot on a screen that wasn’t my computer, and it being such a big screen in a room filled with people made me feel so terrified, but liberated all once, as well as incredibly grateful to my mother for never letting me play small. The film got a lovely response, and as the credits rolled, I thought of all the work I’d done to put the film together; it became a reminder to never set limits on what I’m capable of.

How do you deal with the continual ebb and flow of “success” as an artist?

As I’ve achieved some of initial goals I had in my teens and whilst training, success has taken a new shape; there’s a lot more fluidity in how I look at it, having now lived in a land where what was just my hobby is now my livelihood too. It’s now not so much of a want to “get every job”, as it is making sure I am consistently challenged in each new project, no matter how frequently those opportunities may or may not arise. Given my age and current responsibilities, I’m fortunate to currently be in a position to do that. The initial goals I had 3 years ago are nothing like the ones I have now, as I’ve either accomplished them, or no longer found them in alignment with the truth of the work I want to make. In terms of my own material, I try and see success as the making and completion of the work, rather than what comes after it’s done, so that any sense of judgement, and linking of that judgement to worth, is eliminated. It’s not easy, but I’ve found it to stop any chance of debilitating fears. I

What is your biggest struggle as an artist?

 In the words of Hamilton, the fear that I’m running out of time, and that fear stopping me from doing the very work that will eliminate it.

What is your daily routine?

It has slight differences depending on whether I’m in rehearsals, or performance, or neither. But there are some constants. I always wake up pretty early, do a quick morning meditation sequence, and then have a glass of hot water with fresh lemon whilst writing my day’s morning pages (Julia Cameron’s infamous creativity tool! It’s so great!). I like to get my workout in pretty early too, so I’ll go to the gym, or a yoga class when I’ve got more funds at my disposable (I literally lead different lives depending on job status!). Then I’ll cook breakfast, usually a hot bowl of almond milk, oatmeal, fruit, and various other Instagramable additions. If I don’t have a rehearsal or an audition, I’ll do a lot of writing. I’m currently preparing to film a sketch I’ve written, and am writing a spec script for 2 US sitcoms I’d like to write on. The day goes by with a possible meeting with a friend, or cinema trip (I’m a member of 2 cinemas in London, so I use my complimentary tickets). I always keep a notebook on hand for any ideas I get throughout the day. Then before I know it, it’s night-time. I’ll cook dinner (I’m loving sweet potato wedges and hummus salad right now), and then I always try and play a guided sleep meditation sequence as I lay in bed, to help me sleep and to give me a moment to evaluate the day gone by.

How do you get it all done?

Firstly, I’d like to say that I’m not sure that I do, at least not as well as I’d like to all the time. But I have a lot of to do lists. I also wake up pretty early which helps me use as many hours as possible. Music is my life-force; I have nearly 20 playlists of varying moods to suit the kind of work I need to do. Also: I drink coffee (although I gave it up for lent, and have managed to get just as much done drinking chai tea!)

What is your weekend routine?

I’ve really tried recently to embrace actually having a day off. However, if I have a quiet day during the week, I’ll treat that as a day off, and make sure I work on the Saturday. Two consecutive days off in London makes me feel guilty (which probably says more about me than London). But I do like to stay at home; the city gets so crowded on the weekend. I make my own food as often as I can during the week, but I like to cook something that takes a little longer in the weekend. The other week, I made two loaves of buckwheat banana bread. They lasted three days! I also try and do something with my 3 best friends from high school; they work 9-5 jobs so the weekend is one of our few chances to get together, catch-up and eat a lot of tortilla chips!

How do you afford to be an artist financially?

This is through a mixture of factors that have come together over the years, to my immense gratitude. Firstly, I have been very fortunate that in the 5 years and 9 months that I’ve been a professional performer, I’ve been employed for nearly 70% of the time (I worked that out!), which is actually above average for an actor. I spent two years of that time in two well-paying West End shows, and saved enough during both to keep me sustained in my “to-job” periods. Last year, I booked a commercial last year that allowed me a few months of more…financial dexterity shall we call it? But I am also very fortunate that I live with my mum in Central London, meaning my rent contributions are substantially lower that what others who live in London are paying, a privilege I can’t deny. I genuinely think that in this field, at least in the first few years whilst you figure out the way that it is going to work for you, it’s a case of taking one day at a time. The last 4 months have been tough, as I’ve invested a lot into getting more work that hasn’t manifested just yet. But I trust that it’s a period that too shall pass.

It can be expensive to make things— do you have a day job?

It’s difficult because I’ve never wanted to commit to something too tightly as I feel it’ll come at the expense of what I really want to do. I’ve worked on and off as a temporary receptionist, through a recruitment company, and still do. It’s actually been really enjoyable, as I’ve seen how a variety of companies operate, and how a number of factors affect the atmosphere and company moral. I’ve spent time at LinkedIn, Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, and Converse (where I was given a free pair!), and had experiences that have gone on to inform my work, and provide good material for some of my writing! I’ve also recently joined a promotional staffing agency. I learnt to DJ a few years ago; I really want to get back into doing that as a day & night job.

How do you manage stress/anxiety that is inevitable with putting yourself out there?

By distracting myself, and making more work as soon as it’s out there. But honestly, some sort of feedback has become unavoidable in this social sharing culture we’re currently in the midst of. I try and think of it like when some unpleasant news comes out about you, or your past. You just have to wait for more unpleasant news about something else and then you will be old news, leaving you to go about your life like you aren’t being watched. And really, it’s all on us. I really feel like we each are watching ourselves the most, and believing in that truly sets a great deal of that anxiety free.

How do you know when it’s time to rest?

I get sick, or injured. It’s awful, I know. Other than that, I just like to take a few days to a weeks’ break once a job ends.

How do you rest?

Not very well! Seriously. I still don’t really do it well enough, or often enough. I travel when I can; it almost completely removes me from any external obligations to work. When I can afford it, I’ll get a nice long Swedish or re-aligning massage. It’s between 60-90 minutes of always much-needed tension release.

 How do you manage the internet/social media?

Ah, the internet! The great paradox of our time. Well, I love it most of the time. Until I’ve spent too long on Wikipedia… But. When I set the right time limit, and am in a good mood, I can handle it. I find Instagram really fun; I think it’s because it uses multimedia, photos, and videos. I’m a sucker for an Instagram story. I actually recently deleted Twitter, but then re-installed it after seeing that it’s very helpful for my work. I have SelfControl on my computer, which my sisters recommended to me. It’s an application that allows you to create a “blacklist” of websites that you don’t want any access to, and even if you change your mind, there’s literally nothing you can do until the timer ends. So I usually set that to work from 10am-6pm at least. But I would really like to delete Facebook, but keep messenger. Is there a way to do that yet?

What’s your big dream? Do you have one? How do you set goals/set yourself up to achieve?

I would love two things, which I guess I would love to keep constantly doing. 1. To create a television show. 2. To co-write, co-produce and act in a feature film. I’m inspired by so many women across generations, who have led their films, or gone on to lead their own shows. Oprah, Brit Marling, Greta Gerwig, Issa Rae, Madonna, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Sarah Jessica Parker, I could go on and on… But also, by my fully representing myself, I want to do the same thing many of these women did for me, and empower women and girls who, whether at an age of realizing it or not, need to see themselves represented on screen.

Find more of Abiola's work here