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  • Writer's pictureColleen Munro

What do Stingrays have to do with Creativity?

The stingray stretched its powerful wings, fluttering a mere four feet below me in the azure water. Dappled sunlight freckled its silvery smooth, muscular body. A long, thin shadow trailed behind, emphasizing that creepy stinger. All I could think was: Help me, Steve Irwin.

I found out later it was most likely a southern stingray, commonly found stalking the coral reefs along the shores of eastern Mexico, where I was staying in Akumal with my parents for the week. I had seen stingrays in the wild before, in Grand Cayman as a teenager, but those were much further away; this one wasn’t even practicing social distancing.

Me in Grand Cayman in 2013

As I floated above the anemones, staring dazedly at the coral long after the stingray had vanished from view, I thought - this is kind of poignant.

I’m an actor and a writer, but you probably already knew that since you’re on the website for my original series, Anna Banana. My creative life has had many ups and downs. There have been periods of remarkable inspiration, like my sophomore year of college, when I wrote a full-length play in 10 days (it was called No Fire on the Moon, later renamed red panda and produced at UNCSA), or the winter after my college graduation, when I wrote two more plays and three short films in just a couple months.

Reagan Alexander, Tre Dukes, Mariah Guillmette, Hassiem Muhammad in Colleen Munro's play "red panda" at UNCSA, 2019.
Red Panda, written/directed by me. With Reagan Alexander, Tre Dukes, Mariah Guillmette, and Hassiem Muhammad.

Ah, those euphoric, frantic days of hyper-creativity! Sometimes, you just hit a groove. Every plot line seamlessly resolves itself, every line of dialogue crackles with intention, every audition leads to a callback. It’s awesome. But it doesn’t last.

For most of 2020, I didn’t write or act at all. Like most of us struggling through the pandemic, I spent my time playing Animal Crossing and sewing face masks. I lived alone in Brooklyn for much of the year, as my roommate was staying with her parents. I love my day job, but it can be lonely - I’m a nanny for a toddler, and even though we’re best buddies, I don’t really see myself discussing my life’s work with someone who still poops the bed.

Unfortunately for me, creativity likes momentum. It does not like to sit still. It does not like to be put on a shelf for several months while you re-watch The Office for the eight-thousandth time and re-design your five-star island on ACNH.

This is the moment that really changed the course of my life - one simple, routine action : I sat down in my living room to meditate, like I do every day, but suddenly, I was just… crying. I just cried, and I said aloud to my empty apartment and my two cats, “I miss being creative.”

Now, this is rather unusual. I am not much of a crier, which may come as a surprise to anyone who has seen me perform, because I have always been cast as the weepiest of weepy women. My tears and snot have dribbled across dozens of stages and film sets, from Philly to Jersey to NYC to the North Carolina School of the Arts. But in my personal life? Not so much.

Literally me just always crying

I sat there, crying, then marvelling at my crying, for ten more minutes while the guided meditation played out on my phone.

Then I got up, got out my journal, and wrote… a bunch of crap.

Honestly, that’s what it was. It would be a much better story if I had gotten up and written Anna Banana, but nope.

For many weeks after that fateful meditation, my writing felt sluggish and hollow. I wasn’t sure what to focus on. I didn’t have any big ideas or major projects to commit to, but I desperately wanted to write. I wrote every day on the commute to work, my loopy cursive occasionally spiking over the lines as the train hit unexpected bumps. The pages filled with aimless ramblings about what I ate for breakfast (mango smoothies and almond biscotti), first dates I went on (ranging from “eh” to simply atrocious), and my hopes for the day ahead (please no poop in the bed today). I knew that the most important thing was to just keep the pen moving across the paper, no matter what.

And then one day, while I was hanging up a towel in my bedroom, an image popped into my head:

It was like a little movie. A young woman was walking down a busy street, arguing with someone. Her voice is rising. She runs her hands through her hair, agitated. Her cheeks flush pink.

Who is this girl? What’s she so upset about?

The little movie in my head played on:

We pan over and meet the girl’s adversary: a six-foot tall, bright yellow, talking banana.

That’s how it started. It was just an image. I wondered what it would be like to be that girl, how it would feel to have your anxiety come to life and take the form of a giant talking banana. And this Banana is mean, it picks on you, it knows all your insecurities. It has no chill.

This conflict intrigued me. I was fascinated. I had to know more about these characters. I had to write this story.

Me and Emma Factor as the titular Anna and Banana

Today and every day, I am so, so grateful to be working on Anna Banana. It brings me such joy and creative fulfillment, and we haven’t even started principal photography for the first episode. I can’t believe that this wild and crazy journey all started with me having a pity party on my living room floor.

I am so grateful that I kept writing all this time. I’m grateful that I chose to believe in myself, even though I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I’m grateful that I persisted. I’m grateful that I just kept showing up, every day, writing all sorts of garbage and brilliance, in my sloppy script on the B-train.

Here’s the thing: you can’t force inspiration to visit you. You can’t force ideas to come into your mind. But you can stay open. You can be ready, pencil in hand, for when one floats by.

You can’t force the octopus or the rainbow fish or the stingray to swim past you, but you can slap on your snorkel and run headlong into the ocean.

A grainy photograph my Dad took of a stingray in Grand Cayman, 2013

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