a resting actor’s response to ‘Is acting today just too tough’?
There’s an article that is doing the rounds at the moment. A very insightful, very depressing article. It’s about being an actor and how blooming tough it is. I’ve posted it here and you should probably read it if you’re an actor, or have any interest in understanding showbusiness.
“The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What’s more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success. Anxiety is thus your daily companion: you can’t escape the drudgery of comparing yourself with your peers unless you stay indoors with the curtains closed and the TV unplugged.”
No-one enters this profession with any pretence, don’t get us wrong. In fact, along the path of training, teachers and industry professionals actually seem hell-bent on actively discouraging people from sticking to it, telling us how unfathomably cruel and awful and unjust it can be. Of course, when you’ve made it through all the many rounds of drama school auditions and are in the middle of your training (which your parents probably had to remortgage the house for), you take it all with a pinch of salt, nodding along but also listening to that little nugget at the back of your head which tells you, “Yeah, but not me. I’ll be the one that does okay.”
And then you graduate. You have a showcase. And these days, schools don’t even have just one showcase. Depending on how many different courses they run, they may have numerous classes of lovely creative, well-trained and talented bodies bursting out into the industry. And you may or may not get an agent from your 1.30 mins showcase scene/song. And the truth of it is, there’s just not enough jobs for these lovely creative, well-trained and talented bodies. Especially nowadays with all the cuts to the arts (which is a whole other issue). There’s just not space to take a risk on all these new creatives. And most of the time, I feel guilty for even daring to have a whinge or moan about the realities and hardships of being a performer. I mean, I’m just an actor right? I’m not a doctor, or a neuroscientist. What difference do I really make? I chose this, I made this bed really well, and now I’m going to lie in it for all I’m worth.
There’s a lovely phrase in the industry called ‘The Graduate Glow’. It describes the way brand new graduates are viewed by casting folk. Fresh and shiny. Once you’ve been out of drama school for a while, your ‘Graduate Glow’ inevitably dulls somewhat, and unless you went straight into a West-End Show or some high profile TV work whilst your glow was still shining, it becomes increasingly harder and harder to even get into auditions for things, let alone to get the job, no matter how brilliant your agent is or how many letters you write, how many courses at the Actors Centre you do. One casting director once said to me, “If an actor doesn’t have anything decent on their CV within two years of graduating, I’ll never see them.” It does become very difficult to not judge yourself, your integrity and your own ability and talent based on what your friends and peers are doing. It’s an odd juxtaposition of emotions; feeling absurdly happy for them getting fantastic jobs and auditions, and quietly admitting to yourself that you’re a bit jealous of them at the same time. It’s an ugly feeling that last bit.
They say actors have to have thick skins. I’ve been rocking around the block for three years now, and mine is like rhino hide. I’ve been to castings for characters called things like ‘Chubby Twentysomething’ or ‘Big Girl’ (one where I had to pretend to sexually eat an eclair into the camera. I’m a size 14 FYI.), have spent time and money learning difficult vocal lines for auditions only to be told it’s ‘not going to go any further’ and travelled once for 9 hours to get to and from an audition where I was in the room for no longer than two minutes. Rhino skin I may have, but I’ll tell you what, those stories make for blooming good dinner party tales. In no other profession would potential employees be treated this way, and perhaps the worst thing, is that we have learnt to accept it, that that’s just the way it goes in this industry, which makes me a little bit sad. We’re people at the end of the day, not just timestepping robots. I just like it when people are nice to each other.
There’s tonnes like me. Bashing along, doing unpaid gigs (which is again, a whole different issue), collaborating with friends on our own projects, taking advantage of cheap theatre tickets, cheerfully whinging about how tough it all it whilst at the same time silently panicking about never being able to buy a house, get married or do normal grown-up things if we carry on this way. I envy my friends who wanted to do ‘normal’ jobs, teaching, recruitment consultants, lawyers, because the truth is, right now, I still don’t want to do anything else.
But if I did, I think I’d find it quite hard to admit it. They say at drama school, ‘Don’t do this unless you really want it. You have to want it more than everyone’ which I always found a little ridiculous. Of COURSE we all want it, we’ve all got creative fire and passion. We wouldn’t be putting ourselves through 8.45am ballet followed by an hour and half of core strength if we didn’t. But sometimes, real life takes over. Commitments change. Right now, I am more than happy to live hand to mouth, scraping my rent together and living on a diet of beans and Sondheim. But one day, I might want a family. I might just have had enough. I might just want to simply do something else. I want to do lots of things with my life (current goal: open a pie and mash shop called ‘Nobody Puts Gravy in the Corner’) but actors find it hard to admit that they might one day want to have other goals that they are equally as passionate and fiery about because we may get written off as not being as driven or focused as those around us, who are also fighting for auditions and jobs.
The truth is as well, there is no solution. Given the nature of human beings wanting to express themselves, there will always be hundreds of thousands of people who want to perform. The culture surrounding showbiz won’t change, and as difficult as I find it sometimes, I’m not at all ready to turn my back on it (Sorry pie, mash and pun lovers, you’ll just have to wait a bit). Because when it is glorious, it is wonderful glory UNBOUNDED. Seriously. There’s absolutely nothing like it. All those clichés about showbiz, the lights, the greasepaint, the applause, the comradery of castmates, the feeling of just standing on that stage and belting the shit out a brilliant, yielding money note- they’re all true on paper, but they FEEL even better. However, at the moment there does seem to be a few voices speaking up about the realities that actors face. The whole low pay/no pay debate has raised voices from all over the industry. Cush Jumbo in her current (BRILLIANT) show, ‘Josephine and I’ discusses how difficult and degrading this industry can be at times, with a particular nod to women in their late twenties on a the cusp of making other important life decisions. I feel like honesty can only be a good thing in an industry so brilliant and vibrant yet so utterly ruthless.
For now, fellow performers, I shall battle on with my head held high until it just doesn’t feel right anymore. And if that happens, then I promise you can all come to the shop for some free pie and mash. I may even throw in a joke if you’re lucky.