Why am I doing this? Why do I voluntarily vocally, physically, mentally, and intellectually exhaust myself day after day for something so unobtainable? As an actress, you will ask this to yourself once after approximately every six auditions you get rejected from (that’s my ratio, anyway). But seriously, why do performers deliberately make their lives a living hell? Facing rejection, day-in and day-out, and never knowing if they will ever achieve anything…I will share with you some advice I have been told constantly throughout my teenage life “if you can do something else, do it”.
I did not hear that phrase until I openly told people that I wanted to be a professional actress. In elementary and middle school, people loved that I did theatre: It was different. It was cool. And, I happened to be good at it. Every teacher or family member that came to see one of my shows would be filled with joy and pride that I “made it” up on our local stages. That quickly changed as I matured. Sure, adults I had grown to love and respect still regularly attended and complimented my performances, but with every post-show compliment was an underlying subtext of “Don’t you want to get a real job?”. My response: If I could and wanted to do something else, I would. I am passionate about theatre and that is why I cannot let anything touch me. I know what I want and I am going for it.
In the infamous movie-musical Fame, once all the students have their first class with their perspective arts department, each professor states how difficult their profession is. The sequence starts with the dance professor stating “Dance is the hardest program in this school”, followed by the acting professor saying “Acting is the hardest profession in this country”, and finished by the music professor proclaiming “Music is the hardest profession in the world!”. Of course, this scene is meant to be satirical and ironic, but there happens to be a lot of truth in those statements.
I know that I am only an actress, but more specifically- as a predominantly Musical Theatre performer (using all three Fame art forms, I know, it’s insane) I can concur that we performers do have one of the hardest professions in the world. If you are not both consistently and constantly getting better at your craft, you will never get work. You should always perfect your craft, especially when no one is considered perfect. This requires you to take care of your voice, body, mind, and soul. Oh, and you must take care of all those entities while facing numerous obstacles. These obstacles include (but, are certainly not limited to) illness, injury, competition, and nerves- that will arise, unforeseen and at any moment. The glory and the curse of theatre is that everything relies on moments.
The adage of being “in the right place, at the right time” is something your career relies on. It is unfortunately not enough to just be talented. You must know the right people, make the right life-choices, always be entirely present, be improvisational, and be the best-self you can be. If you mess up a moment, by maybe saying the wrong thing to the wrong person (casting director or what have you), your career could potentially be over. These are the bad moments that are career defining. Before you get too depressed about how you could mess your life up- there is some good news. Your best moments will also define your career. You could give a stellar audition that leads you to your dream project, because you were in the moment. You were compellingly in character the whole audition and the right person happened to be watching. Another thing about moments, you will never be able to avoid them.
Yes, all this information on an average performer’s life in the theatre is daunting- and I am only scratching the surface. To bring you more into my perspective: I am always giving my all in every performance class, even when I have voice, movement, dance, and vocal lessons all “back to back”. I may even have an audition after those classes conclude. After all that activity, I still need to find a few hours in each day to rehearse and analyze my work. Why? I cannot afford not to (double negative, I know). Also, I must constantly read plays (to learn new material). On top of that, I must market myself and look out for when and where the next audition will be. Any Actor will tell you, they always have another audition coming up. This is a lot of work. So why the hell do so many people do it?
Once, I was asked at a college audition the equally simple and complex question of “Why do you do theatre?” and my initial response was “it’s a sickness.” Looking back at it, “sickness” seems an ill-fitting word to use (get it? Sorry, I love puns). What I mean is, “sickness” clearly has a negative connotation. However, there is no denying that actors have long-lasting pain. If I were to answer that question now, I would say that “Acting is contagious”. Once you start, if you have that passion for theatre and it gives you a sense of purpose and true being, then you simply cannot stop. Theatre is contagious as laughing is contagious. Both embody and evoke joyful feelings. You may do too much of one and possibly feel a little bit of pain. Even if someone was laughing so hard that their stomach hurt, I do not think that they would want to never laugh again. No matter how bad the audition, I will continue to pick myself up and keep doing theatre. It makes me feel alive. It makes me express myself in the best way imaginable. It makes me, well, the best “me” I can be. If theatre is a sickness, I’m infected.