Necessary Delusion

To be an actor there is a process of necessary delusion that must take place. You could call it, hope.

It is part of the make-up of the actor’s personality and it is vital that it exists.

Photo by Sandeep Kumar on Pexels.com

And the delusion goes like this: in order to survive in this industry I need to believe that I have a fighting chance of success (however you quantify that) no matter how the odds are stacked against me. I need to believe that I have something to give, that an audience is waiting for me, wanting ME to give it, not the many other actors in the queue with me… just little old me. You need to hope that you are something special, that somehow you will stand out. That you will be noticed and that you will become one of the 1% of actors that work regularly.

This is how we live our lives – completely and utterly subjectively. Everyone does. But it’s so important to re-examine that delusion from time to time so that you can keep grounded in reality. Because when reality hits it can be brutal.

In 2014 I had a mini breakdown. I have dealt with it. But it was centred around the idea of failure. That I was then a 39 year old actor that was doing good work now and again and not really reaping any security from it. Noticing too, parents getting frailer and I was unable to contribute anything to their lives because I was barely holding mine together; realising there were so many places in the world I wanted to travel to but never had the financial security to plan a holiday. Once those odd, wonderful, fulfilling acting jobs ended it would be back to the cycle of temp jobs, Job Seekers Allowance, and perhaps a loan or two from a despairing mother. Personally, I was desperately lonely and was also seeking some kind of secure relationship that would help me weather the storm of insecurity that is the actor’s life. Loneliness, failure and time were relentlessly moving forward together.

Being an actor can be a lonely experience.

When I looked around at that time, all my friends and colleagues in my temp jobs had houses, had families, had connections. In 2014 a lot of things came to a head: it felt like I was floating from acting job to temp job to acting job whilst staying in a flat I couldn’t afford because I couldn’t afford to move out of it – a cycle of economic poverty that is almost a guaranteed aspect of an actor’s life. And I felt so small. I was also unproven. I hadn’t had a lead in so long that I wondered if I could do it. Did I have the technique, the goods, the stamina to deliver a lead? A theatre company I tried to start failed, due to lack of funding. No theatre company I ever wrote to replied to any of my letters. No casting director that I ever approached communicated beyond the standard, “Let us know when you are in something.” And when I was in something they would still not come and see my work because I lived and worked mainly outside London. It was like screaming into a void that sucked all sound into itself and I was left, silent and voiceless.

So the breakdown came because reality kept trying to assert itself, pushing my hopeful delusion to one side.

Then I got an opportunity to audition for a huge company. And then a director that I had worked with many times wrote a letter to the Artistic Director of that huge company. I was offered an audition with that Artistic director. And for six months I never heard a thing. And then I got an offer that led to three other offers with this large company. Suddenly my life changed. I was connected. I was seen. I had a contract lasting years. I flew out of economic poverty and I thought that this was me finally receiving the rewards for all that necessary delusion. This was success. I had finally achieved it. I was a working actor. Not a famous one, not in huge roles. But I was in guaranteed work for years. And the delusion felt right and real as I had become the 1%.

In that company I had one huge understudy role. An epic piece of theatre, an equally epic character. I learnt so much and I pushed and I worked harder than I have ever worked for one experience of performing it in an understudy run. One day. One moment. I have never been so ready for a performance in my life…..and I smashed it. Standing ovation. My family was there, colleagues from the past that I respected and loved and they all saw what I had sacrificed, all that I had worked for, all the money family had spent on my drama education come to fruition. It was one of the best days of my life.

But the actual roles that I performed ever day for years? Side lines. Forgettable. Scenery pieces. And I still tried to delude myself that even those roles would matter. And they do to your bank account but not to that throbbing creative heart and soul that lives inside each actor. The roles were soul destroying and all the good roles I had were all understudy roles. I never got to go on stage once for any of my understudy parts. This sounds ungrateful. It isn’t. I loved this too…why?…because I was working!!!

BUT then came the awful realisation and I finally saw why the delusion can be so uniquely dangerous. I was there in the huge company, I was working, I was earning great money, and still, nothing was changing. I watched time after time as younger actors got all the leads. My huge understudy role did not make anyone sit up and say, ” WE MUST USE THIS PERSON MORE!” No, it was praise and love for my work and then no real opportunities in casting came to pass. I was back in that feeling of 2014, but, even worse this time, because I had thought that I had proved myself with the understudy role. In 2014 I hadn’t even had that opportunity.

And all the gatekeepers looked away, disinterested.

And I had to come to terms with that delusion that said that I was going to be different, the delusion that said that I had a fighting chance at a successful acting career. And realise that I wasn’t and that I didn’t. That the people who saw my work still didn’t care. That no matter what work I did, incredible or not, I would still be relegated to the small roles by the people in power. And that’s when the delusion become dangerous. The difference between the delusion and reality hurts like a bitch. When it continues to whisper at you, against all the evidence, that your work matters. Most of the time, to the people in power, it doesn’t. And you find yourself back at the beginning looking for temp work, looking for other ways to pay the bills.

It doesn’t take away what I got from the work. I was immeasurably changed doing that role, and the audience loved it and my family sometimes still talks about it. My colleagues I respect saw what I could do. I even got my first fan letter. BUT IT DIDN’T HELP MY ACTING CAREER ONE IOTA. And so you have to kill your delusions and face reality. Something about me is stopping the breakthrough, some outside judgement too is being put on me by others that I cannot know or grapple with. That is for them to decide. I cannot change that.

So when I started putting the delusion away that I have lived with all my acting life I started to really see that I had power all along. I could kick myself for not really knowing this before. If I am a creative, I don’t need other people to tell me that, to give me permission. And so I have started that new journey of putting the delusions aside and facing a new reality in which I choose when I will work. Choose what projects to work on and also explore the depths and breadths of new ways of creativity and communication.

This is the only way forward. I will always be an actor. But I have very few delusions left. This life is fucking hard. No one can understand how hard unless they too have this burning desire to be a creative, an actor, a writer. Pick your creative profession.

But being a failed actor and being failed has opened me up to being more creative than I ever was before. Ever since that understudy run I know I am capable. More than capable.

So, a gift in disguise.

I don’t believe in blessings.

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