Failing Yourself

I love this industry.

Any of you out there who have read my previous blogs might be surprised by this. My previous blogs have been full of negative experiences that I have had in the industry. But it comes from a deep love for what the entertainment industry can do and does do for the world. You see it in the resilience and hope that’s nurturing shows right now, shows that may or may not see the light of a stage, thanks to the virus. You see it in faces of audience members when they have seen something true, something play or film that has moved them deeply. You see it in how actors rally around each other because they know how tough times have affected them in the past and now. And I do want the industry to look after it’s practitioners better. That is a huge concern to me because I see the waste of talent. I see the blooming mental health crisis for all practitioners in this industry.

And, perhaps, I am also talking about myself here. I feel wasted. I know panic. I know too that I have never been taken seriously no matter how hard I have worked, no matter what huge successes I have had in roles it all has come down to a gamble that never quite paid off. As a career. Not as an artist. I have achieved so many poignant moments especially in the last couple of years that I cannot call failure. The work has transcended that sense of ‘career failure’.

But the career failure still hurts. I am human after all. Not everyone achieves their dreams. That is a fact that so few of us want to face. You have to delude yourself that that won’t happen to you. That you will be the one to make it. It’s a crucial delusion.

And when I look at what I gambled to achieve my dream: living close to family and friends; moving to a foreign country; financial worries for yourself and others because you chose to study at a British drama school hoping that that would help normalise your transition to a foreign country; missing your sister’s wedding because the show would not give you time off because there were no understudies – are just some examples that make what you don’t achieve by 45 years old all that harder to bare. And difficult to swallow. I think in the last post of ‘loving lockdown’ I was trying to say that I have started to realise what I should have been doing all along: finding my own voice and developing ways to express what I want to say. If a young actor, fresh from drama school, were to ask me any advice it would be this: FIND WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY AND LEARN HOW TO SAY IT AND DON’T LET YOURSELF STAND IN YOUR OWN WAY.

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I allowed that process to happen in my own life and career at time: standing in my own way. And if I am going to be critical of my industry and wonder about ways it can reform then I have to also accept that I have failed myself too, to some degree, and look for ways to reform myself. Here are some of the ways I have failed myself:

  1. I believed the work would matter for career progression. And I realised very late that it doesn’t. I thought, if I do good work here that casting directors will be bound to see me and like my work and so will send me for castings and my career would progress that way. It doesn’t and I held onto this belief way longer than I should have. How people progress in the industry is based on random unknowables, especially for actors. You could be too fat or too thin; too foreign or too bald; too man, too woman; too white, too black. The work only matters at the end but before you even get to do the work, to practice your art or craft the total effect of yourself matters more. And it will determine whether or not you even get an audition.
  2. I could have developed more skills. I see this now and see that to some extent my skills were limited. I am excellent at Received Pronunciation even though I was born somewhere else. I worked hard at that but to someone not born here the plethora of accents is overwhelming, changing from city to city. I picked two to master and really only mastered one. I could have done more. Oh there’s that wonderful guilt that actors feel: always you could be doing something more. That’s the guilt that I have been free of this last year. It is a huge mental strain that has evaporated. A low grade panic that someone who has mastered many accents or skills, like a musical instrument, will have more work. But there has been a seismic shift in our industry especially around accents. I have noticed that when accents are called for audition notices tend to say NATIVE accent actors only. And well, my parents saw no need for me to learn the piano when I was a kid and so I am teaching myself now but am nowhere near using it as a skill. That takes time. They both do.
  3. I never developed the confidence to sell myself. There are some actors I know that are able to sell themselves to a degree slightly off of obnoxiousness. I have considered this a lot. And it relates to why I wanted the work to matter. I can be damned awkward in a group of people. Tongue-tied sweaty palmed silence is what I achieve in auditions and rehearsals. I hide it well with a huge smile and an affable nature that people can interact with but my introversion always wins and I run away and hide in the toilets or a quiet corner to eat my lunch. Selling yourself isn’t easy. And for me the product, the acting, is more important to me, not ME, The Person. And everyone comes with their own history right? I wasn’t exactly instilled with confidence as a child by my experiences with my father and that has translated into adult life. But I know I am not unique here. So many people just assume that all actors are extroverts. We are not. I find it awkward selling myself. The excruciating chit chats with casting directors and producers, the awful awkwardness over a glass of lukewarm champagne and a cold canapé on opening night of a show when all I want to do is say: Listen see me for castings and think of me when you are producing a show, ok? And leave it be.
  4. I wrote letters, I invited agents and casting directors to almost all of my shows. But again I wonder, could I have done more? And the answer is…I don’t know. I never know. I wonder if readers of this blog will relate? Can actors ever know why they fail? There is so much silence in the industry it’s like working in a vacuum. And the answers to all the letters and mailings and CV’s handed out was pretty much close to zero that it felt a pointless waste of time. But still you wonder…
  5. I kept quiet when I should have spoken. I ensured that certain conditions endured because I did not speak up against them and so I suppose every blog that I have written to date is my way of finally speaking up and slightly berating myself for my lack of action. Maybe this relates to confidence or maybe to self preservation as an actor. You learn very quickly that if you become a ‘problem actor’ you will be released from contract and replaced by that actor desperate to work who will keep quiet. I have however felt this as a failing of oneself.

I love this profession but it’s not an easy one to be a part of. So much is unknowable and that creates even more pressure to be perfect, to always gets things right. I have been lucky. The few places that have given me work have done so again and again and I have eked out a career that way. But I am determined to stop using the ways I have failed myself, in the future.

This is the promise: I believe I have something of worth to say. So, I will do everything in my power to work towards that. And I will keep these failings in mind and when one wants to stop me doing something I am going to engage in, and act, it’s opposite.

Believing isn’t enough. Doing is.

“Lockdown Love” or “How I Became Sane”

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Something keeps shifting in me. I am happier than I have been in many years. It’s been happening since the beginning of the first lockdown. It’s a shift that I hope will have profound consequences for the rest of my working life. And it has come out of the fact that I have profoundly loved and embraced lockdown for what it is. I want to explain what it has meant for me.

First, I am someone who has three risk factors against me if I were to contract coronavirus. I turned to my ex-partner the other day and scared them by saying that I didn’t think I would survive Covid-19. I might be one of the statistics. Yes, I can’t know that for sure. Despite these risk factors I have always gone to gym, looked after my eating and because of lockdown I have conquered my fears of running outdoors. I hit 5.5km the other day after barely been able to do 100m back in March. So I am fitter and feel healthier but these factors remain. I am acutely aware of this as we are about to go into a second lockdown.

At the beginning of the first lockdown there was a plethora of activities organised over Zoom by my actor friends. It was so wonderfully telling of our resilient natures. They were setting up play readings, discussion of plays, small ‘ think tanks’ about Covid and how to carry on, to show our solidarity with the rest of the industry. I was invited on to many of them. But something kept whispering to me: NO. STOP. LET GO. But the pull was seductive. I wanted to prove, like all actors do, that we are up for anything. To show positive engagement, to do something that keeps my artistic brains active – to not let it atrophy. I was wondering where the ‘LET GO’ was coming from. But of course that was easy. If you have read my blog up to now you will understand. The agent story, the weird work experiences. They all lead to one thing: EXHAUSTION.

I don’t think many people realise how exhausting being an actor is. How the quest to be an actor involves insane choices on a daily basis and insane fear levels that can thwart a balanced mental state. You always feel like you SHOULD be engaging. That you can never say no. It’s an endless cycle of: writing to agents and casting directors, making sure your CV on Spotlight is up to date, spending money on new headshots, making sure your teeth are clean, that you have a job that allows you to go to auditions, then prep for new auditions coming in at random times, then travel to auditions at a moment’s notice if you live outside London, the constant worry where your next job is going to be, and whether that next job is coming at all, how will I pay rent, my bills, how will I look after my child if I am called next day to a casting. All these things and more make acting an exhausting profession that can eat away at your equilibrium.

And suddenly all that went away. It all lifted – evaporated when we went into lockdown. There was nothing I could do. So rather than pretend that everything was just carrying on like normal I started to say no to my friends because I realised one profound truth:

We are being offered time to stop. To surrender. We are also being offered time to really see the effect our lives have on us, the effects of uncertainty and wastage, and if you have been artistically sidelined, what you can do about that. Time offered so that we can see what COULD BE. To question our assumptions and to perhaps find better solutions to systems we take for granted. To get off the spinning wheel of all the things you SHOULD be doing, none of which guarantee you any form of success, (those 200 letters I sent to casting directors and agents still remain unanswered) and start to see your world in a new way – perhaps start to mould it more instead of being the clay that others mould.

Like I said, lockdown has provided me with time to engage with all of the above. I am one of the lucky ones that was eligible for SEISS grants. So I am deeply grateful for the lack of money worries and I am sickened by hearing how friends are struggling. I know poverty. I think all actors have at some point. There is a burning empathy around poverty in me. And it is just pure chance that that has dissipated for me for a while.

But not having to engage with the constant guilt that I should be doing more to promote myself and my career, the lack of money worries, has left a space that I have now filled with writing. I have always wanted to write. But the exhaustion of being an actor meant I never seriously engaged with this and other interests. I have now written a short film and have handed it in to a grant competition, a short story that is expanding into a novel, this blog and adapting a beloved novel into a screenplay. I have made a short documentary using film editing techniques I taught myself and I have applied and been accepted on a filmmaking course sometime next year in London.

I wonder if lockdown hadn’t happened whether I would have done any of this. My days are fuller than they have ever been before with projects and writings that are helping me find my artistic voice. That artistic voice that was silenced before by the constant anxieties and the exhausting nature of being a working actor. I know that this is not everyone’s experience. I know too that I am in a fortunate position. But I really don’t take that for granted for a single second because I have been in poverty. I have barely survived mentally some years too. Gratitude spills out of me that those times have passed for now with an awareness that if I continue in an artistic career that the bad times could come again.

But for now I am finding my voice. Time to do that, that lockdown has given, has been a priceless gift. And I wonder if I will be a better artist because of it.

I cannot say right now.

Let’s see.

A POLITICAL SIDE NOTE: Lockdowns are good for two things only. Firstly to help the NHS so that it doesn’t become overwhelmed by sick and dying patients. Secondly, to provide the government time to put systems in place that work, that will ensure recovery from this moment in time. I am sickened by how many people are saying lockdowns don’t work, that they are an economic disaster. Yes, that might be true but we are here because a government has failed spectacularly. It would be a disaster if this second lockdown comes and goes and the above two conditions aren’t met. It requires a competent government with a plan to make lockdowns work. They are not answers in themselves but they offer time. More time to act. I wonder if this government will act this time?

BIG RESPECT TO ANYONE WORKING IN THE NHS.

THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU.

Fragile Systems

I suppose I have been coming to this blog with the intention of shining some light on the hardships that actors go through.

The point of the agent story was tell how those people in power over us can act in anyway they please and severely affect our lives whilst actors must just stay silent and always be amenable, always be compliant. I spoke about the rehearsal room experience as a way to make you see how being valued as an artist is important to actors, and how rarely we are thought of in this way. That we are often handled with disrespect by directors. I tried to express caution for theatres opening because the system of patronage is fragile at best and it’s a business that relies on a healthy audience to survive. I don’t want theatres to be closed if an epicentre of Coronavirus cases is linked to them – to be used as a scapegoat by this pathetic, snivelling government. I also don’t want someone to ever say to me that I shouldn’t question an issue, that I have no right to, and that I should just shut up and celebrate. Please, never dictate how I should feel about something.

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I also come to these blogs because I feel a severe frustration with these systems, frustrations that have been building for the last 23 years of my strange acting career.

I read an article today about the severely strict lockdown in the city of Melbourne and the state of Victoria in Australia. I have a friend there and I reached out to her. She said it was very very hard and that she is still avoiding the shops at the moment because people drunk on their new freedom are queueing around the block to shop. In the article there were all the usual statistics of how the economy has collapsed and dire warnings of years of recovery. While we were talking it suddenly struck me. IF THESE SYSTEMS THAT WE HAVE SET UP ARE SO FRAGILE AND IF THEY CONSTANTLY FAIL PEOPLE WHY ARE WE NOT LOOKING FOR BETTER, STRONGER, NEWER SYSTEMS TO TAKE THEIR PLACE?

Yesterday I had a talk with a friend in my home country and we were talking about this very point. And over the last couple of years of my life, before we even knew what Covid-19 was, I was already starting to ask these questions of my own industry.

We take for granted that the way things are now are the ways things have always been. And I have started to question this. I think this is some of the point of this blog. I was becoming so very tired of watching really talented actors fall through the cracks that the entertainment system have put in place. The WASTE of talent was starting to gnaw at me. For now, we have a system that somehow allows for this wastage. We know that only 2% of actors are constantly working. The 98% constantly struggling. And this is normal?

Then you have the gatekeepers who decide who gets used. Decide when you will be creative and when you won’t. And sometimes on the shallowest basis like weight, baldness, height let alone any talent you might possess. The gatekeepers usually not having the time or inclination to search for new talent, turns to the faces they know and the faces we see again and again on TV, in theatre shows. Then let’s talk about the system of theatre ticket pricing. No matter how much I wanted to go to the theatre I often couldn’t afford ticket prices especially on the West End, effectively cutting me off from my own industry and cutting me off from learning and observing my fellow colleagues.

I have been asking for years if there is a better way, a better formulated system that takes care of talent rather than wastes it. That allows for actor’s engagement on their often small, minimum-wage salaries. A few idea are starting to form but it’s not this system. It can’t be. Perhaps I will come to talk of these ideas here.

These fragile systems. There is a human need to hold on to what we know. But what if we are missing the point. ARE THEY WORTH HOLDING ONTO? I mean, an invisible agent, something we cannot see without the aid of a microscope, has decimated systems and failed billions of people that rely on these fragile systems.

Why are we so eager to return to normal?

What the hell is normal?

I ask that of the world and my own industry.

PANIC!!!

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Many actors I know endure some form of mental health issue.

I once watched, during the warmup to a show, an actor I thought was the strongest, toughest person, collapse in front of us all – a shaking, breath-hitching, crying bundle on her yoga mat and had to be led away to calm down. I felt two things – absolute kinship and absolute relief that I wasn’t the only one. That I perhaps had someone to go to if that became me on that mat.

In my last blog I mentioned that I really despise the adage: THE SHOW MUST GO ON. I partly explained why but in this context it is because it is used as the perfect panacea to brush actor’s mental health issues under the carpet where we just don’t want to talk about it. Or face it. There are so many programs in place in theatres through which the awareness of mental health issues is growing. But the actual practice of care still hooks itself to – THE SHOW MUST GO. And it’s left at that.

I started having panic attacks after the break up of my first relationship. I was taking a break from acting, living in a foreign country and teaching English. One night, while watching Vin Diesel blow shit up in XXX, I had my first panic attack. Something shifts inside you when you have a panic attack. For me, inside my solar plexus. Almost imperceptible at first and then it grew and grew to a full heart-beating, sweat-poring, leg-shaking, breath-shortening hysteria. My mind latching on to everything that scared me and amped it up a thousand fold. I stood on the balcony of my apartment looking out at a foreign city thinking that I was going to die. That I would never see my home country again. My family. My two friends with me were perceptive enough and rushed me to the hospital. I remember lying in the back of the taxi, the street lights flashing by as I looked up at them. They were jagged blocks of orange light. Everything that had been solid now swam.

And it felt so lonely. To try and describe that loneliness is to fail. But if I tried, I would say that it’s like you become untethered from everyone and everything you love and know. The people around you who love you and stand by you are always only looking in, from without. They are not there with you – you are alone in that irrational hysteria. You become unravelled and untethered even from yourself. The panic is an imperative, whose job it is to separate you from your usually commanded and familiar hands, legs, feet; from your recognisable face into a gurning wide-eyed insanity; from your own unconscious heartbeat into a beating drum that thrums in your chest that, you feel acutely, will burst. This separation from all you know is a loneliness, I imagine, someone dying will feel. Every panic attack has felt like a rehearsal for death to me.

Now imagine that feeling in the middle of a show. A hundred, no a thousand pairs of strange eyes on you, who have all come to the theatre to be told a story. Not your story, the character’s story, they don’t want to be embroiled in your mental health issues. And why should they? The pressure of those eyes is intense – the show must, of course, go on. Now imagine the loneliness of standing on stage and you know you are panicking and you are trying to say your lines as the sweat runs into your eyes, stinging them and fracturing the light even more until you feel blinded and you know you must carry on BECAUSE THE SHOW MUST GO ON and maybe saying your lines will obliterate, or at least, override the panic this time, perhaps getting them out your dry, stammering mouth will anchor you to a more normal state. And maybe your shaking legs, which can barely hold you up, can be relieved if you sit in that chair that’s onstage, a metre away from you. But you can’t because that’s not what was blocked and if you do that then everyone will know something is wrong. And maybe you can run into the wings where you can just let the panic process happen away from those strange expectant eyes, but that line of yours is coming up – who will say it if you leave. You can’t do that. All the solutions in your grasp but you are allowed none of them because, you guessed it, the show goes on. IT MUST.

Imagine that fear that you are going to fuck this play up. All by yourself. Your weakness (because panic attacks bring with it the inevitable sense of failure) will be exposed. And people will KNOW. Imagine too, you feel the need to hide it because if management finds out, will they ever hire you again? An actor can feel that their entire worth is connected to THE SHOW MUST GO ON at the expense of themselves. I have been there. It’s what the industry demands of you. Blood and more blood. It makes me sad. This.

I was failed by a director twice too. Two panic attacks – two years apart. He was an ambitious man and later, I would learn, a cruel and deeply insecure one. I had a panic attack in front of him. Once in technical rehearsals, once in normal rehearsals. And both times he acted like it didn’t happen. Not one moment taken to ask if I was all right. And when people backstage realised what was happening, and I was taken to sit in a stairwell, and water plied on me, I came to learn that the lovely wardrobe assistant had them too, and she taught me a technique there and then to help my breath calm to normal. I will never forget that kindness. Just like you never forget how you were failed by, basically, your boss, as the director is often perceived. To me it was a display of the heartless cruelty, not just of the man, but the entire business as well.

In that moment I realised that many of the actors understood. That they suffered silently too. So I wrote a blog and the response to that was incredible. All actor’s responses were like they were finally able to breathe out because a secret had been shared, a painful one that perhaps they no longer had to suffer with, in silence.

I still have moments of paranoia where I think I should never have written that blog, scared that the management read the blog and decided that I was too much of a liability and made them perceive me an actor less able to cope with the pressures of being an actor. You can never know as an actor. It’s so much part of the culture of silence around these issues. I feel that the industry is often very quick to pick up the gauntlet of the next available cause, like mental health, but when push comes to shove not much changes.

THAT SHOW MUST JUST GO THE FUCK ON.

Shut Up and Celebrate!

I was but one of the many actors who keenly felt the closure of the theatres on the 16 March 2020.

I was in the West End for the first time in my twenty three year career. I was only an understudy and I was not otherwise involved in the production. I had no bit part. I had no stage time. But every night I went to the theatre and went to my dressing room and I waited. Like so many actors do – the audience never sparing a thought for the hordes of actors waiting around backstage for that one chance to be on stage. It’s a thankless job and at times could be soul destroying.

But in reality these opportunities come so infrequently for most actors that, for me, it was still a joy. I loved being in the place that I had dreamt about when I studied. I was in a proper West End theatre and my name was on a dressing room door. And if I managed to get on stage it would be a lead role. The atmosphere of the West End, the beauty of Covent Garden at night, all of it I soaked up, knowing that this moment in time was ephemeral. Hard to come by. Easy to go.

And that was before the reality of Coronavirus sank in for many of us.

On Monday 16th March I got the call. You’re on tonight. In hindsight, I see that the main cast of star performers probably had inside intel that the theatres were going to be closed that night but I had no clue. I spent the afternoon on stage at the theatre walking through my part, butterflies in my stomach, excitement racing through me. We got into costume. I had some makeup to do, I nervously ran lines with my understudy partner and then at about 7:10pm we were all called to the stage. And I looked around at everyone as it was announced that the theatre was closing with immediate effect. Bemusement, worried silence, fear, passed through so many faces. An invisible disease was taking away my dream. I couldn’t fight it. It was absurd, surreal. I felt like I was caught in a loop of a Samuel Beckett End Game.

We went onto the empty West End streets too early, we said goodbye too early, the little family you built up, like we always build up, scuttles away and the moment is gone and you are standing, kicked out of your theatre home, in a weird way homeless again, and your best friend who came to see your debut gives you a hug and asks you: WHAT NOW? And you shake your head, I don’t know. I don’t know.

And then we move to October and the UK has not faired well and I sense apathy in the air and the quiet normalising of 40,000 + lives lost. The numbers rising again. Live lost that perhaps could have been here still, if the government had acted to shut down everything sooner. It shakes me to the core that so many lives have been cut short. AND IT IS ALREADY NORMALISED to such a degree that we are on the brink of a possible second wave as we take this moment to open theatres again.

I watched on Twitter as a person called out a theatre, wondering if their theatre was completely safe and social distanced, being eviscerated by the producer of the show he went to see. The tone of their tweets were along the lines of: HOW DARE YOU QUESTION US. YOU SHOULD BE CELEBRATING THE RETURN OF THEATRE AND NOT CRITICISING US!!!

And I have to wonder, as someone whose bread and butter has come from theatre all my working life: why is the institute of ‘theatre’ seen as more important than a human life? It’s not more important, is the only answer. So why are we desperately trying to fill seats now when we know the virus, at the moment of writing this, is dangerously out of control? It’s the same mentality as THE SHOW MUST GO ON, which I find sickening and I want to vomit in the faces of people who use it so glibly. Somehow we have made this a commonplace theatrical adage – a badge of honour. I call bullshit.

If you are sick, if you are having a panic attack, if someone has died, your job as an actor is to look after yourself and NOT PERFORM. It does make me wonder how many of the actors in the shows on now feel truly safe or are they subverting their safety, staying silent, so that THE SHOW CAN GO ON? We have made such a masochistic virtue of this in this already sadomasochistic industry it disgusts me. We feel such guilt when our personal lives encroach on our ‘duty’ to perform and actors especially know that someone is just aching to take their place, so much so that we hold on, when we should let go.

And this self care should also extend to an audience member’s right to ask, to comment, on any forum, if the measures in place in a theatre are truly safe against Covid-19. I will not celebrate the opening of theatre again until I know for certain that no one is going to die because of it. The back lash on this Twitter feed was quite astounding.

Do you really feel so entitled to the institute of theatre that you would rather people died so that this economic, human-created business can survive? Or make it an even more elitist sport by shrugging your shoulders and declaring that anyone who doesn’t feel safe is quite welcome to never set foot in your theatre again? Isn’t this the same logic a gun toting fanatic uses in the USA when they argue that their right to own a gun is more important than the lives that may be killed by said gun? Your ‘right’ to theatre is not more important than human life. Never. Never. Ever. But just shut up and celebrate, yeah?

Let me be very clear. I want theatres to survive. Desperately. I love theatre when I can afford to go to it. But I know and you know they always will survive. I seriously do not think that theatre will ever die. It’s far too precious, it’s fan base is fanatical and theatres are well supported when they can be. Yes, now, things are precarious, but they have been the entire year. So what has changed? The one change I see on the landscape is a lot of hard work by theatres to make their spaces safe and I applaud that but not one of those theatres can absolutely guarantee that no one will get the disease in their venue. And really if we don’t understand that the Tory government has always viewed the arts with suspicion with their lack of funding and their lack of support for arts subjects in schools – they are only helping us now because they have to – they will gladly shut theatres for years if we are seen as potential covid spreading hotspots. We are heading into winter. We are heading in the wrong direction of the disease and NOW, NOW, is the time to celebrate the opening of theatres? I approach the answer to that question with caution.

What I do know is that I am incensed at being told to shut up and celebrate while the Titanic sinks into some covid-catastrophy. I won’t shut up, thanks. I am so tired of having my thoughts dictated to by very scared people who are trying to save their jobs – AND UNDERSTANDABLY SO – when I am scared too. I lost my livelihood too. We all did. It’s economic fallout for us all. But one human life holds far more value to me than any job, any institution, no matter how precious it is to me personally or to our tribe. It’s like we are trying to hold on to ‘normal’ where ‘normal’ left the building back in March.

I will always, though, fight for my right and other people’s right to question before we celebrate. If we are not allowed to question, where are we?

I look forward to that celebration. I ache for it.

Two Rehearsal Rooms

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A few years ago I was lucky to be in rep with two plays. One was a comedy, a new work written by a fairly well known playwright and the other a classic work from the late 1800’s. In the comedy I had a minor role and in the classic I had literally seven lines but an entire hour and a half onstage as ensemble. In the comedy rehearsal room things weren’t hilarious. In the tragic classic rehearsal room there was a sense of deep artistic exploration. Two rehearsal rooms so unlike each other that the experience of being an actor in each, was completely different. A strange dichotomy of value and valueless, artistic and automaton. It taught me powerful lessons.

Day One in the comedy rehearsal room was a lesson in torture. The director, although a lovely person, seemed to be flailing with how to begin. As if they hadn’t done their homework. As if they had come to rehearsals thinking they could ‘wing it’ with a large cast of performers. It got to the point where actors were talking to each other, turning their back on the director, asking how they should do the scene themselves. The director is well respected in her field. We were made to flounder.

Day One in the Classes rehearsal room and we played. The director had come prepared with many games and the movement director had come with warmups and ideas of how to start. We were told the point to all the games. We were told that everything we did might be considered and evaluated to see if it could be in the production. Everything we gave, in a warm up, in a scene, in a game, may lead to something. We were made into artistic explorers.

There were four actors flitting between these two rooms. Both casts were full of exceptional talent but there were many examples of the comedy cast coming away from rehearsals frustrated and overwhelmed. That never happened in the classic rehearsal room. Not once and there were huge ego’s involved.

Control is so important from a director. But not the ego-driven maniacal kind. Control over the time in rehearsals so that you could feel the work is moving forward. Also this control helps the actors trust your judgement as a director. So that if you say something about how you think a joke should be played the actors can go, ok, this person knows what they are talking about, and try it. Often in the rehearsal room, an elderly actor, almost came to blows with the director because he didn’t trust her. I would watch the tensions rise until the director was demanding that he try it their way. Dictatorial moments like that put my back up.

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We were in previews and this led to me asking four times for an under-rehearsed scene to be looked at because a few moments felt wrong and embarrassing. The director turned to me and said, “Well it’s only embarrassing and wrong because you aren’t doing it right.” Not that I knew what right was, we had barely rehearsed me into the scene. The very next day I watched as the lead actor asked for a scene rehearsal because something felt “wrong” and “embarrassing” and everyone jumped, from the writer to the director to stage management. The scene was rewritten, the staging re-blocked to accommodate her. The utter disrespect of this is one I am sure many actors have had many times and it threw me into a state of panic every time that scene came up in the play.

Whenever we returned to the classic rehearsal room we were always taken aside by the assistant director, under the instruction of the director, to inform us about everything we missed, and the reasons for everything that was rehearsed in our absence, and also what the focus would be that day. We were always reading from the same script in that rehearsal room.

There was a dance in both plays. I am not a confident dancer, or mover. In the classic rehearsal room they had started the dance the day before. The whole cast was made to take us four through the routine slowly and carefully. An organic process of help. That very day, when I went to the comedy rehearsal room, I sat on the side watching the movement director doing a dance with most of the cast. Half an hour later he realised that I should have been in the dance too. It didn’t say in the script. No one noticed. No one cared.

I have never felt less valued than I did in that comedy rehearsal room. There are plenty of other examples I could give. In this room I was an automaton. If you had cut my character you would never have known a hole was there. And I was trying to make sense of it without any help or care from a director who favoured the cast that was always in the room, as if she had forgotten she was dealing with a rep situation.

In the classic rehearsal room even though my part was so small I finally felt like an artist. That my contributions to the ensemble was not less important to the director, in fact we were so expertly crafted that it felt we were as cared for as the lead cast. That sense of value made me rush to the theatre every night that play was on. The nights the comedy was on – well I felt exposed. Vulnerable. And it was only with the help of the mostly joyous people in the cast that I got through it.

I know the company asks the directors about the actors they have worked with. The never have asked the actors what they thought of the directors. It’s one of those power imbalances I cannot stand – another way we are failed by the system. If we are to be evaluated, no matter how casually, then we should be offered the same courtesy. But we never are.

I would have said that one director was incredible to work with and the other, well, one I wouldn’t want to work with ever again.

Go figure.

Why are you an Actor?

Sometimes the question comes with a gentle shake of the head, “Why are you an actor?” And at other times it comes with a roar of rage or a hiccough of quiet despair and frustration. Inside me, there comes an answer and it whispers a version of the truth I would like to believe is true: there is no other profession I feel so proficient in, nothing else satisfies as much as acting. It is my artistic contribution to storytelling in this life. These are all true. The rewards are immense. But also, hiding away, my fragile ego screams: this is your only form of power in the world so don’t you dare give it up!

I fell in love with a puppet theatre in nursery school. It stood against the wall in the playroom. It had red felt curtains that you had to close and open by yourself. It had a cheery farmyard backdrop. Once you stepped into the huge theatre a pile of limp puppets lay, waiting for you -the storyteller. I remember a brown lion with a golden yellow circular mane framing his face. Sitting in the dark behind the curtain, with a rush of excitement coursing through me, I knew that this was the place stories were born. I don’t know how I did. I just did. The place where I could command attention. I only had to put my tiny hand into the lion’s belly and it would twitch awake. My little hand made something live. The power! I could roar as a lion. As myself, not so much.

Photo by Min Thein on Pexels.com

That instant connection with that puppet theatre I will never fully understand. Whilst most of the boys ran past it to play with the motorbikes and scooters outside, I was caught in the dark, weaving stories with my lion.

This sense of performance grew from those moments. And it has never left me. When people say sometimes that something is in the blood what they really mean is that a little voice opened its mouth and said, “Yes! This!” “Not THAT! THIS!!”. And so, when I ask myself why I became an actor I think of that beginning and it’s clear to me. It called. I answered. But try and explain that to your father who is resisting paying loads of cash a year, for a four year Bachelor of Arts in Dramatic Art degree. Try and explain that to yourself as you feel that sucker punch of constant rejection from the industry. It’s nebulous.  

Acting also saved my life. I’m not being dramatic. This is a truth I know well.

We moved to a new town when I started high school. Most of the people that I had grown up with were staying behind whilst I moved away with my family to go to a school with a fierce reputation for discipline and excellence. 

The first year I met amazing new friends although missing everyone back ‘home’. All the usual changes happened. I grew up. I stopped being that innocent child and started to become a young man. Once the shock of moving had settled I was very happy in my new school.

It was in the second year there that it all changed. It began with a boy that was a year below me. I didn’t know him at all. He was new to the school but one day, as he passed me in the corridor between accountancy and home economics, he hit me. I had no idea why. And suddenly what I thought I knew…the story that I was telling myself about my life, began to erode. I thought I was safe. I wasn’t.

Suddenly I was reviled. The bullying began in earnest. It took the form of words spat in my direction. Horrible words that labelled me as something to fear. Something to hate. And occasionally it was physical violence. The hatred in their faces bemused me. It was intense, twisting their mouths, spittle flying. And I asked myself again and again – why?

I knew what I was, and it took me all of five seconds to accept it on the afternoon I realised. It was a truth I had known since I was three years old. I shrugged and moved on. But, I couldn’t understand why, what was so natural to me, was treated with such fear and derision by the world around me. The truth of my inner life was wonderful, but the hate I was learning existed in the world made friends turn against me and strangers judge me. Between my inner and outer life was a chasm. And I fell into it. I didn’t know how to fight that hatred. I was silenced. And then rage found a home in me. 

A director that I have worked with on many occasions always says that I act or play rage really well. I know rage. It and I used to be good friends. It was my reaction to being bullied. I invited it in. But then it turned on me. I ate and ate and ate and raged and ate some more. Eating made me feel so good. Until I looked in the mirror. Then I found a new source for my rage – myself. All I wanted was for the bullying and hate to stop. But all I did, in my ignorance, was try and kill myself with food. The rage never touched my friends. it touched my family but not my few remaining friends. They thought I was the happiest, most loving guy. But I would walk home with boys throwing stones at my back shouting their hatred and get home to my parent’s casual comments that reiterated the hatred at school. It felt like I was a huge walking problem.

But then I was cast in a production of Oliver, just the chorus. But that was enough. I realised I didn’t have to be ‘me’ anymore.

Suddenly the puppet theatre and this school hall stage held the key to my life. On stage I could safely open my mouth and speak even though I was bullied into silence in my real life. I was hiding who I was and hoping no one would notice. The lines I learnt and spoke as an actor wasn’t me but they said things I could never say. That ‘character’ that looked like me, but wasn’t me, gave me a chance to crawl out of the chasm and put that knife down – the one I was holding to my wrists.  

And I got better, quickly. An innate sense of performance developed so quickly because I was acting all the time. Trying to be strong when I was being bullied into submission. Being hated and pretending I was fine, fine, fine. Then the bullying stopped. In my final year of high school the people in power actually had come to respect me. The head athletic champion, that I was deeply in love with, put his hand on my shoulder after a lead performance in a major musical and told me that I was incredible. I’ve never known such power and pleasure. I was released from torture.

So, when I ask myself why I am an actor I always think of those two things. The puppet theatre and becoming an actor in high school. And how they both saved me from a destructive path that, I’m sure, would have killed me.

I wasn’t prepared to be part of an industry that has it’s own strange relationship with truth and bullying and silence. Even as it claims to care.

#6 – The Devil is in the Details – Part Three

So let’s end this story.

The lead agent sits opposite me with a smirk on their face and begins to tell me of ‘Lesley’s’ (WHO IS THEIR LEAD CO-AGENT) ‘VELVET RAGE’. It’s a rage Lesley has with some actors every now again. So much so they have a name for it. And they smirk as they describe Lesley blacklisting actors who don’t display the correct attitude. That smirk started to change everything for me.

That empty chair belonged to Lesley and he was not in the agency because, probably, I was there for a meeting. Lesley has never faced me directly. As the lead agent spoke, divulging this fact of Lesley’s Velvet Rage, I started to think of the phone call Lesley and I shared that I told you about in blog 5.

Remember I came away from that phone call with a wonderful sense of being able to talk to my agent? They promise us this, at the beginning of every contract: they are our champions; they are our work colleagues; they will be there for us if we need anything. So I took that promise as gospel and picked up the phone. And apparently Lesley came away from that call FURIOUS with me. Initially I thought it was because I dared to complain about the conditions of the audition process. But it was only towards the end of the meeting that I came to understand that Lesley had been furious because of one question in his mind: IS (insert my name here) AN ACTOR OR ARE THEY A TEACHER? How dare I not go to the costume fitting at the time THEY arranged? How dare I not jump when he said jump?

He was furious that I would not allow their costume fitting for the TV commercial to have preference over my teaching job. Do you remember that I had already started teaching before his email came through to me about the costume call? Remember I had £400 in the bank. Remember I needed the job because I was paying £100 an audition for train tickets to London. As well as needing rent, of course – don’t we all need rent? Remember too, that the teaching job was new and I was trying to make the best impression so that they would keep me on. Remember too that I had sent an email to the agency detailing my teaching hours. Lesley’s velvet rage was because of me and I didn’t even know it. All this I find out, for the first time at the meeting. It was done obliquely but the implication was that I was to blame. For being let go. For not having the proper work focus.

It suited them to keep me in the dark.

And then we have the smirking Lead Agent whose name is emblazoned all over the agency. They taught me all I needed to know with that smirk. That half-swallowed smile showed me that they allowed and even condoned their agent flying into a rage leading to sadistic behaviours like personal blacklists of actors they are contractually supposed to be working for. Not only is it condoned but normalised.

While the consequences for me and my work are profound. I am left agent-less in a harsh profession. For them – no consequence whatsoever. The power imbalance between agents and actors showing starkly here. I started to see who the lead agent was, for the first time. An enabler of the worst kinds of behaviour. I made a complaint to Equity but they received nothing but a light tap on the wrist.

I realised the hypocrisy. One rule for agents. Another for actors. The inability of the agent to confront me led to me not being considered for future commercial castings and MUST have played into their decision to drop me. I wondered why, if I had ignited so much Velvet Rage in him, why, why didn’t he speak to me? I would rather have had a difficult conversation in which I could have defended myself rather than this silent corruption of my place in the agency without an opportunity to defend myself. Without my knowing anything was wrong.

And where was the consideration for my teaching working hours? Everyone in that agency was supposed to know my working hours. I was assured that they would be worked around. The fact I needed the job was not considered at all. I was supposed to obey the all powerful agent and if I resisted then my payment was to be blacklisted leading to eventual termination of contract. Where was the consideration for my financial fears? Where was the consideration that I was living with my relationship almost at its breaking point because of fights about money? Fights about jobs? Fights over the rollercoaster ride of being an actor?

It plays over and over in my mind. That an agent can have an emotional reaction -that their emotional reaction can change the entire course of my career but an actor is never allowed to speak up. We, as actors, are so often scared to say what we truly feel about working conditions, director bullies, racism in our industry because we are scared about the consequences on our careers. We are acutely aware that if you get a ‘difficult’ reputation as an actor you might not get that job. You might be easily replaced with one of the thousands of actors, the ones who have also learnt not to speak up.

It’s taken me a year to have the courage to begin this blog. But not to have so much courage as to tell you my name. Because like I said, the repercussions happen silently in the background for actors. Because we have no power. We never have and, I fear, with the way the industry is set up, we never will.

I left that agency as quickly as possible. I thanked the lead agent for their offer to keep me on for six more months but I told them that I wanted nothing to do with any of them. I wanted to be as far away from them as possible.

This event is formative to me. It opened my eyes to the type of people, and the type of hypocrisies that I have seen in my 23 years in the industry.

They are many.

And I am no longer comfortable with my own hypocrisy for allowing this craziness to pass me by without commenting on it.

This is only the beginning of me opening my mouth.

Curtain

# 5 – The Devil is in the Details – Part Two

Here are a few things to remember for part two:

a) I was dropped from my agency under what I thought was suspicious and weird timing.

b) I was given six more months with the agency whilst I possibly moved to London and found another agent.

c) I had to find a job teaching online because I had £400 left in my bank account due to no work and exorbitant train fares down to London for auditions.

d) I got a TV commercial through the agency.

e) The EMPTY CHAIR. Don’t forget the empty chair.

We’ve covered A and B in other blogs. Let’s start with C. The actor’s hell of trying to get a job whilst trying to remain an actor. So actors always have to have the backup jobs, right. It’s a cliché, it’s so expected. Myriads of parents have warned their actor children to have ‘something else to fall back on…just in case, dear.’ And there have been myriads of actors who’ve held absolute belief in their hearts (me included) that there was no need for that certificate in Education. I was going to be a working actor.

TWO FACED Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

So I got a job to allay not only my own financial fears and that sinking, sick feeling of poverty in the pit of your stomach, but also those of my partner who was beginning to wonder how I was going to pay rent. It caused a lot of worry between us. A weird suspicion in my partner’s eyes that I was not going to be responsible for my half of the bills. It eats away inside of you. At the relationship too. Just one way partners of actors are affected by our career choice. I start the job and immediately send off to my acting agents an email detailing that I will not be available between the hours of 11am and 2pm daily as I will be teaching. Any auditions I get to please be mindful of these times and not send me out. All good.

Let’s look at D. I really did mean it when I said the devil is in the details. I did two auditions for the commercial. The audition process was bizarre because they were trying to hide that a star performer was going to be involved. On my second audition or ‘callback’ the director of the commercial nonchalantly started the audition with, “Well, I don’t really know why we called you here today,” So inside I get angry. It’s all so shoddy. I say nothing, of course. I am a well trained actor and know I could lose the job if I open my mouth to object. So I just spent £90-£100 for a short notice train ticket to come to a callback in which the director is not even sure why he called me? I wanted to scream in his face that I hadn’t eaten anything all day so that I could be sure I could afford rent at the end of the month. His attitude was insulting. One of the many I have experienced.

So I got the commercial. Fantastic! I must come AGAIN to London for a costume call, tomorrow. So I ask my friend I’m staying at if I can sleep over (not planned) for two more nights. One for the costume call and the day after for the commercial shoot day. I have to change my train ticket. All fine. I warn my agent I need to know when the costume call is as I am teaching. Let’s call this agent, ‘Lesley’. Lesley says they don’t know when it will be.

The next morning I start teaching at 11am. At 11.12am while I am busy with my first class of three, an email pings through from Lesley saying that I need to be at the costume fitting at 2pm. But I teach until 2pm. Then I have to haul my arse all the way across London to a place I have never been before. Impossible. In my five minute break between classes I email Lesley and tell them that there is no way I can make that call and they know this because of my work hours email.

Lesley comes back to me that I need to be there. I say no. No. You knew I was teaching. No. I can be there by three if I dash after the classes. He says OK. I say I wouldn’t mind talking to him later to voice some concerns I have had about the audition process and I would like to talk to them about having to teach as I needed to pay rent. I keep thinking: why did the agency ignore my working hours? After the classes I dashed to the costume fitting and got there at 3:15pm to meet some weary people who wanted to know if I brought anything with me. I don’t live in London and didn’t know I had to provide my own costume. These people are pissing me off. First my agent and then these TV people who have no idea that I came all the way from Liverpool on the train yesterday morning without any shirts for them to see.

After the costume call I sit in a nearby park and I call Lesley. We have a good chat about the weird audition process. I say to him that right now the teaching job is so new I am trying to make a great impression on the school so they keep me on and I can pay rent. I am sorry about not being able to be at the costume fitting at 2pm but I couldn’t help it. All was amicable. And I left that conversation thinking how wonderful it was to be able to talk to my agent and have them understand my situation. To be so nice about it.

So let’s move on to the empty chair. The empty chair belonged to the agent, Lesley. He wasn’t at the meeting with the head agent and I was soon to find out why.

And this is where the details begin to get ugly.

That empty chair haunts me.

# 4 – The Devil is in the Details – Part One

If you are going to understand where I am, dear reader, you have to dive into the details. But I mustn’t fuck them up or I will be responsible for your lack of clarity. And I want you to see how much the devil really is in the details.

So I got the termination of contract on a Friday fifteen minutes before closing for the weekend. A smooth move on their part. The lead agent returned my call on Saturday morning and I expressed my shock and disappointment. I am not going to lie. I broke down. It had been a very long year, with the possible break down of my five year relationship; this termination; not living in London and with auditions siphoning away my savings on exorbitant train tickets left me with £400 in my bank. Financial fears are just wonderful, aren’t they?

The lead agent was shocked and upset that I was taking it so badly and I begged that they reconsider. I am not proud of this. They said that they would keep me on for six months more while I found a new agent. Minds were made up. They were done with me no matter what.

Another audition came through in the next few days and I asked that when I was in London that we could have a face to face meeting. I wanted to have a discussion, to ask some questions and I wanted to be in the room when they answered them. The lead agent agreed and we set a time and date.

The meeting day came and after some awkward pleasantries we began to talk. The lead agent sat opposite me in their chair at the end of a communal table around which all the agents sat. I realised quickly that this meeting was not going to be private. I was to ask my questions in front of them all no matter if I preferred a less open space. I had no choice how this was going to go down. The other agents carried on working but their ears must have been tuned to our conversation.

On the right hand side of the lead agent was an empty chair neatly pushed under the table – the agent I had mainly dealt with on the TV advert was not there. This was to prove a telling detail. So, remember this absence. It’s significant.

The meeting began with the usual hard truths that they felt needed reiterating to me even though I knew them already. One being that “No one deserves an acting career no matter how great they are.” This I knew but I also wondered privately that it would be nice if we actually worked in a fair and equitable profession. Deluded I know. You don’t work in this profession for 23 years without seeing a lot of talent and hard work going to waste. And sometimes you also feel the jealous monster claw its way into your heart. For your own talent and hard work. It’s never pretty admitting this flaw.

Then the lead agent did the, “I just couldn’t do anything for you. You need someone a lot more powerful than me.” An agent deprecating narrative to calm my ego, perhaps? Or just part of the usual script when letting people go? I told them that in my opinion (one no wanted or asked for) they were the most successful agent I had based on the number of auditions they got for me. I wasn’t buying that narrative. And they weren’t buying that I was worth keeping on.

Very soon I was to learn a few things that would change my perception of the entire agency. These revelations were to leave me with a great desire to be as far away from that acting agency as possible. As quickly as possible.