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.

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.

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.

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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.