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.

# 3 – The Things We Learn…

In the last blog I ended with a cliffhanger (of sorts) detailing that I knew something was up with my being dropped from the agency. I also reiterated that this is a normal process that occurs all the time. Sometimes actors choose it and they let go of their agent and sometimes it happens the opposite way around. But, for me, as I am sure many other actors, something just didn’t feel right.

The reason for that feeling? A week before I received the termination email I had done my first work for the agency, earning them a commission on a TV commercial. The first six months of being in the agency there were no auditions. The next nine months there were many auditions obtained and attended (more on this soon). Famine, then feast – a not unknown trajectory of being an actor.

For the first time I felt like an agency was working for me. In my entire career I have not had many auditions. The work that I have had came out of connections from drama school and were companies who enjoyed my work and hired me again and again. Another ex-agent kept on promising the world but delivering nothing. But here, thanks to my new agency, I was finally going to auditions every six weeks, which, like I said, for me was a record. It felt good. And every time I worked so hard because I was grateful to finally be standing in front of people showing them what I could do. I also needed the money. The last time I worked was a year and two months earlier. I was living off savings and a new job – teaching online.

Admittedly, one TV commercial casting does not make a successful career nor does it justify an agency keeping you on. There are many factors involved. One of them is your ‘sale-ability’. If you cant get an actor in the door to be seen; or the actor’s physical appearance never fits casting briefs; or if the feedback from the audition room is not great – all factors that can lead to being let go.

At the start of my relationship with this agency they crooned over my sale-ability. They crowed over my talent as a few agents had seen my work at a well respected theatre company. And they assured me that they would stand by me and that if ever I needed to chat to them, about anything, that I could do so. But very soon you learn that that is just part of the bullshit chat-up lines agents use with actors. They only mean it if they get something back and when you resist or show that you cannot be moved or swayed then, well, they dump you.

This is a fundamental fact that every actor needs to be aware of. It works both ways but another thing that I have learnt in this industry – everything and I mean EVERYTHING sets an actor up to fail.

And you won’t even know you are doing it.

# 2 – TERMINATION OF CONTRACT!

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On Friday the 29 September 2019 at exactly 16:45, as I was lying on my bed making a to-do list on my phone, an email pings through from my agent. The notification slides down from the top of the screen and the bold subject line screams into the quiet: TERMINATION OF CONTRACT! My mind registers this quickly and then freezes. It must look like calm, but my stomach is flipping over and over – falling into a chasm whose end I cannot see. The notification slides up and away. My hand is suspended over the note-taking app. The words blur as I fall. But I do not move. I hold my breath. 

Suspension passes quickly. My fingers scramble into action pulling and twisting at the reeds on the side of the cliff to help break my fall. I need information: information to confirm or dispel what I have just seen. Press, click, swipe press, wait, loading, focus, breathe, wait, breathe waaaait, load. I suck in my breath as words from the ether, from mythical neverland London, form in front of my eyes hundreds of miles away, making sentences that should contain sense but, for a second, do not. 

‘Hello —–,’ 

TERMINATION OF CONTRACT, is all I can think. The first line travels from the screen through my sluggishly petrified brain firing synapses into a growing explosion of pain in my solar plexus: “I am so sorry to have to tell you…” then don’t just don’t…”that I believe it is time for you to move on and get a fresh perspective on your career from elsewhere…” And then I know what I don’t want to know. I am being let go. Again. And the pain fires and misfires, tumbles and flips by like the other words in the email. They become pointless syphers indicating everything and nothing. Blah blah your talent I hold in the greatest of esteem…blah blah…two months legal obligation…blah blah…please do feel free to call. 

The only freedom I have, in this falling rib-cage, is despair. It comes quickly and harshly, dragging violent fingers at my throat. Despair is no air passing over my still tongue. I have to force myself to unclasp this knot and breathe. But I still cannot move. I wait and watch as the tenuous hope inside me dies just that little bit more. 

It’s been dying for years. The only thing that has changed is that I am in my forties and losing hope. Hope’s been siphoned off by years of experiences in the UK. Six months ago, it was a rejection from an audition that I absolutely smashed; today it’s words on a computer screen; last year it was another agent that promised me the world and delivered exactly zero.  

I have to now sit, bereft of the one thing I have wanted most: an acting career. 

For fifteen minutes, until 5pm exactly, I barely move. A ball of weight growing in my chest, unsettling me. It finally shakes me from inertia, so I get up and slowly make my way downstairs. 

My partner sits in the armchair watching an episode of The Office. I ask them if they will switch it off, I need to speak. They pause the programme, just as Steve Carrol looks sheepishly over his shoulder directly into camera, directly into the living room where I am standing with my phone in my hand and a vice grip of pain in my chest. 

My partner looks at me and stays very still knowing something is wrong. I finally manage to speak and say the words that will make it more real by sharing, “My agent has dropped me.” 

They say nothing but calmly switch off the TV, stand and come towards me, their arms open. I fall into my partner’s hug. I at last begin to breakdown. Because saying those words makes them real. It’s been shared. And here I am again, in my partner’s arms, crying because of another harsh rejection; another brutal ending; another cull of hope. 

Day after day this is how an actor’s life happens. And day after day it’s a rollercoaster ride – an overused metaphor, I know. You strap yourself in and the moment that the carriage jerks away from the station you relinquish control to the ride. The ride has all the power. And if you don’t like the heights of that endless rise you certainly are not going to like that fall you are staring into. And it’s just fucking tough and there is fuck all you can do about it. 

So here I am, strapped in and falling.  

I speak, scream, cry and blaze with rage and they listen. My partner says nothing because they have been on the ride with me for five years. Five long years they have been by my side. They are as strapped in as me. The problem is…it isn’t their ride. I see the tiredness in my partner’s eyes. And it scares me. 

I look into an insecure future, again. As do all those closest to me. I see all I have sacrificed and all I have worked towards disappearing and today, being dropped by my agent, I am exhausted. Today, I have nothing to give to the struggle of being an actor. Do you understand what I mean?

Exhaustion. Bone weary.

This happens all the time to actors that it has become commonplace. My overly dramatic reaction came towards the end of a difficult personal year for me. And once my emotional reaction wore off I began to see that something was very very wrong with this termination. It made no sense and I was determined to find out why.