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.