In my college directing class, a fellow student once said (in response to a question of what directors need to do to get a performance out of an actor),
"My high school teacher told me that being actor is being willing to stab your soul on stage in front of everyone day after day after day."
In response to this, our directing teacher (the absolutely incredible Wendy Dann) said,
"Well be careful now, don't get cute with it, and certainly don't get romantic about it. Actors have a wonderful job, one that they are blessed to live every day and to be a part of, but it is a job. It is no more important than anyone else's, in theatre, or outside."
This was a very important moment for me. You see I love my job. I love everything about what I do. I wake up in the morning and I am proud to say that I am an actor. I am proud to say I am a member of the theatre community However in my experience, there is a love and praise for actors, but that love, and those praises are not extended to the millions of other members of the theatre community, the ones who aren't going out on stage every night. This offends me. There is an entire side of the theatre community that is happy to let themselves go unappreciated, and under-loved by most, and they do so with a smile, and with a passion for their job that I can only respect and feel admiration for.
During my time in a BFA Musical Theatre program, I was so surprised to see this problem perpetuating itself as soon as people arrived as freshmen. There were many who treated BFA Performance majors like they had a right to the school that the other theatre majors did not. I made it my mission to have the class of 2012 be a true community, with cross communication and love across majors, and I am proud to say that I was not the only one who worked hard at this goal. Our class worked as a whole to break this stereotype, and we truly loved each other, regardless of major, regardless of theatrical position, regardless of intended career goals. We came together as a community, not as a group of segregated theatre artists.
One of the biggest issues I've found, is those who are not actors perpetuating the fault. I think it stems back to high school. For the most part (and its changing in a world where high school theatre is constantly raising the bar) if you were in high school theatre you were an actor, a stage manager, or a member of the tech crew. Most high schools, in my experience (which granted is limited, and I've heard of many which do have these things) don't have student directors, designers, costume builders, etc. On top of that, there is no student theatre marketing position, no agents, no PR, no artistic direction. In other words, the world of theatre is so much more massive than just the three designations in high school. But most of the people who fill those roles today, started in one of the three high school designations, and I would venture a guess that more often than not, they started as actors. I may be wrong, but I'm willing to make that claim. The high school system is set up to promote actors, and not promote the crew or the stage management. It is a system which reflects the actuality of the theatre world as a whole, and it makes sense, the actors are the visible members of the show. They are the ones the audience will remember, if the show goes well. That is how its meant to be. If the show goes not well for a technical reason, the audience will blame the technicians, the designers, or whoever was on run crew that day. But it's not how actors are meant to understand their own position. Actors should know that their ability to be the face of a production is only possible with the backing of the massive group behind them, holding them up, pushing them along, giving them encouragement, help, and the occasional lunch hour spent sitting with them drilling lines. These things are not something that should go unnoticed by the acting community, but will almost certainly go unnoticed by the rest of the world.
Earlier this evening, a theatre company I follow on Facebook had a post which I found quite beautiful, and moving, however fundamentally flawed in that I don't think the message I got was the one it intended. This post, was posted by a member of a marketing team, whether or not they work as an actor, I do not know. The first half of the post read as follows:
Actors are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. Every day, actors face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs, and their own fear that they'll never work again. Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. With every role, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment. With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life - the car, the family, the house, the nest egg.
I support this first half wholeheartedly. It is beautiful, heartfelt, and a very accurate description of what I think are amazingly admirable qualities of the acting profession. It acknowledges things that I view as hardships of my profession, and I accept happily because I am happier being an actor than having the things I must give up in order to do so. I support this post because it acknowledges that every day hundreds if not thousands of my fellow actors are rejected, and they take it with a smile and they move on. I support it because unlike most jobs, I have to look for my next one every two months, and if I'm employed 3 months out of the year, it's a more successful year than most actors are able to have. This first half makes me fill up with joy and pride in what I do.
The second half reads as follows:
Why? Because actors are willing to give their entire lives to a moment - to that line, that laugh, that gesture, or that interpretation that will stir the audience's soul. Actors are beings who have tasted life's nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another's heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes.
Here is where I think the post needs some restructuring. What I don't like about this half of the post, is that to me, it insinuates that actors are higher than others, because they go through these things. It feels to me like those who help get actors performance-ready are lesser because they don't experience that "moment", "line", "gesture", "or that interpretation that will stir the audience's soul", when those people have been just as tantamount in the creation of that moment as anything I could ever convey on stage.
That concept is not okay with me. This is not a reflection of the theatre community I know and love. However I think that the second half of the post does touch on something real and profound, but limits it to too few. The important part of the second half of the post was the experience gained, of being close to magic, God, perfection...but it's not just the actors who get to be there. It's the entire theatre community. It's a director, a stage manager, a costuming assistant, a lighting designer, a sound board engineer, a casting director who smartly put the right actor in the right place, an artistic director with the vision to put forward the correct show at the correct time, a marketing team who successfully brought people in the doors, and so many more courageous, valiant, wonderful people who work just as hard, if not 50 times harder than we as actors ever can, and who get less than 1% of the thanks and praise that we receive.
Case in point, I currently am blessed to be employed as an actor at The Fireside in Wisconsin. We are now in performance, and every day when I arrive, the crew is already there, preparing costumes, cleaning the theatre, setting instruments, getting lights ready, etc. I get myself ready, I go out, I do my very best to give the best performance I possibly can, and when its finished I am treated to a curtain call, to people clapping, cheering, whistling, smiling, standing, and giving overall appreciation for the performance we gave to them. I then go backstage, I take off my minimal makeup, I change my clothes, and I am allowed to leave, there is a van which takes me back to my residence where I can eat food and relax. That same crew that was there prior to my arrival, collects the costumes and prepares for a couple hours of laundry. They prepare to fix something which might have broken. They clean the theatre. They are there long before I arrive, and are still there long after I leave, and no one ever knows.
But it's not about them either. There's an old adage in theatre, you can put on a brilliant production but if no one comes to see it then did it matter? You can debate the point, I think it's an easy answer, the answer is no. If no one saw it then your brilliance is meaningless, you gave nothing to the outside world, and you were not a part of an experience shared by anyone other than yourselves.
The audience is not blessed to experience what we have created, we are blessed that an audience is willing to spend their time experiencing what we have created. Hopefully, they will not spend their time in vain, and the experience we offer them causes something. While writing this post, and running thoughts by some of my trusted friends, a very wise friend of mine (Rachel Ciborowski) said:
If a production changed their minds or made them think twice about something, or opened their eyes to something they hadn't thought of or been aware of, they are blessed by that fresh perspective, the production was a vehicle for that realization, art is that vehicle and it's ok to acknowledge that. Don't disregard that same spark that got us all into the industry as not having an impact on an audience to a different effect than it did on us.
The beauty of theatre is this experience, this spark, the concept expressed in the post which misguidedly attributes the experience to actors, and I initially extended to the rest of the theatre community.
The beauty of theatre is the experience of the audience member.
Those people who came to see our product are truly who get to experience magic, God, and perfection. They are the ones who will hang on our every word, when we reach that critical moment, that one the original post so lovingly embraces. The real magic is what we, as a theatre community, are willing to offer up for them as an experience, whether it's moving, side-splittingly funny, farcical, upsetting, etc. Actors are not beings who have tasted any nectar. We are a part of a team that has delivered nectar, in large golden chalices, to members of an audience, who we have the pleasure to serve. We are waiters of a meal prepared by hundreds of chefs. Theatre is not about the actors, it's not about the directors, it's not about the venue, or anything else. Theatre is about what we are blessed to give to an audience every day. An experience. It's about the community we all share together, every day, from the interns, to the broadway directors, and everyone in between.
I can only speak for myself, but I don't think I speak alone when I say that, for me, theatre itself is as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone can ever be, and that's why I do it.
Photo by Danny Bristoll
(fac·to·tum | \ fak-ˈtō-təm) noun - a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities
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