Actors are the foundation of theater. You can take away the lights, costumes, sets, you can even go Original Practices on Cymbeline’s ass and take away the director– but you cannot remove the actor or the audience and still have what we think of, know and love as theater.
Actors are necessary, actors are fundamental, if we want theater we need actors. If we want bold, brave, exciting, moving theater we need bold, brave, risk-taking and vulnerable actors. An actor’s ability to show up and be seen, to be truly wholehearted and vulnerable in their craft and in their lives, is entirely undermined when they are perpetually struggling for a sense of self-worth and worthiness. The systems of production around us make that struggle for worthiness endemic to the actor’s life. We need to practice better self-care to be better actors and happier people.
Acting is hard on the ego, for sure. On some level, we all know that “abandon feelings of being special or significant all ye who enter here” might as well be posted on the gates of the Inferno that is the acting profession. In an oversubscribed field where there are far more job seekers than jobs, in an absolute buyer’s market for labor, each actor is quite literally replaceable. But if we’re honest with ourselves we also know that on some level, we’re all hoping that Theater will someday love us back as much as we love theater– and then we might finally be Okay.
Actors struggle for worthiness– so do we all, right? But it gets worse. What happens when an actor has beaten the odds and is having a great year working great gigs? Chances are that somewhere in their minds they are thinking about what happens in 3 months, 5 months, 8 months–what happens when they don’t know what the next gig is. Every time I’m with an actor who has a lot to celebrate in terms of recent successes and opportunities, I hear a litany of what is lacking and what is probably going to go wrong or be disappointing: “I probably won’t get the gig, I hear the director is really hard to work with, I will probably suck at the gig, I probably won’t work again all year, I hate the play but I need the money, I’m sure this is the day they find out I have no idea what I’m doing and I’ll never work again, they should be paying me more but that will never happen… etc etc”
So what are we doing? We’re taking our vulnerable, eager urge to make something beautiful and throwing it into a Magical Catastrophic Thinking Machine that spits out sausages made of “This Is Your Chance” and “I Can’t Fuck Up” and “This Is Gonna Suck!” and “This Better Be Perfect”– or even “I’m A Phony And They’ll See Through Me Any Minute”. Not only is this a totally crazy making cycle of self-abuse, it utterly undermines our creative potential to take risks, be vulnerable, connect with our scene partners and make unexpected discoveries.
The systems of production in our profession work against the qualities that define our craft at its best. Feeling entirely replaceable and permanently at-risk for unemployment, invisibility, obscurity and meaninglessness even while hard at work is crazy making. It’s demoralizing. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking and depressing and sometimes it’s downright humiliating. And it makes so many of us burnout and quit, year after year.
What can we do to stop the burnout, to keep ourselves in love and striving to be better artists? What can each and every actor do to make it more likely that they are still acting– passionately and devotedly and wholeheartedly, and maybe even professionally– in 20 years?
Step One: Have a Full Life Outside
That’s right, I said it. GET A LIFE. Nourish your life outside of theater to have a better life in the theater.
First, ask yourself some difficult questions: are all of my friends theater people? Do I have any hobbies or other work that I find truly meaningful, significant and fulfilling? Something I can turn to to feed my soul when I’m not acting? Do I know who I am outside of theater? Do I like who I am outside of what I do? Do I feel worthy of love and belonging even if I never act in another show ever again?
We live in a society and culture that essentially defines each of us not just by what we do all day, but specifically by what we do to make money. As actors, many of us fall into the trap of taking a series of demoralizing, meaningless day jobs that we won’t feel bad about flaking on when we get an offer for A Good Gig. This puts job-based self-worth and fulfillment out of our control and in the perhaps distant future. In a culture where we are what we do, who are we when we aren’t doing “what we do?”
I believe that it is our task as actors to work on becoming ourselves first and foremost, before we ever have a chance at honestly understanding, empathizing with and embodying a fictional person. I get a lot of argument about this, but it’s founded on two truths that really are well-founded in a lot of research and experience:
1) You have to love your character and empathize with them to do justice to their story. You cannot sit in judgement of them at a distance and still portray them honestly and convincingly. Maybe after the show you can say, yeah, he’s an asshole, glad that isn’t me. But during the show you have to love and accept them and see their side.
2) It is impossible to love another person more than you love yourself. Acceptance of others requires self-acceptance, non-judgement of others requires non-judgement of self. Loving another person requires loving oneself just as much.
Now, it’s entirely possible that loving a fictional character is easier than loving a real person, but that is because they are two-dimensional and unable to surprise us with shadows that trigger our own shame and self-hatred. But an actor must fill out all the dimensions of a character by loaning it their own soul. If the actor’s relationship to herself is two-dimensional, distant and judgmental, their ability to create a three dimensional person will be profoundly limited.
So, you say, screw being happier! I want to be a better actor. That is what will make me happy!
Okay. I know who you are. Same goes double for you. Here’s an incomplete list of where to start. Please add to it!
Spend time with people who don’t do theater, talk to people who don’t do theater, value people who don’t do theater and who can do absolutely nothing for your career. Take up another hobby where you can be creative and express yourself but that has nothing to do with your professional stature or ambitions. Write creatively. Write bad poetry, write short stories, write an obscure blog about the psychology of theater! Play with children– if you don’t have any, borrow some. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or women’s shelter or hospital or library. Take long walks in nature. Read a novel that you are not thinking about adapting into a play. Go see other forms of art. Learn to swing dance– but don’t put it on your special skills right away, let it be just for your pleasure and enjoyment. Plant a garden, or just grow a few herbs and learn to cook with them. Buy a vegetable you’ve never heard of and look up a recipe for it and cook it for your friends. Join a book club. Laugh a lot more than you already do. Laugh joyfully. Avoid laughter that denigrates or shames others. Laugh in solidarity with those who struggle.
Feed your soul. Love yourself. Be kind.