I thought I was pretty prepared for life after theatre school. I had no illusions about booking fancy Equity gigs my first summer out, or landing a sweet film agent and getting shipped off to play a vampire in some TV show. My expectations for artistic employment were low. I was not wrong. But what I didn’t expect was the crushing weight of autonomy. Self-determination, not unemployment, became the enemy.
This isn’t about “emerging artists” not getting work. I think we all talk about that a lot – I think I’ve been to approximately six thousand panels and seminars and desperate shop talk sessions over a pitcher of beer mulling over the facts: work is scarce for emerging artists, auditions are hard to get for non-Equity actors, and it feels like the same people get work over and over again. They’re tough, ugly facts, and the bitterness and discouragement experienced by young actors is real. In the few years I’ve been out of school, I’ve spent a bit of time working, and a lot of time not working. My biggest fear now is not a lack of work – it’s of losing the ability to create meaningful and rigorous art; It’s of having my creative impulse atrophied or distorted by the realities of pursing a professional career.
A blog post by Holger Syme titled “Canadian Theatre has a Youth Problem” recently made the rounds on Facebook. It was reposted by a dozen or so friends (all emerging actors), all with comments along the lines of “YEP.” Syme makes some compelling comparisons between casting practices in the UK and Canada, using Romeo and Juliet as a case study. According to Syme, in Canada “no actors get cast in any roles of any substance before their mid-twenties. And virtually nobody gets to play marquee roles before their late thirties.” He references multiple examples of British stage actors given a shot at playing the Bard’s juiciest roles while they were still the character’s intended age (I’ll admit to whimpering a bit at this section – Juliet at the RSC by 23? It’s already too late for me.)
He goes on to argue how this casting practice contributes to a healthier overall ecology by giving young actors a chance to develop their craft in the presence of established professionals. Syme argues that in Canada “younger actors are taught over and again to play minor roles, to integrate themselves into the company, to make safe and conformist choices, to produce something already established and recognized as quality work rather than to develop and reimagine their craft in new and unexpected ways.”
I greatly enjoyed Syme’s essay – and the fiery debate sparked in the comments section – and it got me started along a slightly different train of thought about the difference between career and craft. When my peers and I graduated from theatre school we did everything that was in our power to start our careers; we got the fancy headshots, submitted to anyone with a mailbox or email address, hustled as hard as we could. The first cycle out of school was brutal: Land a big audition after much postage and many emails; Invest (both emotionally and financially) in audition preparation; make bizarre and contrived wardrobe choices on the day; Try to wallow in only the most constructive self-loathing and despair after rejection. A year passes. Repeat. It dawned on me one day in a chilling moment immediately after opening my mouth in an audition: I don’t know how to do this any more.
Which brings me to the question Syme’s essay brought up for me: How can a theatre artist protect and develop their craft while early-career? I’ve realized that often the pressures of seeking work can sometimes place your artistic practice only in the context of an audition room, which is destructive on a variety of levels. Essentially we’ve moved from qualitative evaluation in the classrooms and rehearsal halls of our training institutions to the rather stark quantitative evaluation of professional theatre: you got the job, or you did not. But try as I might to remind myself that this is in fact not an evaluation of my work at all, but the outcome of a variety of factors (we’ve all listed them to ourselves, haven’t we?) it is, for me at least, impossible not to view my work in that context.
I didn’t realize the extent to which the logistics of pursuing a professional career could change my relationship to my artistic process. I didn’t think that such long gaps between projects could erode my creative courage, but at times I have felt that start to happen. The time for bold experimentation, for freedom and the possibility of failure is probably not in the audition room. Bold choices and risks? Sure. But those can only be supported by a healthy and regular practice.
And here’s where that self-determination thing comes in – it’s up to us to find the space for those practices. Space that exists outside the realm of auditions, away from the view of directors or ADs, or what have you. Space that connects you to your practice in a way that reminds you why you’re so hellbent on working in this Godforsaken industry. Working hard is not the problem – we all do that. It’s finding a way to work gently.
One of my favorite twitter accounts, @ProResting (which calls out some of the worst casting breakdowns known to man) refers to ‘unemployed’ actors as ‘resting’. I like that. To me, it implies an artist ready to spring into action and response. To me, I like the idea of taking a rest from my hopes and anxieties about career, and refocus on craft. This might look like taking classes, watching shows with anticipation instead of analysis, or reading a play out loud with friends. It means breathing instead of holding my breath for the next E-Drive. And it means allowing myself this notion: if I take this time to reconnect with my practice, the next time I step into an audition notice, I’ll be ready to deliver work worthy of the stage. If I don’t get it? I know a worthwhile place to rest til the next one.