I live two lives. By day I work as a sales assistant or ‘consultant’ for a rather large company that produces some wonderful products. By night however, I have been many things… a chained patient in the dim cells of a bygone French mental institution, a Machiavellian nobleman driven by ambition, an Australian soldier caught in the grips of a fearful wheat-induced trip. People often ask what it is I do for work. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a jack of all trades, but my profession is split fairly evenly between the creative world of performance and the service world of retail IT (another kind of performance, some might say). In fewer words, I’m an actor.
A short phrase, easy to say. For many years I wasn’t quite sure whether I lived up to it. Surely one has to be doing the thing they say they are for it to be true. Yet for many people in the Arts, doing that thing, whether it be acting, music or dance, is difficult. Often arts practitioners are working less than admirable jobs and receiving less than ideal income so that they can keep themselves available for work. The real work that they constantly seek to do — the work that defines them. Not only is the work hard to come by, the practice of that art is crucial and time consuming. Despite the difficulties, there are thousands of other people who crave a creative life, who earnestly study an art with bright eyes and hopeful hearts that their life may be like the people’s on stage or screen that inspire them to chase their dreams. For the lucky few the dream becomes real, but for the rest of us, we just keep carrying on.
Why? I often wonder if I’m simply mad for doing this. Especially when I look at the lives of friends who are working a normal job and earning regular money. Good money, because it’s regular money. Life can be expensive regardless of what you earn and I know that grass is always greener on the other side, but having a consistent income must surely help. The question remains… am I crazy?
I may not be the emaciated embodiment of the clichéd ‘starving actor’, but I’m certainly not eating salmon every night either.
As I write this, I’m currently sitting on the set of an independent production watching some fellow actors. They’re sitting on a freezing cold floor at 10am on a Saturday morning in a big dark studio with puppets on their arms enacting a scene over and over again. They are doing a fantastic job at focussing their energy and concentration to bring the puppets to life. To bring the scene to life. However, outside this room, friends and family are enjoying their morning, going for breakfast or shopping or just lazing about. Yet we’re still here, all aware of what we’re trying to achieve. There’s no financial incentive — this is all to be done in our spare time. You could hardly call it maximising your self-interest, yet thousands of people spend their free time and weekends like we are working towards creating something collectively.
Like any project, it takes a great deal of time to piece things together. Everyone here has their purpose and knows what part they’re playing to transform the printed text on the page into a living, breathing world.
If all that time is not for profit, then for what? I’ve asked myself many times why I love to do what I love to do. Surely one can have a reason without resorting to the insinuation of possible psychoses. Is it for the glory? Well, hardly, and what is glory anyway? My dictionary tells me glory is ‘high renown or honour won by notable achievements’, so perhaps in my context that’s a shining moment that’s recognized by the audience. I’ve had a few small ones along my way, but nothing you could call renown, or even really recognition. Is it for fame? What for? Why could I ever possibly want people bothering me when I’m trying to buy tomatoes at the green grocer? Fortune, then? Well, I think we know the answer to that already. I may not be the emaciated embodiment of the clichéd ‘starving actor’, but I’m certainly not eating salmon every night either.
I’ve reflected on it often and it keeps coming back to a single memory — what I consider to be my first real lesson in acting. One of those moments — lightning quick — that seems to last an eternity, when something truly fits into place. It was in my first recall weekend audition for the UNITEC School of Performing Arts in Auckland, New Zealand. I was 17 and still in high school. Too young to be there. The man who ran the school was Murray Hutchinson. As he was working with us on the scene we were about to perform, he started to tell me about the most important thing in the craft of acting. Just as he was about to say what it was however, he slowed down and held me with a gaze so intense that it made me freeze. Utterly transfixed, I watched him raise up his forefinger and thumb pressed tightly together right up close to my face and, with a sweet slowness, released the word — ‘connection’.
To be a good actor one needs to connect — it’s essential. Connect to the ideas of the play or film penned by the author, to the thoughts and views of the character, to their ensuing emotional state, to the text they speak, to the other actor playing alongside you, to the camera or audience. An actor strives for connection in all these things. This idea goes beyond the technical art and craft of acting. The search for connection takes us on a journey into the very depths of our reality. Why are we here, what are we here to do?
The Arts, however poorly funded, however downtrodden as an honourable profession, enable us to explore the nature of our world. The very reason for our collective existence, our need to understand the human experience. I don’t mean to take anything away from the corporates, the lawmakers or the financiers. To them, connection means something else, perhaps something more concrete. They are concerned with how we can live better within the social world we have constructed. What do we need materially and physically to survive? What rules and regulations will protect those things? How can we better provide for those to come later?
Finding ways to connect all these things together is of course hugely important, yet do rules and formulas tell me anything about what I feel when I see a work by Monet or Van Gogh? Do I worry about material things when I watch a pair of dancers demonstrate through their power, grace and precision of movement, the inner workings of a tumultuous relationship? What about when I smile at my favourite song and the memories it reawakens? No, though not for the want of trying by advertisers. The subjectivity of the Arts allows me to connect to the world around me in ways that are meaningful to me, in ways nothing else does.
That’s also the difficulty of the arts world… subjectivity. What a piece of art means to one person may have a totally different meaning to another. This is the jumping off point for a separate discussion on perception, but I think it’s more important to mention another quality, one that offers to bridge the deep chasm of subjectivity.
That is, imagination.
Certainly as an actor I couldn’t work without imagination. I need to be able to put myself in the given world of the character, to actively realise their very specific circumstances as if they were my own. In a broader context, it is imagination that allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to think outside of our own life. If we can do that, and allow ourselves to connect to those people and their circumstances, we gain something rather special — empathy. At the end of the day, we’re social creatures. We need to connect. With friends, family and even strangers. If we can do that — connect even for a moment — we can start to see the world in a new light.
So I think that’s what it is for me. By doing what I love to do, even if I must sacrifice some of the finer things in life, I can connect with the world in a way I find worthwhile. That’s kind of a payment in itself isn’t it? ◾