This Isn’t For Everyone
It seems odd to write an article where the brief was “inspirational” about quitting the industry, but I mean what I put in the title – this isn’t for everyone. Theatre has some incredible highs, but there are barriers to success both practical and emotional, and it takes a certain sort to survive and thrive in the industry. This isn’t a negative – far from it. This is what makes it so special.
Because this is a immeasurably hard industry to thrive in. It’s incredibly hard to get into in the first place, with the barriers to access, being quite rightly decried industry-wide as limiting theatre to the non-wealthy, after which there is no guarantee of work and/or success, with the former being hard to come by and the latter being subject to the wholly subjective whims of producers, audiences and critics. Even then, the truly successful can never rest easy, and with industry salaries being a fraction of what can be earned elsewhere unless you’re at the very apex of the industry (and, in some fields, not even then), there are truly no laurels to rest on.
And yet, every year, thousands of new drama school students apply, or make their way on to the hundreds of actor training schemes that claim to offer the same. The jaded maxim is that they’re chasing the dream – this elusive hope that they might be able to fulfil their childhood passion of treading the boards with the greatest. It’s no surprise “actor” comes up frequently, alongside “astronaut” and “rock star”, in idealised childhood job fantasies – and yet the reality pales quickly in comparison to the dream.
But is it as cut-and-dried as all that? I tend not to think so anymore – nearing on 15 years in the industry has meant that I’ve transitioned from early idealism through jaded cynicism into a sort-of zen realism – but it hasn’t shifted the little nugget at the core of my being, the thing that drew me to theatre in the first place and, despite many different jobs in many different theatres, has never really changed: the desire to tell stories.
I know, right? Hokey. “The desire to tell stories” – what silly social media meme did that come from? It’s actually one of our earliest anthropological traits as a species – we’re absolutely desperate to tell stories, to get better at telling stories, and I personally believe that, in those that make their way into theatre, that drive is just more pronounced. Be it onstage, offstage, or in support of, theatre is one of few media where you can tell a story and see DIRECTLY how it affects an audience. Unlike performing to camera, theatre gives the storyteller their audience where they can see them – and where they can see their ability at work. It humanises them to us and us to them; it creates rapport where there may be not a shred of common ground; and it facilitates the best kind of storytelling – where the reaction of an audience changes how you tell them the story.
But let’s not get too bogged down in theatre theory of the whys and wherefores of this – you’re reading a blog on a theatre website so I’m guessing that either a) you’re a fan or b) you’re interested in it already – let’s focus on why people do it. Because everything above is still patently true, and five minutes spent trying to be an actor/director/thespian of any stripe will get you crashing down to earth sharpish about the long hours, lack of financial reward and intense amount of drive, self-belief, determination, gall (and maybe even guile) needed to even begin to be lucky enough to make all of these disparate pieces become a theatre “career”. And yet some people stick it out – some to immense success, most to a generally peripatetic, floundering existence from one paycheck to the next with vague grandiose plans that never quite come to fruition. Despite the humungous drop-off rate into other careers or stay at home parenting/partner support, there are still a collection of mad nutters who wrangle the very fringes of a living out of this. Why?
Because their desire to tell stories, in whatever way they can, supercedes their desire for anything else. There’s an element of self-sacrifice to it – often a crippling emotional openess that can make them both the life and soul as well as the soul-sucking vacuum of most social encounters – but these fools have decided, for whatever reason, that telling stories is more important than a stable home life, sensible working hours, traditional family/children, retirement… And it is, from the outside, entirely foolish. And if you feel at all on the fence about it – as many, many colleagues and friends have over the years – I say what I started this article with: “this isn’t for everyone”.
Maybe you have to be a fool to work in theatre. But the fools that do wouldn’t be anywhere else. So come be a fool and tell stories – or go and do something, anything more sensible with your life. Your parents and your bank manager will thank you. But if you are one of us fools: accept the hardships, face the trials, for Heaven’s sake DON’T become one of those people who endlessly moans about it, and come tell more stories. Your heart will thank you.