There are many things I wish I had been told as a theatre student. Most of them, I might not have understood until I had experiences of my own, but I felt compelled to share my thoughts with those who are graduating from theatre programs this month.
“Welcome to the theatre- you fool! You’ll love it so.” -Applause.
Cutting through the Cliché’s: Advice to Theatre Students.
By Ashley Fox Linton
As a theatre student, I was never surprised by the repetitive advice professional actors would give to those pursuing a career in the arts. “If you could be happy doing anything else, do that,” followed by a collective groan. I would sit there and think, “We’re actors. We can do anything! We want to do so many things in our short lives that we’re choosing a career that taps into an endless amount of human experiences. We’ve been told a million times how difficult this business is, yet we’re still here studying and moving forward. Don’t you have anything useful to tell us? Sheesh!” They would go on, feeling pressured to list their accolades, and my mind would drift to selected scenes from “Funny Girl.”
We must be capable of finding joy and humility in other pursuits in order to be effective actors. Our experiences and imagination are all we have to draw from. In a creative, freelance lifestyle, it seems senseless not to fill our time with meaningful work that enhances our gift for theatrics. Only a very shallow actor believes they can’t do anything else. And, unless one is a wizard at false sincerity, a shallow actor is not an effective actor. People love to tell you that the ‘secret’ to having a great audition is just to “be yourself.” I’ll let you in on a little ‘secret’; if you’re a wildly neurotic a**hole, DON’T be yourself. Learn to be compassionate, kind, prepared and excitable. Then, being yourself might be a viable option.
“Success” is a relative term, and we create our own definition. While one actor feels like a failure because his film only made 3 million in it’s opening weekend, another actor is just thrilled to have a role in an Off-Broadway play. Your life and career will change monthly, even daily. It is important to set up a budget and learn to live frugally. We gypsies rarely lead a life of luxury. (Cue music for Stephen Sondheim’s “A Glamorous Life.”)
Acting coach, Rob McCaskill, gives his students a wonderful exercise. If there’s a flaw you spend time concealing, spend a day with that flaw exposed and celebrated. Let it all hang out! Now, that’s vulnerability. Learn to be confident and take pride in what makes you undeniably unique, even if it’s a quality or physical feature you’ve been trying to hide.
You will consistently be told that you are too old, too young, too fat and too thin, over and over, until you feel like you’ve been living in a Fun House full of distorted mirrors. It’s like dating. At some point, someone won’t care about the surface qualities. Your essence will be just right for a role, the stars will align, and what you’ve been dying to express will be scattered between the lines of some brilliant piece. What is for you will not pass you by. There is nothing that you can do to get the role if it isn’t yours, and nothing you can do to keep from getting it if it is. You know what belongs to you, and you know it before you walk into the room.
The truth is that you’re going to get your heart broken… over and over. It is going to be painful. There will be times when you will want to give up. You will be sitting in the lobby of Anonymous + Co Casting, next to Meryl Streep’s daughter, an Olsen twin and the film producers’ niece, wondering why you spent twelve hours of expensive coaching fees on the material. Don’t let this keep you from wanting it. Don’t let it keep you from enjoying the steps you took to prepare.
Actors love to say, “I always get the jobs I don’t care about.” Who would want to create art with a person who doesn’t care about the job or take pride in the work? The person that is best for the role is not the person who doesn’t care. It is the person who cares more about the character than what the casting director thinks of them playing the character. You must care! Becoming passive or complacent is boring. No one will care if you don’t.
It’s so easy to be a critic. Don’t be deceived into thinking it’s sophisticated to cut down those that are creating. There’s a difference between a discerning artist offering their expertise and an envious cynic. We are each responsible for our own participation and how we improve life on this planet. If we claim to be creators, why would we participate in destruction?
For the sake of pursuing your art, you will probably spend some time in a day-job that you are overqualified for. These are relevant experiences that make for some great material! An actor is always at work. You will use it. Trust me on this. Write it down. Nothing is wasted.
Everyone thinks they know what it’s like to be an actor. The human nature of assumption will become irritating. Their perception of you is not your business. People will never stop asking “Have I seen you in anything?” They will never stop referring to you as an “aspiring actor” even though you’re a “working actor.” Aunt Lucinda, will call with advice she learned from “Smash.” They won’t think twice about inquiring publicly how much you get paid. They will take an unhealthy interest in your sex life. These things never change. Don’t mind the Muggles. Do not be prideful. Learn to set boundaries, be gracious and move on.
You’ll have that teacher that scoffs when you tell him you’ve never seen “Little House on the Prairie,” as if you have time to sit at home watching every TV show ever made. Don’t worry about it. You’re never going to be familiar with every story ever created. Just watch what you enjoy because you will naturally pursue the things you like.
Do your research when it comes to agents and managers. Some industry folk will throw around big names and glitter like the perfume spritzers at Macy’s, constantly checking for your reaction and sneaking the periodic glance at thy bosom. The Hollywood manager that only takes appointments on Friday and Saturday nights is not trying to help you. Just run.
Do not let a photographer persuade you to change your look for your headshots. The point is to look like you. Also, be wary of anyone who uses the terms “fierce” or “boo” with too much ease. Not really… but really.
When moving to a big city like NYC or Los Angeles, find out where the major studios are. Map out your travels so that you’re not overwhelmed on the day of an important appointment.
Stop by the makeup counter at Bloomingdales for a quick consultation. Guys, this means you too! Take responsibility for the things you can control because most of the business is out of your control.
Keep in mind that universities and conservatories only advertise their success stories. Most people don’t think you can do anything until you’ve already done it. Don’t do it to impress them. Do it because you have something to express. Success may be the best revenge, but if revenge is your motivation for creating art, you’re going to run out of steam. Love lives longer. Period.
‘Tis a far, far better thing to be a part of a life-changing event than to worry about the opinions of strangers. Who won the Tony for Best Play in 2008? Tough to remember, huh? Name a piece in the past five years that deeply affected you. Much easier.
My Dad always said “Take your work seriously. Don’t take yourself seriously.” Of course, that’s different than taking things personally. If you’re proud of your work, it’s personal. Be gentle with yourself if you are feeling sensitive. You must stay sensitive to be an artist. All this talk of “building a thick skin” is rubbish. When it’s your job to feel things, that brick wall is only an occupational hazard. In order to stay an artist, one can never grow numb to the emotions felt when under critical attack. It is ammunition to add to our emotional palette, which can take some time to acquire.
Learn to be wary of your expectations. Allow yourself to have as much fun in an audition room as you would onstage after weeks of rehearsal. The business is never going to be fair. Like any business, there is always the guy who got the promotion because his father owns the company. Most people are working hard and truly doing the best they can. How can it be fair that some people are born with exceptional gifts and some are not?
Keep studying. Appreciate and nurture your talents. With care, they can only grow and multiply. The average person has 7-10 jobs in their lifetime. As an artist, you can create a career suited to your specific skills. There will always be the need for art. Art is our primary source of healing. If you have something to say, a creative medium will find you. You are never just an actor. You are a poet, singer, dancer, storyteller and communicator. Technology is constantly creating new forms for expression for us to embrace.
Why do we subject ourselves time and again to constant scrutiny? Because fulfilling that inherent need to create is worth the pain. Remember that you are a trained and educated professional. Appreciate the tools you have been given and be patient.
As a fellow artist, take this with a grain of salt and a slab of perspective, since it is only the view from my little corner of the universe. Consider it a tithe of my time, from one actors’ heart to another. We are made to grow, improve, connect, listen and give life its’ due reverence. All of life is about human relationships. That’s all we really have, and it is our privilege to explore, share and communicate with joy and respect.
Now, go out into the world and follow your love!