Here’s a set of questions that I get asked on a fairly regular basis (…come to think of it, almost as frequently as people ask me if Shakespeare actually wrote the canon…); “Are you ever going to act again? What made you leave acting?”
First things first, I don’t think you ever really leave acting. Theatre people are theatre people, and whether in a theatre or without it it’s still in your blood. Just because I haven’t performed on a stage since before my Master’s doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped being an actor (though, granted, I do fondly refer to this period of my life as “my retirement”). Acting is a skill that affects everything else you do; public speaking, relating to other people, understanding yourself (both physically and emotionally), understanding others, and generally relating to the universe. Because I’m an actor, I know how to deliver a talk and keep an audience engaged. Because I’m an actor, I know how to stretch just about every muscle in my body and also know a few exercises to do if anything is particularly tense. Because I’m an actor, I know how to speak clearly and precisely.
Acting is rough. An actor is the lowest rung on the theatrical totem pole; at the whim of allother creative minds which hold any sway to a project. In a healthy creative environment, an actor is an integral piece to a beautiful theatrical tapestry. More often than not, however, the actor winds up being no more than a pawn in the great chess set of the theatre. The actor can often turn into a walking, talking statue of the director’s vision with no input on the project, no agency, and no outlet.
To expound upon the actor’s woes, actually finding work again puts the actor at the mercy of the great machine. Theatre is creative, right? A process put together on dreams, inspiration, and ideas? According to the bulk of the commercial industry, this is far from the case. Auditioning is an endless loop of shoving oneself into industry-created boxes for the sake of easy maneuverability. The actor asks himself “What’s my type?” more often than “Can I play this part?” and far too often the individual who best fits an aesthetic will be cast over the individual who has more training or talent. Think I’m wrong? Take a long hard look at the film industry (different in many many ways from theatre, but a good archetype for the sake of this discussion).
Top this off with the fact that an actor’s job is to explore the deepest, darkest, scariest aspects of himself eight times a week in front of a large audience of strangers and I’m certain you will find that acting is no longer as glamorous as perhaps you had first suspected.
So why did I leave acting?
In the later part of my acting career, I became extremely focused. I wanted to do Shakespeare, and I wanted to do Shakespeare specifically… but I wanted to do it right. Having had little previous experience acting the Bard (a thing, I had been told, extremely difficult to do), I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t just going to get up and “thee” and “thou” an audience to death. So I found myself some training.
And that training left me knowing more, but not knowing enough yet.
So I found some more training.
You can see where this is heading.
By the time I felt like I had any expertise with the verse, I was over-trained for the industry. I knew a lot of things, and I had even dabbled in the academic side of Shakespeare a bit in my undergrad. On the whole, I found I tended to know more about the shows and specific acting techniques than the directors and theatre professionals whom I was working with.
Most directors are not good directors. If I had known and worked with more good directors, maybe I wouldn’t have turned out the way I did. As it was, I wound up working with a lot of self-involved artistes who didn’t foster creativity, but rather were working towards some grand vision of their own. These directors didn’t want to be told that they were wrong. Nor did they want to be told that someone knew more than they did. Even if an individual has the tact to tackle these issues in a sensitive way (which, by the way, I didn’t), they’re still not things that a director wants to face down in the rehearsal room.
Most directors don’t like smart actors. Smart actors ask more questions than are useful. Educated actors are even worse because there’s the off chance that they could ask questions to which one has no answers. I was both.
You can imagine the frustration that circulates around a situation like this. I got tired of the tension that it caused and, when I sat down to truly consider my options, I had to find the real bottom of the problem. I knew that these directors, while perhaps not indicative of the species as a whole, were at least enough of a sample-set to tell me that this was the kind of individual I would generally find myself working with. I also knew that, while I had some talent, I lacked the experience to be the best of the best. In order to get that experience, I was in for many many more years of biting my tongue at rehearsal, working three jobs without health insurance, and living paycheck to paycheck.
Being an actor is rough, and it was too rough for me. I packed my bags and bid a fond farewell to the stage (even though I loved it) because I simply couldn’t do it anymore.
It’s been many years since and theatre (as you can tell) is still a huge part of my life. Last week, while going about my daily Shakespeare rounds, an opportunity crossed my desk that I had trouble ignoring.
A local community theatre is doing a production of As you Like it and they were holding auditions. Rosalind is a dream role for me, and one that the professional theatre would tell me is beyond my physical type (the androgynous roles usually get cast androgynously… tall; slender; could pass for a boy; you know, everything I’m not). I decided that perhaps it would be worth breaking my retirement to live the dream and, since it was community theatre, I had a fair shot at it. So I grabbed my best gay friend (who, by the by, is a Shakespearean actor/scholar in his own right) and we went and knocked ‘em dead.
….or at least we think we did. Casting calls happen today and tomorrow, so this fact has yet to be determined. For my part, I’m just happy to have had a chance to shake off a bit of the dust, really think about the production process again, and reminisce about all the things I hated about being an actor.