I get asked this question from time to time. The truth is that I gave up on the professional acting dream quite some time ago – at least the one whereby the definition of dream is “anything less and my whole life will be an unmitigated failure and not worth living.” And I’m kinda glad that I did.
Earlier today, this article popped up in my facebook newsfeed – and it made me smile. I am in my early thirties. I work in an office. My screen is filled with a vast array of spreadsheets containing bewilderingly complex formulae. My hair is an approximately normal colour. 20-year-old me would be most unimpressed with how things have turned out. Back then, I honestly couldn’t have imagined myself doing anything other than acting (I also couldn’t imagine having hair any colour apart from bright fuschia pink). So what happened to those fierce hopes of going to RADA and forging a successful career on the stage? 12 years ago I applied, I auditioned… and I didn’t get in.
But I’ll still be onstage tonight.
Since coming home from university, I’ve been part of my local amateur theatre company. We have facilities to rival some London theatres, if only on a smaller scale. In the past 12 months I’ve acted in Far From The Madding Crowd (which we also took to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall for a week), stage-managed our youth theatre’s production of Alice in Wonderland, helped with make-up on Journey’s End and taken their show photos, been stage crew (and a little old lady in a rent-a-crowd scene) in The Ladykillers, directed A Fine Bright Day Today, taken more show photos for Anne Boleyn, and for the rest of this week I’m acting in Jekyll and Hyde. In amongst all of this I’ve been reviewing plays for myself, Bargain Theatre and with the #LDNTheatreBloggers, and working full-time in central London. Sometimes I manage to indulge my dancing side with a bit of salsa and bachata. My life is nothing if not busy – and that’s just the way I like it.
My story (if you can even call it that) is not unique – I know plenty of people whose lives have taken similar paths. A passion for theatre which never ceases – it just manifests itself in a way that many of us never considered. I’ve managed to find a nice work/life balance: a good job which pays the bills, keeps a roof over my head, leaves a bit of disposable income, and allows me to take my annual leave in lots of little chunks (I go home an hour early on performance nights so as not to have a nervous breakdown). I have mastered the art of the hour turnaround between getting home from work and leaving to go to rehearsal. Spaghetti is often on the menu as that can cook while I’m washing my hair.
But every now and again I get asked when I’m going to go and make a living out of it: it’s usually an innocent question from those well outside the theatre bubble who assume that my current lifestyle is just a stop-gap until I make the leap into the world of professional acting. But having heard from friends the hard truth about the acting industry, it’s precariousness and insularity, the sheer cost of maintaining your profile and skills versus how little actors actually get paid, the reality being so far from the dream… I really thought it was what I wanted – it isn’t. Amateur theatre has permitted me a great amount of versatility and the chance to play roles that I may never have had in the professional world. I still think Gretchen from Boeing Boeing and my ‘moment’ with the carpet will be my favourite for a while yet.
Professional acting is like the world’s most brutal, unpredictable and appearance-obsessed temping agency, which takes on a fresh batch of new talent each year as graduates pour out of drama schools. I’ve known one friend who went through round after round of callbacks for one role, and she got down to the last two. They picked the other girl on her hair colour. Some of you will be shouting “but they can’t do that!” They can, and they do. When you’re casting a brother and sister and you have narrowed it down to the two most exceptional auditionees, both perfect for the role, the decision really can be as arbitrary as which actor/actress pairing look most like they’re related to each other.
This is by no means a denigration of the choices of my friends to put themselves at the mercy of agents and directors – I admire them enormously for their resilience and tenacity in the face of a system which is so competitive and frequently demoralising. I am immensely proud of them when they get cast in a role, but also when they dust themselves off after a “no” (or the deafening silence of “successful auditionees will be contacted by Friday.”) and hurl themselves at the next available casting opportunity with the same gusto. In addition to ability, it requires steely determination and unfailing optimism. It’s not a career for the faint hearted or the easily discouraged. If I were offered a place at RADA tomorrow, would I take it? In all honesty, probably not. Have I ruled it out completely? ……No.
I am not where I thought I’d be by now – but there’s more to life than fixating on clear, defined goals. It’s good to have more than one dream. I don’t for one minute regret where I’ve ended up. Sometimes it’s good to go along with the scenic route and see where it takes you. For me, it’s led to writing, which in turn has introduced me to a whole network of incredible people who love watching live theatre (in all its guises) as much as I do. For all the hiccups along the way, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in my life right now.
So then, scenic route… where are we off to next?