To the actors who read this, I implore you to adhere to the philosophy of this fine website and have a moment of honesty. How many times have you considered doing ‘that’ in your career? Yes, you know what I’m getting at – THAT! When was the last time you considered, and whisper it if you must, quitting acting? Perhaps you declared your intentions in a moment of frustration after that tampon commercial never materialised. Or maybe it was a slow burn – that niggling feeling that there must be more to life than trawling through The Stage once a week and screaming at your agent. You just know there has been some terrible mix-up at the ‘life factory’ and that you’ve been dealt a lousy hand unbecoming of your talent. Speaking of cards, I feel I should display mine on the ‘honesty table’ before us with an audience-pleasing flourish. I have, and always will have, a great deal of admiration for actors. To pursue a dream that no else can envisage. To follow a creative muse that simply won’t yield to reason or the dismissive opinions of others. To explore the human condition and then express this in a way which enriches the lives of others is a truly noble calling.
I thought it was my calling, my destiny even….until I quit (cue wistful piano music).
It wasn’t one thing per se but a variety of convergent circumstances that resulted in travelling back to my hometown (Newcastle Upon Tyne) with nothing but a broken dream and a crumpled Equity card. I had staked so much of my identity in being an actor. So much on being ‘different’ from other people (especially in my part of the world) that the void it left was all consuming. I had no qualifications, no direction and was decidedly low on optimism for the future. I was lost.
Lest this blog fall into the realms of torrid self-pity, It all had a happy ending. Well, ending is the wrong word. Life isn’t about endings really, is it? It is about moments and at the present time I’m in a happy moment. I’ve just qualified as a psychology teacher and I’m (all being well) about to embark on research thesis back at Durham University. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t miss my former life. First and foremost, I miss the people. Every last one of them. The gorgeous, the talented, the neurotic, the inspiring and the downright deluded. I miss that creative epiphany moment during rehearsals. I miss those hilarious hissy-fit moments as the pressure of opening night looms large. I miss those silly pre-show rituals that develop over a long run. I miss the unbreakable camaraderie of the cast during the downtime. I miss the proud looks from family and friends after an appearance on television. I even miss a training experience in which clucking around the room pretending to be a chicken is seen as a legitimate learning process.
However, the one itch I was never able to scratch was the question of meaning. Existentially speaking, I never truly got over the ‘what am I contributing to the world?’ angst that, I imagine, every actor experiences at some point. Was I being self-absorbed (childish even?) to follow my dreams of artistic glory while others are devoting their lives to saving/supporting/caring for the less fortunate. The early twentieth century Austrian writer and poet Rilke was once asked if he had any advice for aspiring writers and offered the following bon mot;
“If you were told you were not allowed to write again – could you carry on living?”.
Although I think to reply in the negative would be rather melodramatic, I certainly understand the sub-textual meaning of his enquiry. Is being creative what you do or who you are? How much of your self-identity is wrapped up in your status as a creative person? How can one carry on if it all goes away? These are difficult questions but one that every person who leaves the industry must face up to once daylight has seeped in upon magic. On a fundamental level, leaving the industry means a complete reinvention of oneself. How does one converse with friends who are in the business? Does it mean an inevitable drifting apart as common ground gives way to changing priorities? No, I don’t think it does (at least that’s not my experience). If anything, I think actors actually enjoy conversing with people outside the industry to give them a break from talking shop and to provide some perspective.
The purpose of this blog isn’t to disabuse you from your creative imperative or the industry in general (although I’m sure it wouldn’t mind if a few more jumped overboard!). It is simply to say that if you are feeling like I did then I’d like to reassure you that life on the other side has the potential to be great (at least it has been for me). Leaving a major part of one’s life behind is daunting and requires immense courage. The immediate sense of loss is tangible and gives credence to the falsehood that it was all a ‘waste of time’. That’s simply not true – It isn’t and it wasn’t. I met some beautiful people and have memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. I had experiences well outside ‘the norm’ and I wouldn’t change either the highs or the lows that the industry bestowed upon me. Acting was a crucial, irreplaceable part of my journey but I know now it was not the final destination. Leaving the industry doesn’t mean leaving a part of oneself behind – I feel that, in my heart, I’ll always be an actor.
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