One of the most embarrassing moment in my life that I can recall was at post-show drinks one night. I was in the sweet spot of having a reputation in Austin such that younger folks would listen and/or ask me for advice and hadn’t yet triangulated that a reputation was just a rumor. So, at least two double tall gin and tonics in, a younger person asked about next steps in being a professional actor.
One of my social flaws is that I believe you. If you tell me that you’re an accountant, I don’t ask to see your certificate. You have no reason to lie about such a thing so, okay, you’re an accountant. If you tell me that you want to be a professional actor I assume that all of those words in that order mean the same thing to both of us.
If you want to be a professional actor you can’t faff around doing community theatre with your friends for five years. There’s no progression in your ability and there’s no greater visibility in the field. And I said so. And this person cried, left the table, and has never spoken to me again.
My answer was correct for the question verbalized. The problem of course was that it wasn’t the question that they wanted answered. What they really wanted to know was how to get better roles in community theatre and keep challenging themselves – while they got to keep making fun theatre with their friends.
Which is a GREAT fucking question. And I was exactly the right person to ask. After all they were basically asking how to be me.
Which I have some knowledge of.
But it was couched in the preferred terms.
We can’t talk about being amateurs. We can’t talk about community theatre as worthy. So we filter everything through the gauzy veil of corporatism and relate all of our activity to 1.) the top of the field and 2.) its proximity to making money (preferably a living wage).
That means two things for theatre makers at all times. We can never admit to wanting less than top billing at somewhere shiny, and we can never do theatre as a hobby that we enjoy.
What it also means is that in our rush to mimic what we see as “professional” we start mimicking the structural problems of our obviously broken systems and start training everyone that “this is the way it is” from the very beginning. All of the isms we see reflected in the traumatized scarcity factories that are our arts palaces are being replicated by people across the country who don’t need to. But they do feel the need to mimic the shape because to not do so would mean that they are something Other.
And all of our respect is given to those that we recognize, or have been recognized by others. We cyclically respect organizations that did something once because we recognize the name. We venerate the Guthrie because it has several dollars and a large facility and did important work at some point instead of praising 10,000 Things and Penumbra who are doing more important work in that community with much less acclaim outside of the Twin Cities.
We have to, as a community, stop elevating folks that we’ve heard are good. Stop perpetuating rumor. Stop equating position with ability. It is almost a certainty that the background actor in that scene on your teevee is an accomplished performer that you don’t know about because you don’t know much.
Stop preferencing money over enjoyment in your discussions with creators. Did you or are you going to get paid is honestly irrelevant to most of the conversations you have about making. Don’t ask someone doing 30 days of watercolor drabbles to play with the form if that’s going to be their new side hustle. No one cares. Enjoy the fact that they really did learn a new skill in 30 days and it’s pretty. (This is very specific because this actually totally made me want to do it).
That kid (or hell the adult) who is learning how to work with resin, or make paper, or motion graphics, or podcast is having fun doing something that interests them. You don’t need to ruin it by interrogating its ROI.
It’s okay to love what you’re doing and not plan on doing it full time for pay. You are not less than because you sell off some hours of your day for money even though you’re not doing your favorite thing. That’s not the arbiter of your talent or your worth. If you’ve been at it in any field long enough you know EXACTLY how much talent has to do with financial success once you’re over the basic professional competence line.
So don’t inflict the myth on others.