One of the first things they said to us in theatre school was:
“If you can do anything else, you will do anything else.”
This little phrase has haunted and discouraged me for many years. I had always been a very good student and excelled in a number of subject areas (in fact, English was consistently the worst grade on my report card). Math, science and business were always my strengths. When I applied to university, I applied to the one theatre school I wanted to attend with Economics and Commerce at U of T as my second choice. I didn’t have a third choice. I made it into the UTM/Sheridan College acting program by the skin of my teeth (as I found out years later); I barely passed my audition and got in pretty much on academic merit alone. There were always other things that I could do, if you viewed it based on ability. In fact, looking at ability, drama theory was probably at the lower end of my achievement scale, but theatre and the arts still beckoned and I was determined (like most first year theatre students) to prove that I wasn’t one of those horrible statistics that would study it only to find a different career path upon graduation.
Still, at many times during my development, this sneaky statement would creep into the back of my mind and fill me with doubt – should I do something else? Was I only fooling myself? For many years, I did actually pursue other career paths, but none ever stuck for very long. I gave up the ghost on working in theatre. I was scared; I didn’t want to fail so I didn’t try. Oh, every once in a while I would find myself stage managing a production, but it was always secondary to whatever job I was doing at the time. Then, one day, my life imploded. I was left with a few boxes searching for a new apartment, new career and new life. I decided it was time to go back to my true love: theatre. I started pursuing a career as a stage manager and suddenly the pieces of my life started falling into place.
It has only been recently that I have gained a true understanding of what this statement by our instructors was really warning us about. It had nothing to do with the ability to do something else. I’m sure most people who choose this line of work are capable of having exciting careers in other fields. The fear that had been eating away at me for all these years was totally unfounded. This was a warning about the sacrifice and demands that theatre puts on its artists. It is not a career for the faint of heart or weak of spirit.
To be a working artist in the theatre, you must be willing to make sacrifices in all areas in your life. You are constantly looking for work. You have long, unrelenting hours when you do get work. You have no say over your schedule, which often results in missing: birthdays, weddings, births, anniversaries, reunions and other important life hallmarks. You live in constant uncertainty about whether next year will be as good as this one because one false step and doors may close and never open again. Often, you are required to pick up and travel for long periods of time with people you’ve never met. There is very little control over your own destiny (especially for the first 10-15 years while you are establishing yourself). It is hard. It is very hard. And it is constantly hard. There are brief reprieves when you finally land that one amazing contract that keeps you going for a few months or even a year, but they will always end and if you haven’t been keeping focused on what’s coming next, you will find yourself in a tough place when it is all over.
This is what the quote is talking about. If you can do something else, you will. There is every reason under the sun to do something else. I will put up no argument on that front. I also believe that it is the same in all the arts, not just theatre, but this is where my experience lies. I finally understand. There is no reason to pursue a career in this field if there is something else in life that will make you happy. I stand as a firm supporter: if you can do something else, please DO SOMETHING ELSE.
After working only in theatre for a number of years now, I have had to make many of these sacrifices. I have also found some luck at many points and was narrowly able to squeak in some amazing special moments and events, but likely not as many as I’ve missed. What I have found is that I cannot do anything else; whether I have the ability or no. For me, there is nothing else that makes me happy or fulfills me in the way that working in theatre does. It sucks when I have to miss a family event or a wedding of a friend or any of the other number of things that I wish I was able to do with those I love. It really sucks when friends or lovers are hurt because you haven’t had any time to spend with them for months because you can barely remember the last time you had a moment to brush your teeth or make your bed. It is lonely. It is tiring. But most importantly for me, it is worth it.
Every day, I go into work with like-minded people. People who are interested in looking at the world in new ways. In analyzing what is happening and creating a voice for a generation. People who walk into a room of strangers and immediately see a team of friends. People who are willing to dedicate themselves to a project and give their love, their time and even sometimes their blood. People who understand what it means to not be able to do anything else. People who have “the show must go on” running in their veins. It is incredible to have this as your daily life. For me, there is nothing else that can compare. As the years pass, I can’t even comprehend doing anything else; not being part of this world. My brain no longer functions in any other way.
I tried to be that person that found another path, but all roads kept leading me back to the theatre. It has not been without its challenges. There is nothing easy to this life. I have become one with the feeling of constant doubt and uncertainty. Always wondering where my next job will be (and I’m doing fairly well). Looking at the huge gaps in my calendar and worrying about whether something will come up to fill them. Looking at my bank account and hoping there is enough to get me through the slow periods. Watching my 9-5 friends make weekend plans, go up to cottages and everything else people with regular schedules do for fun and rarely being able to participate or continually being the “difficult one” to plan around. Working hours so long that you can feel each minute passing in your bones and all you can do is keep focused on putting on foot in front of the other or else you will pass out from exhaustion. This is just to name a few of the constant fears and frustrations associated with being an artist in the theatre. Often I feel that people romanticize the job, I know I did. It is hard to understand the blood, sweat and tears that actually go into getting a show from planning to performance. As a theatre student, all I saw were the people in the beautiful costumes moving around in these magical worlds that were created on the stage and I said “I want to be there”. I can’t lie. I still do that. During most of my pre-show checks, I will stand on stage and be filled with awe at how I’ve come to this place and been given this opportunity, but it is with the awe of a soldier on the field after a victorious battle; wrought with a sense of appreciation and reverence for the cost of this victory, the sacrifice that was made to make all this happen. Nothing comes without its price.
For those looking to start a career in theatre, be prepared. There is a true magic in it. There is wonder. But, like everything in life, there is a balance and to have all the incredible experiences that are available in this type of career, you must also be prepared to make concessions in other parts of your life; big concessions. You won’t always find understanding or sympathy when you need it. Many of the artists I know have put off marriage and families until much later in life because you need to be flexible, to travel, to work weird long hours at the drop of a hat in order to establish yourself. And even when you’ve “made it”, the work doesn’t stop. The hours don’t get easier. The demands don’t lessen. You may get more used to it; you can anticipate things more, but they don’t change. I look back at my class as it was on that first day when our instructors said “If you can do anything else, do it” and there are very few of us still left working in the industry and only 2 or 3 (of 25) who can say it is their only source of income (and this is 12 years later). Think about it. Give yourself the ability to have other options. Try other things. Do anything else. And then, if you still can’t find happiness after all that exploration, come back. It is a gruelling and unrelenting industry, but there is no age limit on when you can join. In fact, I would say it is the least kind to the young. There are few roles for people in their 20s and an abundance of bright-eyed bushy-tailed graduates bursting for a chance to get one. If you say, “it’s something I want to do while I’m young and when I want to start a family I’ll do something else”, just go do something else. But if this is truly the only thing for you, the only thing you can ever see yourself doing, be prepared to work, then be prepared to work even harder, and then ever harder than that. Never lose enthusiasm when you don’t get a job, you won’t get most of them. Don’t whine; no one wants to hear it and everyone else is in the same boat. You are never too big or too good to do something (I have seen some of the most successful actors in the country vacuum a rehearsal hall, pack their props away and many other things that “aren’t their job”). No one is more important than anyone else; we all have a job to do and it takes all of us to get the show up. Be nice to everyone; you never know when you will cross paths in the future and which role each of you will be in. Be grateful that you are getting paid, not entitled. Never lose your wonder of being part of it; not many people get the opportunity – count yourself among the lucky ones! It is a hard, demanding world to work in, but it is filled with some of the most amazing people you will ever meet and opportunities that are beyond your wildest dreams, so appreciate every moment. I know I wouldn’t trade it for the world!