Being an actor is a vocation.
Reaching for fame is a fool’s game. Continually working on your craft is how you win.
Graham Abbey as Hamlet. Directed by Lee Wilson. Photo by Dustin Rabin and courtesy of CBC.
I am often approached by parents asking how they can get their son or daughter on TV. It usually follows by telling me how talented they are and how everyone tells them their child should be on TV. I don’t know of any children who shouldn’t have the chance to be on TV if they want it. But that’s the key here. Do they want it? Fame and money look quite glamorous from an outsider’s point of view. The problem is, I know many people who are rich and famous who wish they could go back to being unknown and just go back to what got them there in the first place. Their love for the craft of acting and telling stories.
I rarely meet a professional athlete who tells me they made it to the NHL or MLS because they wanted a $10 million dollar contract. Or because they wanted to be a guest star on Game of Thrones. Or because they wanted to be on the cover of a video game. Sure, having your own hockey card would be cool! But these are never the answers you will hear from a professional athlete. It may creep in later in life, once those scouts and coaches whisper in their ear, “you could be this and that and have this!” What you will hear them say is I love the game of hockey or the soccer field was the only place I wanted to be. Many of the greatest success stories started because those people had a passion or love for what they were doing. Money and fame were a byproduct of their extraordinary ability to be great at what they loved to do. A byproduct of their continual journey of honing their skills and craft to be the best that they could be.
As a director of theatre and a teacher of acting, I always start the first lesson with questions for my students. These questions help reveal the artist within, so I get a better understanding of what I need to tap into to help them. The end game is to extract the artist’s voice and to get them thinking about acting being a lifelong journey as a craft. I always want the student actors to understand that, like a great Olympic athlete or carpenter, we are constantly working on getting better at what we do. How do we do that?
There are many ways to become an expert in your chosen profession. As an actor, you, of course, need to master the physical skills: accent work, breathing, diction, elocution, flexibility, gesture, listening, physicality, reacting, vocal range, etc. At the same time, you are working on the practical skills: mining the text, phrasing, positioning on stage, punctuation, research, the sound and sense of words, etc. In addition, you have professional skills: auditioning, cover letters, eagerness, generosity, punctuality, respect, work ethic, etc. And these are things you master over a lifetime as your experiences grow, your opinions and instruments (body, mind, soul) change and evolve.
It all may seem overwhelming, but you only need two things to be true for your life as an actor to begin. First, you must see your life as an actor as a calling. A craft you will continue to work on for the rest of your life. Your vocation. Second, you must love what you do. That’s it.
If you look at acting as a means to achieve fame and fortune, you will have a mountain of a hill to climb. For true success and satisfaction, it needs to be more than that. Fame and fortune are not dishonourable pursuits at all. But once again, it is a byproduct of being at the top of your profession. And believe me, most people who have achieved this level of success will always tell you that the most important part for them is the respect from their peers and the impact their work has had on the world. Most predictably, those who have achieved fame and fortune early (who have stopped getting work), immediately resort back to working on their craft. If they are lazy or do not love it enough, they inevitably quit and find something else to do. And there is nothing wrong with that. This is not an article to steer you away from reaching for fame and fortune. Once again, it is a noble pursuit. This article is a reminder that, depending on the lens you look through, you can have a huge impact on how much fame/fortune you achieve and how to prolong the longevity of your career. It is a reminder of those things that are important to achieve a satisfying and long run in one of the most exhilarating and important professions on the planet.