I was at an event last week with a friend, and at some point, we were introduced to another guest as Actors. The apparently humorous response of said guest to the one who introduced us was something to the effect of, ‘Oh, did you have them come to cheer and provide the high energy in the room?’ – And me being me, who can’t seem to suppress my utter disdain, especially when it comes to stereotyping in all its forms and interpretations, ended up saying, polite yet firm, ‘Umm, we’re not for hire, we’re here to support a friend’. Mind you, said guest didn’t make his comment from a place of intentional arrogance, but maybe ignorance, based on his perception of what actors do, and their quality of life and work.
Ironically, I came across a Forbes article not too long ago titled, “Are Creative Careers Now Reserved Exclusively For The Privileged?” – Even though its a writer’s perspective, it will resonate with anyone in the creative field. It took me down memory lane to my year right after graduate school, and the years that followed – to the incredible artists I crossed paths with, ‘privileged’ and not, NYU-Yale-Columbia-educated and not, struggling and not – and the one thing that seems to have kept us all going, is the sense of passion, community and support for one another. The ‘privileged’ on the other hand, a good percentage of them, seem to prefer creating reality TV shows to showcase their dog or cat or newly done breasts, possession of narcotics, drunk driving and frequent arrests, over practicing the craft and applying it to actual work.
I had quite a few thoughts and questions already brewing in my head when I came across this video titled ‘THE AUDITION’ by Celia Rowlson-Hall floating around the social mediasphere this weekend. It was hard to watch. My reaction went from hysteria to feeling myself cringe, and finally a sense of heartbreak sweeping through.
My mind has been spinning ever since – all of this speaks to a higher question: What is the perception we are giving out as actors?
We are probably the most hardworking and multifaceted personalities, whose drive is fueled by Passion more than anything else. I can’t speak for everyone, as there are always exceptions who have self-centered and gratuitous reasons for being in the business; but for me and the community of artists around me – all we want is to do what we love, tell stories. No actor has just one job – we use existing skills and develop new ones in order to pay our bills, take classes, audition and live the life of an artist. Some of my dearest and most talented actor friends and colleagues from all over the world are my biggest inspiration – jumping through hoops of how to make rent; how to figure out a way to stay in the country legally (or not); how to be okay with the choices made, whether to move away from home, or lose an opportunity of being with someone were circumstances a bit different, or the fact that people around you, including your own family, don’t ‘get’ you or what you do; how to balance the work-life dynamic so that it is in fact possible to fall in love with someone who actually understands and respects the art form; how to then make decisions about having a family, of being a mother, a father, and figuring out the path to continue living the artistic life; how to stay inspired and creative during dry spells of no auditions or work coming in; and in spite of all those challenges, have the incredible courage to be open and vulnerable enough to share personal stories, have the innate curiosity of wanting to know more, of wanting to be better, of wanting to tell a story in the best way possible. And if you’re a woman and/or an actor of color, add to that the consistent battle with under representation, stereotype and caricature.
Viola Davis said it best in her Tavis Smiley interview on PBS when he told her and Octavia Spencer that he was ambivalent about what they were winning for, in context with them playing maids in ‘The Help’ and being nominated for Academy Awards. She said, “That very mind-set that you have and that a lot of African-Americans have is absolutely destroying the black artist. The black artist cannot live in a place — in a revisionist place. A black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy, people are messy.” Once again, a statement that resonates with anyone who has been boxed in by stereotype.
And yet, as actors, we are the most willing, resilient and courageous people you will ever meet. Though we may or may not move on to wear different hats later on in life, and add other titles to our resume; the training of an actor, the experience of an actor, the WILL of an actor, is what ultimately shapes us, and feeds our future endeavors. Writers, directors, producers, casting directors, talent agents, publicists, pretty much anyone in the business has most likely been drawn into the world through an acting class, or two – No one knows more about the human spirit, the human condition, and what makes us and our relationships ‘messy’, flawed and complex, more than an actor. Not even psychologists, in my opinion. Because we not only explore and learn it, we internalize it, live it, and then offer it right back to the world, staying truthful, present and in the moment. That takes exceptional skill, craft and vulnerability. That is Art.
We have so much to give. We have so much power within us. We go through so much to do what we love. Then why do we end up giving it all up, including our sense of self, in this career path that we chose for ourselves? Why do we have the need to give someone else that power? Ultimately, it is a collaboration isn’t it? Why don’t we stand up for our own talent and hard work, and draw the line? Who decides that the casting table in the audition room needs us less than we need them? Why do we refuse to support our own choices and our own selves? (And when I say ‘we’, I ask this of myself as well) I know actors who have stopped introducing themselves as actors and prefer to either include the other credentials first (writer, director, producer, teacher, filmmaker), or not mention ‘actor’ at all. Why? Because standing alone, the term emanates a vibe of neediness and limited credibility. Aren’t we ourselves responsible to a great extent for creating this perception? And if perception is based on what we give out, then what’s stopping us from reclaiming that power and credibility, owning who we are and what we stand for? Let’s move from a state of desperation and need, to a place of empowerment, self respect and pride in our craft. I bet you, perceptions will change.
If you’re not an actor and are reading this, don’t feel bad for us or pity us, just be glad you know us. And if you are an actor (or any artist for that matter – a singer, dancer, painter, writer, director, producer, poet, anyone) and are reading this, say it with me – I’m an actor and proud to be one!