I know I can’t be the only one in it for the craft and not the climb. When theatre first made its impression on me, when as an audience member I was equally entertained as I was enlightened, I decided it would be a part of my life. When somebody sometime told me that I was good at performing, I decided that it was to be my profession. I pictured myself being able to stand on a stage and change somebody else’s life, the way it had been done for me. Like everybody, I was in it for the ‘magic’ of theatre.
This passion was nurtured when I went to drama school. With every day bringing a new ‘lightbulb moment’, I was in (my version of) heaven. Nothing was more rewarding to me than taking apart a scene, ‘cracking’ it. Every exercise brought a challenge that we’d all welcome. Often, teachers and students alike solved the sticky moments together. It was one big discussion, infinitely interesting for its insight into human behaviour and interaction. Often I felt privy to something really special, like when a fellow classmate read from one of the greats and made all of us cry, or when somebody created something that meant a lot to them and got to perform it for the first time. I moved through my studies terrified to blink and miss something.
Things started to slow down for me when they needed to be speeding up: as our course came to its end. Suddenly, we were around the corner from our final showcase for agents, and, it seemed, the rest of our lives. The words ‘networking’, ‘schmoozing’, and- perhaps the worst of them all- ‘branding’ forced their way into my world. The craft of auditioning took the forefront. Any performer will tell you there’s a real knack to it; a certain technique that you have to master. And they’re right. If you want to take it seriously, if you want to play a lead role in a long-running Broadway-imported show, you have to get on top of this stuff. Your raw talent and your original take on a role isn’t enough. I should point out, this isn’t a criticism of the system. The panel have to be able to distinguish between us, and have to trust they can find someone who takes the role seriously, and so will be able to follow a pre-set track. Sometimes it’s about who you know, and most of the time it’s just a giant, stomach-ulcer-inducing competition. I don’t want my life to become that game. Call me naive but that’s not what I was signing myself up for.
It’s sometimes hard to tell if I’m just lazy. Maybe I’m a little too afraid of the competition. And of course, it’s convenient to turn my nose up at the lifestyle of ‘successful’ performers when I’ve not yet signed a contract that lasts longer than a month, or even been a part of an audition process that lasts longer than two rounds. All of a sudden, I'm your classic case of the bitter critic! No. I straight up applaud the people who do this and, what’s more, love this.
I’m not interested in the ladder.
It’s tough being in the world of theatre if you don’t see the sense in climbing those rungs. My solution is as old school as ever: do what you love. If you’re in love with the practice of theatre, the mechanics of acting (or singing, or dancing!), you still might be barking up the wrong tree as you step into the room to read for We Will Rock You the Musical. Eight shows a week for a major stage-show touring nationally is something to be immensely proud of. You will grow as a performer and learn a lot about the ins and outs of the industry but it might not feed your soul the way that drama school did. And just because you’ve ‘made it’ and you’re ranking higher than others in your field, doesn’t mean you have to settle for it.
What I’m realising is that there are rungs in all walks of life. As performers we’re all told to have Plan-Bs and, athough I was also told it’s a defeatist approach to acting, I couldn’t be more adamant about the idea. All I want is a plan-B that keeps me thinking. If I work for it, it could be in theatre - writing, directing, dramaturgy, designing, teaching. But my plan B could also not be in theatre, but in one of my other worlds, using one of my other skills. If I can see the effect I'm having, I'm creating something that's my own. Balance will be my reward. With this balance, theatre can stay in my life at an amateur level and I’ll be satisfied.
I want to create as much as I can in my lifetime. The ladder is a tough climb which demands a lot of commitment to the cause, a lot of bumps and bruises and a very sturdy attitude. Standing by all of these factors, I can make it to the top but I’d better really love what I see up there (I'm talking Christine in Phantom of The Opera status!). After all, I've invested a lot into a game that I honestly don't enjoy at all, just to get there. Another version of me puts less into the ladder and sits with smaller contracts here and there, enjoying other outlets for work simultaneously.
It's not ideal, this 'bits and pieces' life. It's certainly no excuse not to put your all into the ladder game if you think you deserve it more than everyone else (or that you'll actually die if you don't get the lead role in your favourite show). You'll simply never enjoy the question "what do you do?" at family functions.... But it comes down to this:
Say you spent a week working on something else in your life: your plan B, your other job, your other passion. Think about each day and how you felt afterwards. If you'd rather have spent your week auditioning, training, networking - essentially playing the 'game' - then, you'll know that, for you, The Ladder is the only way up.
Me? I'll cheer you on from my mole-hill, no, my mountain, nearby.