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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What, and give up show biz??? Part 1

Lately I've been offered a lot of friendly peer advice about giving up acting, all variations on the theme of "you'll-be-back-it's-in-your-blood-you'll-never-really-stop-being-an-actor." All it would take is the right gig, they assure me, and I'll come crawling back.

This is worrying, not because I think they're right,  but because this is the logic of the crack-head.

Just as a junkie is always on the hunt for the "perfect" high, so the actor persists through long stretches of unemployment, commodification, and the thousand other natural indignities that the profession is heir to, in the hope that ONE DAY that breakthrough will come and the indignities will cease.

Tell me again, who's the fairest of them all?
AND it's in your blood--even if you're married, mortgaged, with kids in school, you'll chuck any civilian job (no matter how useful or honorable) like a live grenade if Dr. Greasepaint calls your agent and whispers those sweet nothings.

This is worrying too, not because I think they're right, but because this is the logic of pathology.

"I saw the best minds of my generation--starving, hysterical, naked, roaming the the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." I think I know what Ginsberg means.

The "natural-born actor", who does it because he can do no other, looks on the surface like a heroic meme about authenticity and integrity and commitment. It's very romantic and so lends itself naturally to actors' reflexive grandiosity and self-regard.

But, young'uns, there's nowt heroic about it.

Not the first or last time I died in front of a paying audience.
After all, if you're doing something you've no choice about, and have no control over, it requires not an exercise of will, but simply the following of an inclination. Doing what you already feel like. So where's the moral credit in that? Everyone does what they feel like.

Plus if you're blindly driven, what's driving you? How can one lay claim to the moral credit actors regularly permit themselves, if they're being driven by inner forces they can't help?

"Dignity, always dignity"
No, I think actors (and their 'shadow artists'--agents, critics, gurus and other enablers) indulge this mythology, this fiction, to mask persistent self-doubt, to allay fears of irrelevance, and generally to nourish the ego necessary for a life of "Look at me, ain't I cute".

So for one to reject the life rationally, willingly, suggests that one could take it up rationally, willingly, as a genuine choice, rather submitting to it as a pathological condition. And why would one choose a life so insecure, with so little guarantee of success, unless one were inherently masochistic?

And even if one DID meet with success, there's no guarantee of it continuing. You don't build acting careers in the same way that one builds a career in an organisational hierarchy, gradually, patiently. Have a look at all the hit TV shows of the '80s and ask yourself how many of those people, who were then at the top of the money and fame tree, are still working. Damn few.

The truer narrative that nobody reads about (because it doesn't reprise the heroic meme), is that more people have left the profession than have stayed in it. From the perspective of normal actorly delusion, such stories, such decisions, read like cowardice or lack of will.

Ah, but "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" I can almost hear. Only the brave stay and persevere. Bollocks.

Back in 1998, I was working at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and we were hanging out some with British comedian Jenny Eclair. We both had daughters about the same age, and were living nearby, so we arranged some play dates, lunches, etc. We were really enjoying each others' company, until she found out that I had quit acting before, in my early thirties.

"Well, you must not have really loved it enough," she said somewhat dismissively. And the temperature of the relationship distinctly cooled.

Do you see how closed this logic is? Passionate attachment is the only motivator. A life governed by passions is the only honorable life. Chucking it is a kind of moral cowardice.

This cooling of relationships with other actors is happening all over again now. It is as though it's impossible to comprehend that it's reasonable to require the relationship between the artist and his craft to have some degree of reciprocity. I love acting, of course, but if it doesn't love me back, at least a little, then why the hell should I stay in a relationship which regularly alternates between abuse and neglect?

Optimal: good work on a good character in a good production of a good play.
That's not to say it hasn't loved me some. Mamet says that acting is the best feeling it's possible to know. Stanislavsky said that the job of the actor is to bring to the stage the life of the human soul. My experience tells me both these things can be true, when things are optimal. But optimal is the exception rather than the rule.

It has loved me back from time to time, but it's like being in a relationship with a sociopath (don't ask). You can never tell from one day to the next if your heart will be filled or crushed. To hell with that, I say.

Maybe it's the age I'm getting to be, but I begin to want the carousel rather than the roller-coaster. Equanimity rather than drama. Reciprocity rather than being the one who gives all the time. This may sound like weakness, but to choose freely what you take to be in your best interests is never weak.

Commercial directors, in my experience, are less sanguine about the essential nature of the acting business. I actually heard one refer to the actors as "meat puppets" once. And there you have it all boiled down to essentials--you're a commodity, you are manipulated, and someone else is always pulling the strings.

But I want to be a REAL boy someday--as Pinnocchio said.

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