Why I became an actor and other musings …

Set for Australian Shakespeare Company's "The Comedy of Errors" taken during tech run. Photo by Sally McLean

Waiting tonight during Act II of “The Comedy of Errors”  in the Green Room – the room used for actors backstage where they can wait near the stage itself for their cue rather than head back to their dressing rooms – called “Green” because these rooms used to be traditionally painted green – which, according to those I worked with while in London, comes from the Elizabethan period and the birth of modern Western theatre as we know it, when The Blackfriars Theatre (built in 1599) had a waiting area for the actors which was painted green just by chance – hence the term … but I digress …

As I said, sitting in the Green Room tonight, which is situated under the stage at the Athenaeum Theatre and is, in fact, painted white with several comfy arm chairs of velvet and leather (props, I suspect, from previous shows), plus a couch that I believe has come from one of the stage crew’s homes, I was listening to some of my fellow Australian Shakespeare Company cast members performing Act II of “The Comedy of Errors” and hearing the audience laughing in response, when I began thinking about a question I am often asked and usually don’t ever seem to have an adequate answer for – “So why did you want to become an actor?”

It’s a legitimate question.  Notoriously, if we are to believe the statistics, 95% of professional actors are out of work at any one time, most of us run a second career or job alongside our acting work to ensure the bills get paid and, from the general public’s perspective, not everyone gets to star in a Hollywood movie, or even an Aussie TV show – so why bother?

Tonight, hearing Syd (Brisbane) and Hugh (Sexton) working their proverbials off on stage and the laughter coming from the audience – I was suddenly reminded why I entered this crazy world of greasepaint, limelight and make-believe.  It’s not to walk the red carpet (although I’ve done that a couple of times and it’s fun, no doubt, and I hope to do it again for that reason), it’s not to be paid ludicrous amounts of money (although I’ll take that too – I’m not stupid!) and it’s not to garner the praise of my peers and the public (although every human being needs to be appreciated and it’s always very nice to be told you’re doing your job well).

No, my reasons are very simple.  I became an actor to connect.  To entertain.  To communicate and share via imagination with a group of my fellow human beings.  To be a part of a world where we offer others the chance to step through a glimmering crack in reality, transporting them to a place beyond their daily lives where they have permission to laugh, or cry as they see fit. I became an actor to experience over and again the shared journey an audience and actor take every time the house lights dim or the cinema screen flickers to life.  I became an actor because the joy of creating and sharing is something that I honestly don’t think I could live without.

Is it always a good shared experience?  Of course not.  We always hope we’re doing work that translates and connects, but sometimes it doesn’t go the way we’d hope.  But something brings us back to try again – and I think, for me, that elusive, yet tangible bond formed between the audience and the work is what gets me back on the stage or set each time – come what may.

In the theatre, there is a danger, a frisson, that is created for each performance – even when the season is going well generally, there is always the possibility that tonight it might not be all we hoped, might not translate or connect.  But the desire to have that magic happen keeps us trying – entering that arena in our costumes and make up, hoping that bond will establish and we will all – actors and audience alike – be transported to another place – if only for a couple of hours.

Do I sound somewhat precious or pretentious?  Possibly.  Possibly even to other actors who like to sound a little cynical sometimes about what we do – which I suspect is a form of apology in itself – after all, we’re not saving lives here.  But I make no excuses.  Tonight, waiting for my cue to enter the stage, I found myself celebrating the sense of belonging, of coming home, of being a part of a world that I will come back to again and again, because, in truth, the magic and mystery of live performance can be a powerful, life-affirming experience for both sides of the equation.

And that should never be apologised for.

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