"I'll give you the same advice I give my children: Never take advice from anybody."
--ROBERT ALTMAN, Esquire, Mar. 2004
So you just graduated or are about to graduate, and you think you want to go into theatre or film. Maybe you won best actor in your region or went to state in the dramatic interpretation contest where you lost to some jackass who knew the system better. Maybe you really love movies, or you like musicals, and you have always secretly wanted to perform, but you didn't want to be a part of that "clique" in school. How do you know if you can "do it"?
My first piece of advice is simply, "no." If you can live without an audience then do it. If you can be the best at something else in the world if it doesn't come screaming out of you, then do something, anything else.
There are so many beautiful experiences in life that do not require a camera or a crowd and will fill your life with joy, and if you can find one of those fantastic things that leave you fulfilled, then stick with it. Right now, we are in an unprecedented time when the value of first responders and healthcare professionals are demonstrating their significance to the world around them. Meanwhile, actors are recording sonnets and playing ukuleles. And while comedians and dramatists are keeping us engaged, the world doesn't need more YouTube sketches to keep it moving.
Furthermore, there will come a day when the rose-tinted glasses fade, when the idea of being "an actor" is no longer illustrious, and the camera, the crowd, and the craft are just facets of the job. What then? What happens when you are no longer chasing laughs or applause? Is the passion still there?
Also, if you have to ask, then maybe you lack the drive to do it.
Secondly, and this is the thesis of this blog buried halfway through the post, there is a cost-efficient way to answer that statement: do. Get your ass out there and create. Help other people achieve their dreams. Do the job you think you want to do and observe professionals. Apply for internships, apprenticeships, and different free modes of learning. Any time you can get information for free or allow someone to pay you to learn, take the chance.
Odds are you like stories. You like performing. You might even be really good. But are you good enough? This is not a challenge because this business does not work like the NFL. There is no combine, and the talent portion is so subjective that it doesn't matter if you can hit that E flat at all.
Rather than spend a decade trying to answer that question, why not put your feelers out to get an internship. There are casting agencies, theatre companies, and film crews that need help, and the sooner you can get a real point of view of what this industry looks like, the better.
See, most of us construct a fairytale version of what being an actor is that we have no idea what it actually looks like. After years of being fed the American Dream and we fantasize about when we will have the car, the clothes, and the [insert sexual preference], we have this Oz-like image of what our life is going to be like. But remember, to have a dream, you must be asleep.
And so many bright-eyed and bushy tail young artists go out into the collegiate world and get "trained." They have a dream, a passion, a desire to be "an actor." They spend four years auditioning for their school play, taking workshops and classes, and researching dead playwrights and forgotten directors. They pay, or their parents pay, or they take out a loan that buries them in debt. Then, they go out and audition and don't get cast. They audition again using the methods they learned in school and didn't get cast. They decide to take a workshop on auditioning because it can't be them; it must be their nerves when they audition. Then, they audition again, and maybe, they get a callback this time, but ultimately don't get cast. And that debt comes calling.
To save you some time, let's repeat that previous paragraph a hundred times. It's been a year, and our young actor has had to get a survival job, or they have some funds that have allowed them to stay afloat. Then, they finally get cast after five years, and they land a professional job.
Only, a horrific thing happens. They do the job, and it is nothing like they thought. The pay sucks. The director is a hack. The cast feels nothing like the group of friends you created in high school/college. The whole thing feels flat. But maybe it is just this one production, so the young actor goes back out into the world and repeats the process.
Except for this time, they don't get cast even longer, or if they do, the production is worse. And slowly, they become bitter and the thing that used to bring light to their life now makes them bitter. They realize they don't actually want to be an actor, and they now have to go back to school and get another degree to redirect their career.
How could all of this be avoided? The sooner you get a realistic view of what the business is, the better off you are. Rather than waste years of your life and have a quarter-life crisis, get experience now. Be an intern. Volunteer. Get out and audition now. Training is not going to make you any more or less of an actor. If you are an actor today, you will be an actor tomorrow. Only, you need to find out if you want to do this professionally or not.
The sooner you get real-time feedback, the better. Experience is the best teacher, and if you can discover now what you actually want, you will be better off in the future.
The world doesn't need another Shakespeare theatre. The world doesn't need another nonunion non-profit theatre company. We are drowning in content right now. Why add to the noise? Why add to the emptiness? If you can't answer that question, save yourself a life of grief. If you can, God help you.
Recently, before the quarantine, I returned to my alma mater and gave a few lectures about what I do, and it made me realize something. Young actors have no idea what they are getting into.
Now, I know I am not the first, not will I be the last, to have this epiphany, and there is a good argument to be made for, "Well, if they knew what they were getting into, they wouldn't be actors." There is a certain amount of "ignorance is bliss" in every early career. In fact, I believe it is every professional actor's job to tell young actors not to do it.
In an interview, Matt Damon said, "When I was younger, everybody told me not to be an actor. To this day, I say that to people who come up to me and say, 'I'm thinking of going into acting. What do you think?' I say, 'Absolutely not, terrible idea, don't do it.' Because that's what everyone told me. And I think if you're going to make it in this business that is so full of rejection and hardship, you need to believe in yourself despite what everybody you love, and trust tells you."
Although I credit Damon, I was told the same thing by countless professors, directors, and actors. Not only because you have to have skin as thick as a catcher's mitt, but because it is generally good advice not to be an actor.
First, there is no promised land. The work is the reward. Yet, every day (except for now during the quarantine), there are thousands of people getting off a plane in L.A., thinking their world is about to change. Every day someone goes to Ripley-Grier, thinking they are about to make it on Broadway. The tip of the iceberg seems to be an appropriate aphorism here or something about Mecca or the Pyramids, but the point is for centuries now we've been drawn to the bright lights. And yet, one of the most successful genres in Hollywood is not about the bright lights, but the dark nights.
Film noir is arguable the most influential film style ever created. Starting off as literal B-movies, film noir came to prominence in L.A. as movies moved off the lots and into locations. The stories were pulled from pulp genre writers like Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler and used the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to paint a different story.
The point is, even by the 1930s, the land of the silver screen was built on broken dreams. I'm sure some Shakespearean scholar is screaming that Hamlet was already mocking the players by the 1500s, and he would be right. The story hasn't changed. Therefore, if you decide to go into the entertainment business, you better have a damn good, "Why?" And if that reason is "fame" or "recognition" then by god do porn, or become an Instagram model. The pay is better, and there is less rejection.
In fact, when it comes to your reasoning, it must be higher than "I got the acting bug." An itch is not enough to get you through the hundreds of rejections, the crappy apartments in bad parts of town, the low-paying jobs who consider you a product, the bad scripts, the awful directing, the piss poor time management, and the countless hours spent memorizing lines for auditions, memorizing lines for rehearsal, memorizing lines for a shoot, and memorizing lines for something that was put on a teleprompter anyway.
Although he was talking about writing, I can't offer any more sound advice than Charles Bukowski did. "If it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything don't do it." Bukowski hits the entire art would with a right cross in his poem, and, honestly, if you just sub the word "actor" for "writer" then you see he's right. "don't be like so many [actors], don't be like so many thousands of people who call themselves [actors], don't be dull and boring and pretentious, don't be consumed with self-love. the libraries of the world have yawned themselves to sleep over your kind. don't add to that. don't do it. unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don't do it. unless the sun inside you is burning your gut, don't do it."
Acting can be a hobby. Writing can be for joy. It doesn't have to be professional, because it is fun. It is enjoyable. But so is baseball, and the parks are filled with thousands of Sunday Softballers who make friends and drink beer, but they are not starting at shortstop for the Braves anytime soon.
Trust me, you performing a few songs at a local cabaret which you had to pay to be in or landing an unnamed role in an outdoor Shakespeare festival is not going to prove to anyone that you are or are not an artist. In fact, if you have to prove to anyone that you are an artist, then in the words of Jeff Foxworthy, you might not be an artist.
Look, the greatest athletes of all time had something to prove. We all know Michael Jordan got cut from his high-school basketball team, and Tom Brady can name every player drafted before him. Still, if the only reason you are pushing this passion as a profession is that you got slighted by your community theatre as the lead in Barefoot in the Park, then you have years of agony and regret ahead of you.
Furthermore, everyone believes they can do your job. Why do you think TikTok and Instagram are booming? Why do you think reality T.V. is popular? Every model with a shapely ass and gymrat with ripped abs thinks he is the next star in the making. They don't need training, they don't need talent, and given the right camera angle, they're right.
In sports, there is a long selection process. It starts in early childhood and spans well into an athlete's developmental years. There are tryouts and travel teams, scholarships, and pro days. Imagine putting an amateur boxer in the ring with the likes of Lomanchenko or asking a cardio kickboxing enthusiast to survive against Cyborg. It's not going to happen. People get weeded out over the years, not because they don't love the sport enough, but for hundreds of reasons ranging from injury to life happens; however, in the entertainment business, there is no such evaluation. Everyone believes they have a shot.
And maybe they do. Anyone can land a walk-on role, a commercial spot, or even an occasional nonunion theatre role. Yet, "I like movies," or, "I watch a lot of Netflix," are not qualifications. Neither is, "I have a big personality," or, "my family always said I should be on Broadway." If you are not willing to take your profession as seriously as an athlete, then please reread Bukowski.
And yet, if you have read this far, then I owe you some glimmer of hope. Recognize, right now, that the fantasy you have in your head about acting is just that, a fantasy. It has been molded and buffed by years of programming and propaganda. Understand that the road is long, winding, and makes little to no sense and that you will, on more than one occasion, say, "What the hell am I doing here?" Understand that it's not fair. None of it. Not one single damn thing is fair. Understand that not everyone has your best interest in mind, and that you need to look at their motives. Understand that unless you are going to write it, direct it, and produce it yourself then you have to work for it, audition for it, and grind for it, and even then there is no guarantee that you will get it. Understand that no one is waiting for you, no one is looking for you, no one is going to give it to you. That myth they sell in blogs and magazines is nothing more than a fairytale repackaged as the American Dream. Lastly, understand that no one knows what they're talking about, and that any advice is only coming from their jaded point of view, and that if you truly want something, then nothing can or will stop you.
With all this extra time on our hands right now, many of us are trying to put the time to good use. And while our hearts may have good intentions, what actually happened was we binged Tiger King. It's okay.
While we may have not poured through all the great books on our list, or picked up a new language yet, we still may; however, there is a pitfall we must be wary of if we are to actually complete those tasks.
At some point, when we were students, all of us can remember saying to our parents, "I'm never going to use this. Why do I have to study it?" Perhaps, you are a parent now and have had to gripe with your kid over that same question (ain't life a bitch?) and struggled to come up with a definitive answer. After all, you can't recall all those equations you learned in Mr. Callahan's Psychics class, let alone anything from Coach Bordeaux's Civics class or a single word from Mr. McClean's lecture on Hamlet.
But don't worry, there's science to back up your forgetfulness. While I loathe the statement, "science says," and, "research shows," (for a detailed reason why read the book called How to Lie with Statistics). Framing arguments aside, researchers found (see what I did there) high school psychology students did not score any better than non-high school psychology students in a college 101 course, nor did economics students, or physics.
For this, I turn to Dr. Richard Feynman, who said, "I DON'T believe I can really do without teaching...If you're teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn't do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them?"
I've always hated the saying, "Those who can do. Those who can't teach." I've never found it to be true. Most of the time, the person saying it is trying to undermine someone's authority and looking for you to be a conspirator.
The point is if you want to learn something, teach it. We can't explain something until we fully understand it until we become an expert at it. Therefore, rather than casually interacting with something, actively engage with it. Tear it apart. Rebuild it. Make it yours, until you can explain it with ease to someone else.
Yet, Feynman was not the only great mind which reached this conclusion. Benjamin Franklin has a famous method for teaching himself to write.
Franklin wanted to be a great writer but had no mentor but the books and articles he read. Therefore, he would consume the article and then try and reconstruct it from memory. Again, we see someone take an active role in using the material they read. Both Feynman and Franklin discovered that the best way to learn something is to move the material from the passive to the active.
This piece of advice was given to me by my Spanish teacher back in grade school, a bit of information I did not heed, and I still suck at Spanish. The best way to learn a foreign language is to use a foreign language. It's why full submersion techniques work. We must force ourselves to use the material in a fight or flight scenario.
Therefore, if I may use a cliche, we must practice what we preach, and we must use what we learn. Rather than simply read an article, engage with it in an essay. Rather than simply watch Ted Talks, translate them into your own language. Rather than merely watching a movie, break it apart into its beats and reconstruct the plot point by point.
And yet, there is still one more secret to unlocking the mystery of our carnivorous minds, and that is to be more selective in what we consume.
While we all wish we had the minds of Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark, there is a reason why both characters are Hollywood wish fulfillment; however, even the Great Detective himself had the perfect advice for how to recall what we need to recall.
"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
If we are going to engage more with the things we want to learn, then we must learn to be judicious in what we allow into our mind attic. The Hedgehog principle teaches us to focus on depth, not width. We must all learn the power of focus. It is better to read one great book and genuinely engage with it, to go on the journey with the characters, to grapple with the philosophy, to examine the structure than read 100 novels just so you can share your stack on Instagram.
I will agree that in this day and age, we must be able to do a slew of different tasks. In a way, we must all be dilettantes, but there are things we engage with, and there are things we consume. We all had that one friend in high school who could give you every detail of the Star Wars universe from Legends to Knights of the Old Republic; however, deep down, we understood that it was, essentially, wasted knowledge.
Well, we live in a world today that lambasts us with entertainment. There have been more Star Wars stories created in the last decade than there were the previous thirty years. Allow your mind to follow every rabbit hole, and it will turn to mush. Think about it, if we actually used the advice from the first self-help book we ever read, would we need to read twenty more?
Time and time again, we come back to the same two pieces of advice: focus, and practice. One day we will be able to learn like Allen Strange and simply place our hands on a book and absorb all of its information (God help us if the same is true for Youtube videos), but until then, we must continue to use the old fashioned way.
Millions of great minds came before us, and they all came to the same conclusion. Be they Renaissance men like Feynman and Franklin, or fictional aficionados like Holmes, they learned the same lessons all our forefathers preached: do or make, don't just learn.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.