“Why Did I Bother Training?” The Paradox of Being Over-Competent & Under-Utilized
As part of my ongoing investigation into actors and their spiritual health, I recently conducted a work-satisfaction survey of several dozen actors at various points in their careers, from those just starting out to long-term professionals. Some answers were surprising, many followed patterns you would expect, but the frequency of one answer, in particular, startled me. Of the approximately sixty actors surveyed, over 75% expressed frustration that their training and ability seemed to have little or no bearing on whether or not they got cast.
Here is a sampling of responses:
“I feel like all the time and money I spent in school was wasted because it doesn’t translate to actual work.”
“I see people in shows and at auditions, all the time doing work that would have gotten them laughed out of my studio.”
“I was trained to this extremely high standard, but it doesn’t seem to apply anywhere in the real world.”
“Even my classical training doesn’t seem to matter.”
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t get cast because the director is afraid I know more than he does, because of where I got my degree.”
This is not a new phenomenon: for decades actors have been noticing that their conservatory or studio training is out of step with the changing realities of the Industry. This reality aligns with two major problems actors face in their pursuit of artistic satisfaction and happiness.
First, many of us studied in the Fine Arts departments of colleges and universities alongside the classical and jazz musicians, the opera singers, the studio artists and the playwrights. Those of us who trained in the studio tradition were deliberately imbued with a sense of carrying on a grand artistic heritage in the name of great actors who paved the way. This is all very noble and inspiring, and it is certainly important to hold ourselves and our technique to a high standard. But there is a difference between actors and those musicians and painters and opera singers we often study alongside. Musicians and painters and opera singers:
1. Are training to the highest standard of their art, and they will generally be competing to perform at or near that standard.
2. Can practice on their own.
3. Can practice as often as they want (comparatively speaking). They can often work towards the highest standard of their art form every single day, frequently in the comfort of their own homes.
Your friend the cellist is competing, like you are, for extremely limited jobs. However, when he gets a job, he will be playing Bach or Brahms or Beethoven, etc. In the meantime, he can play Bach every day in his bedroom (or rehearsal room, if he has persnickety neighbors.) He can sit down and challenge himself artistically. He can gain satisfaction from his progress.
For actors, it’s a different story. I suppose you could practice Shakespeare soliloquies in your apartment, but in general, acting is a relational art form. You need another person there to practice. Certainly, you can, and should, take class. But you can’t take class every day, and you usually can’t work in class every week. You can stay in shape, you can practice voice and speech exercises; if you sing or dance, you can take class and train a bit at home. But as an actor you can’t give yourself a satisfying (or even an unsatisfying but authentic) artistic experience on a daily basis the way a musician or a writer or a painter can. This leads us to the second problem.
Say you have spent years training your voice, body and psyche to perform emotionally draining, physically taxing, vocally inventive, linguistically complex roles. You can scan verse like a Steganographist. You understand why Chekhov is funny, and you can make the jokes land. You can find the clown in every Beckett character, and you can make a scene from The House of Bernarda Alba more active than a game of squash. Then you get a chance to work. Below are some lines from actual, recent audition sides provided to me by some highly trained actors (none of these are made up).
“Brah, you can’t bail before the keg stand!”
“Is today, like, Fat Selfie Day?”
“I know Volvo is the safest in its class. But what about price?”
“He’s not a douchebag, he’s a douchenozzle. There’s a difference.”
“I’m afraid your son is not Lil’ Woodchucks material.”
“I didn’t become an assassin so I could walk her stupid Labradoodles!”
“Um, I think my panties are still in your freezer.”
I’m not saying that all of these scripts are bad or stupid. Some of them are commercials, some of them are purposely moronic lines from legitimately funny TV shows or movies, and all of them are taken out of context. But that ‘s not the point. The point is that 90% of the material the average actor can make a living at does not require the level of training the average actor undergoes. I can assert this first-hand, because I have coached people with very little training (and sometimes not an obvious amount of natural talent) and seen them become absolutely proficient enough to work extensively in television and film in a pretty short length of time.
(In part, as you well know, this is because on-camera acting—as compared to stage acting—is generally far more emotionally contained and technically specialized, and favors actors with a specific kind of understated unself-consciousness. You can train a receptive person to react in the moment pretty quickly, and you can train him to act in front a camera more quickly if you don’t have to break the habits he learned in studio, such as using the whole space and making bold physical choices. It takes much longer to train him to pull off Sheridan or create a devised theatre piece from source material as part of an ensemble.)
The truth is, in order to do most of the work available to the American actor, you don’t need to be at the top of your craft. You just need to be decently good at it, and able to get better. Of course, you need other things as well: luck, connections, a charming personality, a clear, castable type, the ability to endure, etc. Spectacularly good looks and/or famous relatives will also be helpful. But in terms of art, you will very rarely be required to perform at the level you were trained to believe was necessary to be competitive in this Industry.
(NOTE: I am not saying that the bulk of working professional actors in television and film are not highly trained and doing challenging dramatic and comedic work every day. I’m saying that it usually takes years of struggle and a great deal of luck to land the kind of roles that offer artistic satisfaction, and in the meantime, you will be competing to say “I think I left my panties in your freezer” a LOT, if you are lucky.)
The average actor is uniquely stuck among her artistic colleagues: she lacks an outlet for her skills on a daily basis and she’s often forced to under-utilize those skills when she gets a chance to work. These are serious problems, not least because actors are often intensity-seeking people who have learned to use acting as healthy release for a chronic state of emotional overstimulation. When you’re deprived of outlets for artistic expression, emotional frustration builds up, until you find yourself releasing it in unhelpful ways: seeking out or creating synthetic intensity in your relationships, over-drinking, over-partying, over-indulging in general, or over-reacting (with euphoria or panic) when you do get a chance to audition for a job that fully engages you.
In addition, the lack of an outlet for your creative expertise can erode your sense of self-efficacy, which is integral to your happiness and well-being. According to cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura, who pioneered the term, self-efficacy is
“The belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” In other words, self-efficacy is a sense of confidence that you can do what do you well and succeed at it.
When you have few chances to work, your sense of self-efficacy as an actor can plummet. This not only negatively affects your happiness and well-being in as a whole but also contributes to a general anxiety actors often express to me, namely that their skills are slipping away from lack of use. Luckily, you don’t actually have to actually book a job to keep your sense of self-efficacy at a healthy level, you just have to deliberately engage in acting-adjacent Mastery Experiences.
A Mastery Experience is an experience of competence with a successful outcome. Mastery experiences for actors can take many forms, from the silly (spending a day in the Met interacting with people as a tourist and practicing your Belfast dialect) to the enormous (creating your own webseries). Mastery experiences can be outreach-based, such as teaching a class or workshop. Mastery experiences can be cross-disciplinary: if you’re visually inclined, creating a collage based on a character you’d love to play could fulfill some of the artistic experience of actually playing the role, and give you a similar sense of artistic satisfaction. If you’re more verbally or musically expressive, you could write a poem or a song as that favorite character, and read or sing it at an open-mic night. (It would also be interesting to do either of these activities around a character or play you dislike or don’t strongly relate to.)
I have plenty more ideas for Mastery Experiences for actors—ranging in scope from the quotidian to the epic— to help you keep your skills fresh and your mind sane, but I would love to hear some of yours first. I welcome your suggestions of mastery experiences for actors, tested or not. I’ll include some of your examples (as well as my own list) in a future post. Suggestions can be submitted by clicking here.
Molly Goforth is a positive psychology and spiritual wellness practitioner for actors and other artists. For more information visit https://www.anactorrepairs.com/workshops Insta: AnActorRepairs