A strange thing happened to me this year: I ended up splitting with my fancypants agent and doing more acting than I’d done in the four previous years with representation. It wasn’t something I’d planned. It just kinda developed, and it has me thinking all sorts of things about how and what I want to do in the theatre.
A year and a half ago I had seriously considered hanging up my acting shoes. Being Co-Artistic Director of an indie company and directing shows around town was fulfilling and taking up a huge amount of time. Running around to audition to be an SOC hockey fan in an insurance commercial, or talking broccoli (aka a principal role) in a Sobey’s spot seemed to be a distraction for the most part. I had been given some friendly advice from several quarters that “you can’t be all things to all people” and that if I really wanted to make a name for myself as a director, I should firmly establish myself exclusively as one.
This also made sense to me because acting wasn’t too much fun anymore. When I finished my acting MFA in The States I did the mandatory 1 year in NYC that your visa allows for. I turned into a serious stress case of an actor with essentially 10 months to become wildly successful in order to extend my stay. I started with a part in a show at The Ontological Theatre and spun that into a mediocre agent who also doubled as a radio commentator for the New York Giants. I hustled like crazy between open calls, what the agent could find me, and up to 5 different joe jobs, but much to my dismay I did not find myself wildly successful.
This was partially because the odds of this working out for me were pretty low, but also because of how I was performing and auditioning. The whole I must define my career with this performance attitude the situation had me left me too tense and probably in hindsight, desperate, to really do anything like that. I returned to Toronto just in time for SARS, signing on as the first male client of a failure of a startup agency before landing an agent who was decidedly blue-chip a year later.
The pitiful state of the industry and being the smallest name on a big time roster meant opportunities to audition for projects that weren’t advertising came on a bi-monthly basis. Six, five-minute opportunities a year, to establish myself. It wasn’t cool. I kept myself in classes, volunteered to read for casting directors, but nothing seemed to give. The experience contrasted heavily with the success we were having with Praxis and the whole being an actor for hire thing started to feel like a raw deal. Eventually the agent and I mutually agreed that we “were not a good match”.
And all of a sudden acting was a) fun again and b) I was much better at it. The major reason for this was simple: I no longer felt this overwhelming compulsion to make my career with a single performance. My breathing was controlled, shoulders went back, I found stillness, and had confidence in my ability to entertain without striving to entertain. All the little things I understood from my training intellectually, but hadn’t been able to incorporate practically with regularity. It’s tough to breathe from support and have crisp final consonants when you’re trying desperately to succeed like no one has ever succeeded before.
Opening night as a performer, and all the shows that follow, is the closest you can get to approximating Game Day in sports. There is a specific time where you have to show up in front of a crowd of people. You get one chance to do something special with your teammates. The nerves, the excitement, the onus on yourself to thrive under pressure – once I lost an impossible sense of tension and just concentrated on the task at hand – it became addictive again. If I’m not going to play in the NBA Finals, this is as good as it’s going to get. And it’s pretty good.
So Mike the actor is back – resurrected from the graveyard of classic frustrations that plague actors in their first years out of a training program. Screw pigeonholing myself. Theatre pays so poorly we ought to do exactly the types of projects we would like to do and often you have to find these things yourself. And maybe a new agent.
This is the third in a series of four blog posts on theatre by Praxis Theatre Co-Artistic Director Michael Wheeler.