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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Act 2

My First Headshot (1999).
By Michael Wheeler

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”.

Fort at York workshop #1.
So I kind of surprised myself when I showed up to audition for The Fort At York. Over the course of two publicly presented workshops, I played first a mute kitchen boy named with a tendency to break into monologue, and eventually a soldier named Everett with some serious psychological problems in the final production. This led directly to playing an anarchist artist in Save Us at HATCH this year, I followed it immediately by acting in a Praxis Theatre show for the first time as The Prosecutor in our workshop presentation of Stranger.

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.

Save Us reading at Cameron House.
I am grateful to Tara Beagan, Chris Reynolds, Chad Dembski and Simon Rice for creating three shows that really fostered an exchange of ideas and valued collaboration in rehearsal. I had a lot of confidence in these projects because I was afforded the opportunity to play a part in things from the get-go. I also remembered something I forgot: I love opening night. As a kid I had hoped first to play for The Toronto Blue Jays and later, as a starter on any NBA team but The Utah Jazz. It was only after both of these goals proved entirely unrealistic that I started to get heavily into theatre at 16. In hindsight, I think I know why now:

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.


alison said...

This is a really sweet post, Mike. Thanks for sharing, and I hope acting continues to be fun and fulfilling for you.

Megan said...

it's nice when you rediscover your love for something.

i struggle with the whole 'focus on one thing' thing as well.

i was talking to a friend and he said he figures as long as you can focus on the one thing you're doing in the moment you can do as many things as you want, that the problem comes when you're doing thing A and thinking about things B and C at the same time.

mike said...

thanks guys.

yeah multi-tasking presents some huge challenges, as you always have to be thinking ahead to your next project, so you're not just unemployed when you come out of your current one.

having multiple skill sets makes this a little more probable though....

Anonymous said...

nice blog, mw.

martha said...

I forgot all about that agent/sportscaster in NYC. Know what he's up to now?

you really like basketball, huh?

Lovely blog. You look very soft in the photo.

mike said...

i have no idea what that guy is doing anymore. probably giving folks the same schpiel he gave me about being Hulk Hogan's first agent (no shit).

and hey - I'm not soft. I'm rough and tumble, just like Kevin Garnett.

august low said...

I like this post. I think the one of the nastiest things about acting is the constant thinking of how it might be easier to quit than to pursue.

laura n. said...

thanks for this. you rock!