Why I Gave Up Acting

There is no feeling in the world like being onstage in front of an audience. Absolutely nothing on earth compares to it. The panic that fills you moments before causes your mind go completely blank. Every single one of your lines and stage directions desert you and all you’re left with is the hammering of your own heart in your chest and in your ears, like white noise or the roar of the ocean. I’ve had (and still have) numerous nightmares where I’m about to go onstage and I have no idea what I’m doing there, who I’m meant to be playing or even what the play is and all I can do is try not to freak, make it up and hope no one notices and then as soon as I get onstage I wake up. And thats what it’s like in real life, like waking up from a dream, or being in a dream. As soon as you step out, trembling, into the lights there’s a flick of a switch and there you are, being that person, saying those words. You step out of yourself, you’re not thinking about what you’re doing you’re just doing it almost on auto pilot or as if you’re being remote controlled by someone backstage. You can’t see or hear anything except the other characters, you can’t even really hear yourself.

And then you find yourself exiting stage left and you suddenly snap back and you have no memory of what just happened. “How did it go? Was I good? Did I remember all my lines? Did they laugh?” Then slowly it starts to come back to you. “I took too long trying to get it out of my pocket! My shoelace was undone thank god I didn’t trip! They laughed so much at that bit I had to wait ages before saying my next line!” You compare notes with other people but they can barely remember either. Sometimes disastrous things happen like bits of set falling down but something stops you from breaking character and you all laugh or cry about it backstage. Usually something you think was a massive fuck up hasn’t even been noticed by the audience.

You come out for the curtain call with baited breath but a smile on your face. Just because an audience claps doesn’t alway mean they’ve enjoyed it. You can feel their energy when you come out, it radiates off of them and as a performer you feed off of it and in turn it creates an energy within you. You become like a plant in the sunlight and you need that energy to survive, otherwise you wilt.

“…her blood singing, ecstatic as she’d not been since she was a child. And it was over. There was rapturous applause. The three of them gripped hands and bowed three times, their hearts high as the moon… and over her shoulder Nell saw her mother, tearful, glowing, a look of wonder in her eyes, as if now she understood.” – Lucky Break, Esther Freud

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It’s those feelings that keep you going, that’s what your chasing. Being able to feel like that on a regular basis but it’s the chase that kills you. My Drama Teacher was right, maybe I wasn’t dedicated enough to do the boring stuff like spend all day writing letters to casting directors that would never even read them. Just before drama school I helped out at The Globe for a week, as a runner and general helper to the theatre assistant. One morning she asked me to help her get on top of all the letters and headshots they’d received. She had about 5 massive folders, she looked at one and went “Well that’s from last year so we can just bin those. We’ve got to be ruthless or we’ll be here forever!”
I’ll admit I’m not always the most self motivated person (I know, mental!) I’m motivated if I’m doing something I love but I also need to see my work come to fruition, to get positive reinforcement to know that I’m not doing it all for nothing and in most jobs that is the case. If you work hard you see results in one form or another but acting doesn’t work like that. I know people that are not only great actors but spend every single day doing “the boring stuff” writing to people, networking, schmoozing, self promoting, making themselves a nuisance if they have to and they still really struggle. I also know people that are average actors but are well connected so they get by a bit more. Just being good isn’t good enough but sadly neither is working hard. It’s timing, it’s who you know, it’s what colour your skin is, how you wear your hair, your body type (I once heard a director say of someone else “she’s too curvy to play an orphan” and I can’t swear that curvy was the word they actually used.) I’ve applied to casting breakdowns that literally described me, my ethnicity, my taste in music, my background, its actually uncanny! (Once the character even had my exact name, which isn’t exactly a common one) and I couldn’t even get auditions for any of them. How are you meant to put across how perfect you are for something in a short cover letter that again most people won’t even read? You send out so many a day how do you make each one stand out? Just getting your foot in the door, that’s the hardest part.

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My last Headshot

Obviously there are times when this pays off and you get an audition and you travel across London to sit in a room full of people who look just like you, or better versions of you. You get called into another room, you’re in there for 5 minutes, maybe 10 if you’re lucky and then you’re out. Whatever you did or said in there that’s it, thats the impression they have of you and they have it on tape. Then you either hear back or you don’t. Sometime’s you’ll have to do a callback, my agent got me an audition for the stage tour of Dinner Ladies and after the initial one I had to do two callbacks. During the 2nd one I had pretty much figured out that it was between me and one other girl, the night before I had torn my ACL at my staff Christmas party. At the time I didn’t know what I’d actually done to it, all I knew was that I was in a lot of pain, my knee was about three times its normal size and I couldn’t walk. I got a taxi to the audition, limped up the stairs and prayed I wouldn’t have to move around too much. I didn’t get the part. Was it because of the knee? Was it because I just wasn’t as good as the other girl? Was it because they thought she looked the part more? I don’t know and I’ll never know. You are prepared for the rejection and you do expect it 90% of the time but at the end of the day you’re still a human being so when you get down to something like the second callback stage you begin to think ok, I actually have a chance and thats when the rejection hits you the hardest. I was on holiday in New York once and I got two rejection emails in the same morning, I just burst into tears in the lobby of The Waldorf. For whatever reason I had expected to get those parts maybe because they were both from people I actually knew in one way or another and because of that I had a bit more hope. Maybe I was just upset because I was on holiday and caught off guard. The point is you never know how you’re really going to feel or why.

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In An Ambulance Stuck In Traffic

Lucky breaks are another thing that kind of don’t really exist because it actually needs to be lucky break after lucky break after lucky break. How often do we see unknown actors in massive roles and think this is it for them now, they’ve made it but then they disappear off the face of the earth and suddenly we’re all focused on the next big thing? It’s so fickle, there’s no formula to it and because of that it’s so hard to feel like you’re progressing. I didn’t even want to be famous, I genuinely just wanted it to be my job. I just wanted to be successful enough to be able to do it everyday, to wake up in the morning and head to a job I love and be able to live off of it. Then of course there’s the money, or lack there of. So many people think its ok to get you to work for them just for the experience, just so you can add it to your CV. I get that that’s important but where do you draw the line? Why is it only artists that are expected to work fro free? So you get a dreaded side job as a waitress or a barmaid, or in a shop. Something thats flexible, that you can get cover for if anything comes up and if you’re really lucky you enjoy your side job. For me I wanted to be acting all the time so anything else I had to do I automatically resented. I didn’t want to be pulling pints for weekend revellers, I didn’t want to be serving burgers to suits until midnight. I was 28 I had no money, I was working anti social hours while everyone around me was progressing in their careers and eventually I had enough. Maybe if I’d been 25 at the time I would have stuck at it but I just knew the time had come for me and I felt distraught about it. I cried for days before I finally rang my agent to tell them, I expected to be depressed for weeks but actually it felt like a very heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt free.

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In It’s Going To Be A Long War Darling

I realised that for the last few months it had been braking me. I was so tired of answering “What do you do?” with “Well technically I’m an actress but…” It depressed me, I felt like a fake, like I was lying to myself. You’re not an actress you’re a waitress. I was an actress when I was on stage, when I was in front of a camera, when the audience were cheering, when I’d wrap and the crew would clap me out but those moments were few and far between and I knew the likely hood of all of that actually becoming my regular life was slim to none. On the first day of drama school they told us to look around the room at our competition, then multiply it by the number of students in drama schools around the country then again by all of the graduates from the last five years. You do know what you’re getting into and you are prepared for it but I guess everyone has a limit.

Giving up my dream was one thing but starting again at the age of 28 was another, and it was a very scary place to be. I still feel like I’m a tiny sail boat lost in the middle of the angry ocean. I don’t know where I fit in or what else I can do. I have no idea what I’m good at because it had only ever been acting. Acting was my thing, at the end of the day thats who I am, I’m a performer. Thats why I can’t watch anything without wondering what the direction was, or what the thought was or what the initial casting call was. That’s why I love public speaking (was it 2 or 3 speeches I gave on my 30th Birthday?) That’s why sometimes when I’m alone I’ll act along to the TV. That’s why sometimes I’ll say something dumb that I don’t actually think, just to get a laugh out of a group of people. It’s been in me since I was about 3 years old and it will probably be in me forever, I just have to learn to feed it in different ways.

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Why I Became An Actor

You know when people say things like “It’s been my dream for as long as I can remember” well I was one of those people. I’ve loved acting and performing my whole life. My earliest memory is doing after school drama club at the age of 4 but it probably went back even further. I was in all the plays and poetry reading competitions and whatever else I could do to get myself on stage in front of an audience.

Weirdly, a few years later I became very shy. If we were ever at an event or family gathering I’d struggle to leave my mother’s side, I hated talking to people I didn’t know well, I didn’t like making friends with random kids in the park and this stayed with me to varying degrees (eg: I’d still have to get my friend to ask for directions or sales assistants for things if we ever went shopping up until the age of, like, 13.)

In secondary school I took up Speech & Drama again and for the first year or so, while I had friends in the class I loved it. Then my friends lost interest and the class was suddenly full of girls from other years that I didn’t know, who all had friends with them. I was alone and terrified. I didn’t enjoy it anymore so I stopped going. Then one year I was compelled to audition for the school play and I got in. Come the first day of rehearsals for Pygmalion I found myself yet again terrified and not wanting to go. I was cast as Nepommuck, the big Hungarian guy with a ‘tash that confirms Eliza’s Noble status at the Embassy reception. It wasn’t a big part in the grand scheme of things but it was in that particular scene. I had to do an accent, it was a school play so as long as it sounded vaguely foreign I’d get away with it but the idea filled me with fear. I don’t remember much of the actual rehearsal process but I do remember my English teacher coming up to me and saying that the Drama teacher had expressed her concern about how I was handling the part. In order to help me she set up a sort of workshop with two older girls who were brilliant actresses that I really looked up to. This was my idea of HELL! They were so nice and clearly just trying to help me but I just froze with embarrassment. I kept saying to myself that I knew it would be ok on the night but funnily enough this doesn’t fill a director with confidence.

Come opening night I absolutely smashed it. I did the accent, I cracked the jokes, I turned myself into a 6ft something Hungarian man even though I was a 5ft something school girl and I had the audience in the palm of my hand. The show ran for four nights and I had students, teachers & parents congratulating me after each one. On the last night everyone signed each other’s programmes and I cried all the way home. I still have that programme in a drawer along with my AS Level Theatre Studies devised script (which was awful).

I was absolutely 100% hooked on a feeling again and I had to do it forever, for the rest of my life. So I left that school because they didn’t offer Drama as an A Level and I went to boarding school for 6th form, one that had an incredible theatre! I took AS and A Level Theatre Studies. I got a B and was told by one of my teachers that I’d never get into Drama School because I didn’t put enough of the extra work in. “It’s not enough just to be good at acting, you have to be willing to work on the boring stuff too.” His words rang in my ears so I didn’t apply to Drama School, instead I applied to do Drama at Uni.

I studied Modern Drama Studies which was obviously more of a theory, essay based course but I worked hard and didn’t try to blag the boring stuff and I graduated with a 2.1. But I was still too scared to apply to Drama School, the idea of auditioning filled me with dread. So I spent nearly a year feeling sorry for myself on the sofa, not doing much of anything while everyone around me began their career journeys.

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Oh yeah hi, this is a scene from our Dissertation performance. Don’t ask…

Then my aunt got me a meeting with Jessica de Rothschild who founded the production company, Sweet Pea Productions. They were putting on a Pinter double bill at the Comedy Theatre starring Richard Coyle, Gina McKee, Charlie Cox and Timothy West and took me on as a runner. It was directed by Jamie Lloyd who is now absolutely massive. I GOT TO MEET HAROLD PINTER. It was a giant turning point for me and I’ll never forget it. The rehearsals were at RADA and the more time I spent there, often seeing a group of people singing in reception or running lines in the halls (very Fame-esque) the more I wished I had the courage to apply. I looked into schools with one or two year courses aimed at older students but I never got further than reading about them.

Then a friend of mine from Uni said she’d auditioned and got a place on the two year course for one of the schools I’d been looking at. I suddenly just thought “if she can be brave enough why cant I?” I had my old Drama teacher’s words ringing in my ears but this time all I could hear was the part about being good at acting, which I’d heard so often before but never really believed. So I applied and had auditions lined up for 3 schools and when I told Gina McKee at the after party of the play’s opening night she high fived me. After my job as runner came to an end I wrote a letter to Jamie and the cast thanking them for changing my life. My name is in the programme for Harold Pinter’s The Lover & The Collection which was shot by Sam Taylor-Johnson (nee Wood) who I also got to meet. I sent an email to my aunt gushing about how much I loved the job and thanking her for setting up the meeting but sadly she died before reading it.

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Shot for the programme cover of The Lover & The Collection

Having thought I’d totally balls’d up the interview portion, I got onto the 1 year course of the first school I auditioned for and I loved it so much that I accepted without going to my other 2 auditions (the deadline for acceptance was before my other auditions and I didn’t want to risk losing my place.) It was basically one of the best years of my life. It was really hard, really tiring and took up most of my time but I absolutely loved every minute. I was given bad parts and excellent parts, was told off and praised, given good feedback and bad but I was giving something my all for the first time in ages. They taught us how to fake fight, how to move, how to sing, how to dance, how to do accents and taxes. There were history lessons, therapy sessions, career planning talks and practice auditions in front of real life casting directors and of course, lots of performing. Nothing was really as it seemed at Drama School. They’d build you up just to knock you down, they’d cast people in romantic scenes that they knew had been in relationships, you’d get bad crits for something you thought you’d totally nailed (my Gwen Cedar in For Services Rendered guys?! I’m still not over it!) They told us most people quit within the first year because they aren’t prepared for how hard it is. I scoffed. Who doesn’t know how hard it is to become an actor?! The competition is absolutely off the chain but I know I’m good so I’ll never give up and I won’t have to. At our graduation ceremony I wept.

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The Cast of For Services Rendered at The Grange Court Theatre (aka Drama School innit)

My end of year show was definitely my best performance ever to this day. I still mentally thank the powers that be for giving me that role because it was a brilliant one. I made my friend in the audience cry and, perhaps more importantly, I managed to get an agent out of it so you could say I was pretty bloody chuffed. I booked the first job I ever auditioned for professionally and so it began… (To be continued.)

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As Nance in Female Transport (the epic end of year show)