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
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.
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.
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.
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.