(Originally posted: Thursday, January 15, 2009)
My first year at university the head of the drama department told us that the difference between actors from our school and actors from other schools is that actors from our school have ideas. I wasn’t sure what exactly this meant at the time, but I know it sounded exciting. What he meant was that when we graduate, it is with ideas about what is means to be an actor and what it means to be an artist. These ideas are not, I would argue, specific to me and my fellow alumni but my alma mater did take painstaking care to instill them in each of us. Over four years of very intense training, equal parts practice and theory, we developed our own sense of what each of these titles meant to us. Always, we were encouraged to view ourselves not just as actors but as theatre artists.
This concept of myself as a theatre artist was frequently challenging for me. While I have more than a few ideas about acting, about theatre, about the world, I always felt false referring to myself as a “theatre artist.” To me, it sounded pompous, arrogant, pretentious…Perhaps because I have seen it portrayed as such so many times. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, thinking of yourself as a theatre artist can be liberating. This is what I am learning now.
Creating a career in theatre is a Herculian task, requiring an iron will and unwavering determination. Any advantage you can give yourself in this pursuit is invaluable; thinking of yourself as an actor only is limiting, stifling even, and discounts your worth to the theatre world. Any well-trained actor is capable of contributing to more than just what is happening on stage (in my opinion not only are we capable of it, but it is our responsibility). And when you realize this, you begin to understand how the potential for a career in theatre is infinite.
I have an unexpected and intriguing interview today for an unpaid internship with an artistic development program. It isn’t my dream job; it isn’t on stage. It isn’t a job for an actor. But it is an opportunity to grow as an artist and to engage in the theatre in a new and meaningful way. It is an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of what I am capable of. If everything goes well it has the potential to lead to a productive relationship with a prominent theatre group and to further ideas and opportunities. I think this is the modern day version of “paying your dues.”
Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia was on stage at Lincoln Center in my final year of university and one night a favourite professor (also a well-respected theatre critic and editor) decided to use his second comped ticket for a good cause. Namely, me. It was the best seat I ever had in a New York City theatre. And not just for the fantastic view of the stage. As we sat there talking about my future plans and pipe dreams he told me something I have carried with me every day since: It is very difficult to make a living in the theatre, but, if you want to, you can make a life in the theatre.
So I propose that the difference between “actor” and “artist” is this: to be solely an actor is to limit yourself to the never-ending pursuit of a near impossible living, whereas to be an artist is to open yourself up to the possibility of a life.