In my entire theatrical career, I've auditioned for two productions.

The first was a complete lark. I was a poet at the time, and I was looking for something fun to do, and I thought: why not audition for Macbeth? It was a dreadful experience, but somehow I managed to get myself cast as Lennox. (The production was dreadful, too, though I did make a few lasting friendships out of it.) To this day, I have no idea why I was cast: perhaps the director thought as a poet, I would be well-equipped to handle the iambic pentameter. I wasn't.

The second audition came after I'd taken an acting class -- again, I'd been looking for something fun to do, and the class seemed like a nice way to meet people. The man who'd taught the class was auditioning for a production of Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, and since I'd had so much fun working with him, I thought I might give it a shot. Boom: cast again, this time as Governor Bellingham... and this time in a production that ended up having at least a little bit of merit. I have lasting friendships from my second turn on stage as well, and I really enjoyed myself.

You might expect that, having gone two-for-two, I determined to continue on into a successful acting career. You would be wrong. I retired from the stage with a perfect audition record and haven't put myself in front of a casting director even once since then. (I have done a few readings, but in both cases I was invited to do so, which really doesn't count.) At this point, I don't even know what I would do if I suddenly wanted to.

Why didn't I keep going? There are two reasons.

First, and perhaps most importantly: acting is hard. That was the main thing I learned during the two productions with which I was involved. It took everything I had, really, to be a shade above miserable in both plays, and by the end of the run of the second I knew that if I dedicated my entire life, sacrificing so many other dreams I held dear, I'd only get half as good as the people with whom I was sharing the stage. I'm immensely comfortable speaking in front of others, I think I've got more than my fair share of presence, but I just didn't have what it took.

Second -- and maybe this should be first, I don't know -- I really didn't like the thought that I was taking a job away from somebody who DID want to put in all that time and get better. I mean: I couldn't have been quite as bad as I'm suggesting I was or I wouldn't have been cast in the first place, but so what? I was using up resources that really, honestly, didn't belong to me, or at least that's how it felt at the time.

It has, however, been a long time since then. In fact, I hadn't even written a single line of dialogue by the time the second play closed; it was some few years still before I traded in my identity as a poet to take up writing plays. The years I've spent as a playwright, however, have given me a third reason why I don't act: because hearing plays read or spoken aloud by others is so much more useful to me in my art then reading or speaking them myself.

I can't tell you how many times I've been stunned by the way in which an actor has read one of my lines: with a completely different intent and emphasis and presence than I intended. Every time it happens, I learn more and more about what I'm doing. Every time it's a gift. And I doubt I'd be able to give myself that gift as well as an expert actor could.

So that's why I don't act... and yet... stay tuned.

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Tags: acting, playwright

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Comment by Gwydion Suilebhan on June 13, 2011 at 7:08am
Thanks to both of you!
Comment by M. Yichao on June 13, 2011 at 1:57am
A tantalizing ending to a great blog post! :-) I think it really is amazing how this art form is so collaborative, and how each component role feeds such vital yet different parts of an artist's need to create. Cheers!
Comment by Scott Bloom on June 1, 2011 at 6:52am

Always interesting to learn more about your background.

I wanted to be a writer myself, but my attention span doesn't give me the discipline to work and rework and polish something over any length of time. A few short plays, some very short stories, the occasional article, and lots of unfinished poetry over the course of 40-some years doesn't make someone a writer. Hmn. Maybe a blog....

I played Bracket in a production of Nagy's Scarlet Letter several years ago. Shortly after being cast I found that I didn't particularly like the director and wasn't really becoming friends with anyone else in the cast. I was as polite and professional as I could be, showed up, did my part as best I could, and went home. It may have been a fine production but I really don't remember. I do remember thinking it was an interesting adaptation of the story, but not what I'd call a good play. It just didn't work for me theatrically.

As an actor and director I can honestly say I've learned something about both from every play I've ever seen, but that the learning process is much more intense and focused when I'm actually doing it. Nothing teaches you more about almost anything than trying to impart that knowledge to someone else. I learn more about acting when I direct, but more about directing when I act.

I never went into theatre as a career for several reasons. I didn't think I'd be good enough, for one, didn't have the discipline to study the craft, but mainly I just didn't want to live that kind of lifestyle. I don't deal well with the uncertainty of the next job or the next paycheck. Working in community theatre, especially in the DC area, gives me the ability to pick and choose from a huge range of opportunities. Sure, you deal with uneven casts and technical abilities, lack of financial support, the indifference of the greater community, and a myriad of other frustrations, but you do in professional theatre, too. The wealth of opportunities to learn and grow, and the commitment of the people who dedicate so much time and energy to something they're not getting paid for is unparallelled. Priceless.

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