Why Do Theatre? = Why Act?

Q: I’ve been told that it’s important for an actor to do theatre. But I don’t see the point – I live in Los Angeles, I want to do film and television, and I want to make money as an actor. What is your opinion on this subject?

Thank you for your question. It is not an uncommon question and I think that it would be wise for anyone considering the pursuit of a career as an actor to take stock of the reasons that led them to make this unusual choice.

Let me be blunt: deciding to be an actor is not a wise decision.

If you look at the unemployment statistics for SAG (Screen Actors Guild) you will find at any given time, over 90% of union members are unemployed. This is not taking into account the number of under-employed, or the vast majority of actors who never even get into the union. I find that so many decide to try their hand at acting without first discovering if they have any aptitude for it, and – even more importantly – love of it.

Why is this? Because great acting looks effortless… but it isn’t. None of us watches the Olympics thinking we can do any of those events. I don’t watch skiers compete thinking, “I could do that!” The mountains that they ski down look scary to me. I would just as soon face a raging bull head-on as I would slalom down a black diamond. Yet everyone watches movies and TV and thinks they can do it.

As I said, the great ones make it look easy. The other reason this profession draws the unqualified, is the way that talent is discovered. Originally, before acting training even existed, actors would apprentice in a theatre company out in the hinterlands, and work their way to up to Moscow, so to speak. They would pay their dues and learn the craft by working with the truly gifted. In the USA, talent would rise in the New York theatre scene and then be discovered by Hollywood under the old studio system. The actors had a craft by the time Hollywood came knocking. Today’s talent (I use the term loosely) is discovered in so many ways. Someone can achieve fame through a reality show and be given a pilot. That doesn’t make them artists and it certainly doesn’t guarantee longevity, but it encourages the masses to make a go of it.

If acting is a true calling for you, chances are, it manifested itself early in childhood. You were the one in your neighborhood putting on skits and casting the other children. We were the bossy ones, LOL! Later, you did plays in school and in your community. It is all that you wanted to do, and you were happiest when you were acting. Those who are drawn to it for the right reasons have a passion to do it. They are not thinking about whether or not to do theatre, they are trying to find every opportunity to work and to grow on their craft.

Why do we see so many actors who work in the theatre at Oscar time? Think about the folks you admire, Kevin Spacey, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, etc., the list goes on and on. They do theatre because they are compelled to challenge themselves and they know that only real actors have the chops to handle a play. Producers know that only these actors can handle the great roles. Athletes want to play their sports and work long hours to improve. Imagine a tennis player only thinking about what tournaments to play in and what parties to attend but not really wanting to play the game or to practice. If you were choosing to became a professional tennis player because you want the product endorsements that come with fame but you don’t really love the game itself, I will tell you are you are not in for a happy life.

So to get back to your original question, if you want to act, it is all that you will want to do. You will look for ever opportunity to do it. You will work on your craft and set high standards for yourself. You won’t try to market a product that isn’t good. You won’t worry about career strategies until you have the skills to attain the highest level, and you will never stop growing.

So many are chasing the lower part of the middle. I have a student who is about to take a break from a lucrative TV and film career to do two important plays on Broadway. She is going against the advice of her agents and her business manager. They are concerned with money. She, the artist, wants to play these great roles because they are more challenging than what she gets to do on camera. I believe this will lead to an even more successful career for her on film, because producers will see what she is really capable of and offer her better parts. She, however, is not thinking about strategy.

So prospective actors, ask yourselves, are you passionate about acting? Are you compelled to do it? Will nothing else fulfill you and make you happy?

If so? Go for it.