On My Own Terms
I once got so bummed out by theatre that I quit everything. I’d been out of drama school for a few years, and acting wasn’t doing it for me like I thought it would. I went from audition to audition, waiting for the opportunity that would make everything click into place, and it never did. I worked a fair bit, but I got so down between jobs that it got harder and harder to pick myself up again. I began to wonder what I was doing it all for when I could have a normal job with decent money and savings and holidays like normal people have. Not long after that, I decided I was done with it all. So I got a normal job. It felt very safe and secure for a while, but after the novelty of having enough money wore off, I was bored senseless with the normality of it all, and I still had that feeling of being not quite where I wanted to be. And I was still depressed - I felt like I’d turned my back on a world I belonged in only to be somewhere I didn’t quite fit.
I think anxiety and depression are increasingly common these days because of a pervasive “I’ll be happy when…” mentality. We’re constantly surrounded by messages telling us we’re not good enough, but we could be if only we had this or that thing. It’s not just in adverts trying to make us buy stuff; it’s in every message we get from mainstream media. We’re conditioned to think that we can’t make it as we are, and we must have something or someone to make us complete. It’s bollocks, and intellectually we know that. But it still affects us whether we like it or not, because it’s so effective and insidious that it’s in the way our society works.
Theatrical types can be especially vulnerable to this because we’re a naturally sensitive bunch and (in my experience) we’re all lovely and we want to please people. And our profession is legendarily tough - it’s the only one I know of where you have to do a crappy job to keep a roof over your head while spending your “spare time” doing your real job. When you spend so much time applying for things and being turned down, even if you know it’s not personal, it can get under your skin and you can start thinking you’re not enough as you are, and that way illness lies. Even if you’d never admit thinking it (I never did), it’s easy to fall into believing it would be fine if only you got that job, if only that casting director saw you, if only you were with that agent. I find it incredibly trite when people talk about a “big break,” because everyone in the industry knows it doesn’t work like that. Still, you can get into a spiral of seeking approval from others, which descends into depression quicker than you can say “we’ll keep your CV on file.”
I learned from leaving it all behind for a while that I wasn’t unhappy because it’s a tough life, but because I felt like I had nothing to contribute to the profession unless someone else validated me. And that can be a really lonely place to be.
When I came back, I decided I would only do things on my own terms. That made a world of difference. I stopped feeling helplessly at the mercy of other people’s decisions and started feeling like an artist. If you’re not happy with the work you’re getting, I suggest cultivating like-minded people and working together on things you do want to make. Don’t fall into believing that you can’t do it because you don’t have the money or the contacts or whatever. You can start where you are and find what you need as you go. I don’t say this so much for advice but because I think the arts would be a lot healthier if more people did that.
One final thought: since I started directing I’ve been surprised by the way some actors, especially new ones, seem anxious to impress me. I think it’s because they believe that in some unspoken way I have the power to define them as actors. This is strange to me because no-one conferred the title of director on me - I just decided to try it one day. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.