Acting – they say it’s like driving a car. First, you learn how to pass your driving test. Then you become a good driver on the road. Well, I still haven’t passed my driving test, so I’m just going to take people’s words for it. But as far as acting goes: I’ve done my training, I’ve got my degree, I’ve ‘passed the test’. Now, my training continues on the road… literally.
Here I am, on tour in Germany doing my first professional acting job. Over the course of this ten-month tour, I’m going to document the lessons you don’t learn in drama school. The lessons you only really learn on the job.
Lesson One: Professionalism
My training did a pretty great job on teaching me how to act. But how to be a professional actor? Well, I suppose there’s only so much they can do – essentially, give you advice. Don’t be late, learn your lines for the deadline, don’t turn up to rehearsals drunk etc. But in drama school this kind of stuff would happen all the time, and, aside from a few dirty looks from disgruntled classmates, there were no real repercussions. A lot of drama schools will try to emphasize that their training is ‘not a typical university experience’ by making threats like ‘three absences and you’re out’ and ‘if you’re late you won’t be allowed in the session’ but I’ve attended two different institutions that make this kind of claim, and I have yet to see them executed.
Truthfully, I felt like one could get away with lots at drama school that wouldn’t fly in the real world. For example, expelling someone from a university is a bit of a logistical nightmare and often more difficult to achieve than firing someone. At the most, I’ve seen people held back a year, which is a pain in the arse but ultimately you’re still coming back to the same school, the same safety net. That really doesn’t compare to getting fired (where you are likely not to be considered again by said company you’ve been fired from). At drama school there is always a role to look forward to – even if it is ‘boy no. 2’. So whilst many valiant teachers can bash their heads against brick walls trying to instill the importance of professionalism into us – the lesson can never really be learned until you’re out in the real world and there are actual consequences to not behaving professionally.
Now perhaps this blog post would be a lot more interesting if I had in fact been one of those lazy idiots in my training, and was now learning the professionalism lesson the hard way. But alas, I was one of the students who liked to turn up on time and stick to deadlines – sorry. So personally, there hasn’t been a big shift for me here. I am conducting myself pretty much the same way I did during my training. But still, I have felt a shift in my surroundings.
The rehearsal period for this job was four weeks, and in those four weeks I lived with my tour group and two other tour groups – twelve of us in total. All of us had varying backgrounds in terms of training, and ranged in age from twenty-one to thirty-five. Every single one of those twelve people behaved with utmost professionalism. Everyone was on time for every warm up and rehearsal. Everyone knew their lines for their deadline. Those August weekends were utterly glorious in terms of sunshine, and yet everyone set time aside on those days to bury their noses in their scripts. Every evening I would walk through the house and hear line runs going on. When the time was right, we partied, but everyone had their priorities straight: work first, play later. This was refreshing, because this was not always the case during my training. This attitude was not unanimous. So to now find myself in this environment, where everyone without exception took their work seriously and put their all into it, was really exciting – it felt a little bit like the light at the end of the tunnel.
So I had to wonder – do I happen to have found myself in a group composed only of ‘good students’. Were we all the well-behaved kids at school who have finally found each other to create a mighty team of people who were perpetually on time? I doubt it. But perhaps there is a small ‘weeding out’ process when it comes to auditions. I am sure most directors have learned how to spot a bad cast member, and do their best to ensure they hire people who are going to deliver. So that’s probably step one.
Step two comes from the actor’s end, I think. Like I say, I behaved pretty well at drama school, but even I felt a change when starting this job. When you’re in training, you are paying for an education. You are paying your director to direct you. Every show you do is a part of your learning, and there is an expectation that your directors will educate and prepare you for when you leave. When you are working as a professional – you are getting paid to do a job. Your director is there to guide you in this job and help you do it well, but they have no obligation to you outside of that. If you don’t act like a professional they can easily let you go, and word of your conduct could spread very quickly through the theatrical grapevine. They are expecting you to do a good job – and you are depending on them to keep you employed! The stakes are certainly higher. So naturally, this will give people a bit of a kick up the bum.
And the third step? Being in a professional environment really encourages you to behave like a professional. Quite a few of my line learning sessions were inspired by the fact that that’s what everyone else was doing – and seeing people warming themselves up without being asked spurred me on to do the same. Ultimately, as much as drama school training tries to emulate the real world, it never truly does, and you never escape the feeling of being a student until you leave. And when you’re finally out of education – when your actions affect your long-term future rather than one certificate obtained over three years – you have this feeling of ‘This is who I am now.’ This is what I do.’ You go from ‘I’m a student’ to ‘I’m an actor’ – and you have to decide what kind of actor you want to be – and be it. The simple act of making that step, and being surrounded by people who have done exactly the same thing, only encourages you further.
All these very small but important changes you feel when you’ve finished training and started your first job contribute to the feeling of being (and here’s a scary word) a grown-up. Eeek! But actually, although the thought of losing that safety net is scary, it turns out to be pretty exhilarating. I suppose it’s somewhat like when you take the stabilizers off your bike. Yes, there is a risk of falling – but you are actually in more control than you were before. When you leave drama school there is a risk that you might not get hired – but if you do it’s because you actually earned it. And that feels a lot more satisfying.
So, if you’re one of the ‘good students’ – tirelessly turning up half an hour early only to watch your classmates swagger in ten minutes late with no repercussions – hold on. It will get better, and the hard work you’re putting in now will make the transition into the professional world so much easier. If you’re one of the ‘swaggerers’ – I guess just enjoy it while it lasts. Perhaps you want to take full advantage of your safe student status, fair enough. Just make sure you’re ready when the stabilizers come off – otherwise you may be in for a fall.