How To Do Life

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Psychological Aspects of Acting

The most fraught career and hobby?

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For many people, acting is a compelling career or hobby and filled with emotion--and not just on stage.

This article describes some of acting’s psychological upsides and downsides in hopes it might help you decide if acting is something you’d like to pursue.

Upsides

The challenge. It’s most difficult to, in just weeks, be ready to perform a play in front of an audience. Yet because of some mystical thing that theatre people call  “theatre magic,” ordinary people almost always end up, on opening night, being better than they thought they could be.

Instant family.  The team of actors, directors, and crew share that intense experience with you. It’s a bond akin more to family than to fellow-actors or even friends. And more than a few romances have been spawned while treading the boards.

The escapism. In your day job, you may be a clerk, fighting for years to become a supervising clerk. But actors can instantly become an Italian femme fatale, French restaurateur, Swedish psychic, upper-crust Brit, Russian spy, Brooklyn Jew, Sicilian mamma, and Queen of England. (My wife has played all those roles.)  And you get to wear costumes and wigs to match. It’s like getting to play pretend without people ridiculing you as childish.

The excitement. It starts the moment you’re cast. Playwright James Kirkwood wrote“Rehearsals were days away. There is something wildly exciting about a company assembling for the first time on stage. There is also something strangely sexy about it. I can't pin it down, there just is.” About the ending of a production, actress S.M. Stevens wrote, “When a show ends, for a few days, my body sizzles with leftover energy, like a tree in the wake of a lightning strike.”

You get to show off without appearing to. Your friends, colleagues, and relatives come to see you doing something difficult, exciting, and entertaining.

You become a local celebrity. For months after the play is over, even if you had a small role, people may stop you on the street, gushing about how much they loved you in the play. They may not always be honest but it feels good anyway. A year after my wife had played the Russian spy, someone stopped her in the supermarket and said, “You were so convincing, I’ve been scared of you ever since!”

Downsides

Even in low-level, all-volunteer theatre productions, actors can be plagued by a number of anxieties:

Should you audition? Being in a play is time-consuming and often stressful. And then there’s the rejection. At least a few people audition for most decent roles, even in community theatre. Thus you may well get rejected a few times for each time you get cast—and no one likes rejection.

The role. Plays, like all literature, address life's most intense moments. For some people, being immersed in that, even though it's a play, can be too draining, perhaps evoking real-life demons. Of course, you can choose what plays and roles you want to audition for.

As with family, there can be problems. You are forced into a close and important relationship with a bunch of strangers. What if you hate the director? Your acting partner? That can make life miserable—the opposite of what you’re doing theater for.

Fear of forgetting. During rehearsal, it’s embarrassing to be one of the last people to get solid on your lines. And of course, many actors fear that during a performance, they’ll forget a line or five, not only embarrassing themselves but throwing-off their fellow actors.

The Behind-the-Scenes Alternative

One way to mitigate the downsides is to be a behind-the-scenes part of a production: Run lights or sound (In many community theatres, they’ll teach you,) be a stage manager, assistant to the director, propmaster (find props) make or assist in making costumes, build and/or paint the sets. You’ll be part of the production’s family but with less of the anxiety. And you’ll be heroic-- In community theatre at least, it's often hard to find reliable people to be on the crew. You’ll likely be much appreciated.

Whatever your role, small or large, on-stage or behind, as Alexander Pope wrote, “Act well your part. Therein lies all the honor.”

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. He’s also been a community theatre actor and director.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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