When I was acting, the amount of time I spent writing letters (yes, letters, I’m old!) to invite CDs to watch me perform was always massively disproportionate to the number of replies I got. I guess that’s just the way the industry works. I wish I could tell you it’s different from this side of the fence, but it isn’t. I can spend hours on one submission and not get one client seen for it. That really breaks my heart – but then, out of the blue, something pays off and it feels like a reward for all the hard work.
Does that sound familiar? We’re all taught that hard work pays off, aren’t we? I certainly believe that. I find it particularly heartening when a job I’ve spent a lot of time on comes off. All through our lives we’ve been taught this pattern. Work hard, get good results in your SATS, then your GCSE’s. Get into the college you want. Work hard, get good A Levels and get into University, or work hard and get accepted at the drama school you’ve got your heart set on. Even while training, you can see the results of your hard work – not just better grades and reports from your tutors, but you can actually see, and hear the improvement in your technique and ability.
But then you graduate and you start to think the equation “Hard work = reward” is flawed. Hard work, particularly in this industry, can often go unnoticed. That particularly tricky song you learned flawlessly gets a “Thanks for coming in” – those hours sweating away at Pineapple still sees you cut from the dance call in the first ten minutes. The industry expects hard work and now you have to see it as being its own reward.
As performers you are hard-wired for instant reward. A great performance gets applause – it’s immediate gratification. I sometimes think that’s why auditioning is such a pain in the arse – no matter how good your performance in the room you will always feel deflated – you haven’t had your reward. That’s tough – particularly when, as a result of all your experience, you have subconsciously made a connection between a great performance and applause.
I sometimes think the worst thing to ever happen to performance was when someone learned how to make money out of it. We not only link ‘reward’ with some kind of congratulatory response, but we also have it tied up with a financial one. Applause is great, but it ain’t gonna pay the rent. Our society often seems to measure our worth by how much we earn and I worry this obsession with wealth only takes us further away from the ability to make good work – to be, sorry for being wanky, an artist. It’s also totally incorrect. Loads of Hollywood movie stars get paid a ridiculous amount of money to make pretty crappy films. There is no correlation between cost and the quality.
The only person you need to be better than is the person you were yesterday. The only measure of how good an artist you are is how good YOU feel about the work that you produce. You do not need anyone else to justify your work. There is no other measure of how good you are. We all know that casting very rarely comes down to the best person for the job, we all know that what one person thinks makes a great performer isn’t what the next person thinks makes a good performer.
We need to stop looking for reward – whether that’s financial, a job offer, or even a pat on the head. This isn’t school anymore, there are no marks out of 10, there are no end of term reports. From now on, the only person who can judge your work is you – are you improving? Are you working hard enough? Are you pushing yourself and stretching yourself? Are you learning #NewSkills or are you sitting back and waiting for a reward that will never come?
I know a lot of pretty well-known actors. The ones I respect most are the ones who couldn’t care less about being well-known, the ones who throughout their career have concentrated on always being better. It’s funny too that the actors who care more about building their profile, or ‘getting famous’ are the ones whose performances are fairly dull. Competent actors. They’re enjoying their moment in the sun, but very few of them are good enough to stay the distance. Their focus is on the wrong thing – getting a name, building a profile. The ones who last are the ones who just want to be better actors. In the long run – that reward we are all searching for comes from being the best at your job. Focus on being better actors, and let the rewards come to you. Chase the reward and you might get it before you’re really ready for it. The race is won by the tortoise, not the hare.