I am still quite puzzled by this so-called “artists” existence I have thrown myself into the day I defied my parents’ wishes to become a doctor or a lawyer or a “computer person” and strutted my bohemian behind up the stairs of the Drama department for the first time. Suddenly introduced to dramatic eyeliner, I was filled to the brim with all the beautiful words of Auden, Plath and Chekov.
My High School English teacher nicknamed me Miss Shakespeare. It was a prideful title to me at the age of fourteen, however in retrospect, I am not sure if I were perhaps the butt of a joke. Then again…most of the other students in the class were content with shooting condoms into each other’s hair, while I was trying to memorize dialogue I didn’t have the maturity to understand. I played Nina, from The Seagull in my final year of High School and was well aware of the fact that Ibsen or Chekov is a must for any “serious” actress.
So my seriousness dragged me on with snobbish pride through my three years at acting school. It was very serious business then. I was in the company of high opinions and cigarette smoke. Even comedy was very serious indeed. After returning from Korea in 2005, I enrolled for a degree in directing and design. In the mean time, my old teacher and friend was doing a production of Anne Frank for the local amateur dramatics society. I was cast as Mrs Van Daan. We had a leisurely 9 month pre-production phase, and a two-week run, of which most nights the house had been sold out.
In December of that year I was nominated for an award with the Cape Amateur Theatre Awards. With my degree in acting, I felt a bit of a fraud, but dolled-up for the event and eagerly awaited my prize. Naturally, as fate would have it, I lost. What made it worse was that I lost to competitors who were amateurs. Wham! The sun melted off all my feathers and I plummeted into the sea, overdressed and sun-burnt.
The result was another three years in the industry working as whatever was available, with whatever, or whoever was available. It is in this phase that I matured into a full-blown skeptic. It wasn’t so much the lack of the amazing facilities we had available to us as students. It was an adventure to learn how to manage with what you have. If anything, my year with my directing and design lecturer prepared me for this. What I wasn’t prepared for, was the backstabbing nature of low-level self-proclaimed celebrities. The kind of people who built their marketing strategy on the 2 seconds they spent in the upper left-hand corner of an establishing shot of Oppiekoffie on Sewende Laan (a South African daytime Drama) on Thursday the 9th of October of 2002, while my grandmother was busy rinsing out her tea-cup in the kitchen. By all means possible, these people were selling out every day.
Nevermind the horrendous safety conditions, bad quality work and dodgy, cheap (in all estimable ways) set pieces. They were on TV, after all…or they knew somebody who was. In either case, you worked for them three shows a day, with no pay… barely thanked. All this I could stomach. I was new in the industry, and expected to spend the first couple of years building bridges. What I didn’t expect, was that bridges could be blown up at leisure. The next time, I saw this director, I was handing her tickets for a show while she sternly avoided eye contact with me.
During the same time, I was working on a show that had been well-rehearsed, had a beautiful little folding set and talented performers. Our director really had a heart for children’s theatre and education. We were struggling to get people in for free. At times I thought it was just the result of an over-full market, then I started to believe that we were just bad… After having seen a couple of other thrown together money haulers, I realised we’d been dealt a raw deal.
So I ask this question again…Is all this really worth it? How are we contributing to society constructively? Why does our industry exist? Who would win this boxing match for us… Bertolt Brecht or Oscar Wilde? Are we just suckers for punishment? Actors have had a pretty bad rap for a rather large part of history. Methinks fortune and fame have not really done much to remedy this problem. Ask the tabloids. Are we just a bunch of self-involved, emotionally-addicted dusty old moths? I remember the day my directing lecturer exclaimed, “what a fickle, useless little industry we find ourselves in.”
The idea that really bites me on that part of my back that I can’t scratch, is our inability to fully escape that life. Even now that I have a job in paradise, where I can afford to go on over-seas weekends, do I listen greenly at the struggles of friends who are still sticking it out in the industry. A part of me thinks that even if I conclude to never return to that life again, my heart will be inhabited by a tree with bitter black berries, that will shoot out fertile seeds once a year, making my heart bitter and black and small.
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