The Roller Coaster Marathon
Adapt to Change or Get Out of the Game
"The only constant in life is change." – Heraclitus, Greek philosopher
The ancient Greeks knew it. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin knew it, too, though he put it this way:
“When you are finished changing, you are finished.” - Benjamin Franklin
You gotta love old Ben’s sense of humor. But it’s true! Universally, nothing stays the same and those who fail to adapt will, at best, be left behind.
“All failure is failure to adapt, all success is successful adaptation.” - writer and business consultant Max McKeown
The American entertainment industry changes at a rapid pace; nothing is static. It’s governed by the tastes of the public and seeks to reflect everyday American life. Or at least our values, which show up in genres like science fiction and fantasy. We even see modern day sensibilities echoed in period pieces, either with diversity in casting or a character’s perspective that seems ahead of its time.
The changes can become vastly accelerated with abrupt changes in our society. Take the last year for example. With a nod to Henny Youngman, “Take the last year … please!” Just think of the changes our society has experienced in the past year! A global pandemic that has affected every individual, every segment of society. Protests and social unrest that all too often have escalated into violent confrontations. Political power shifting at the highest level of our government with a vastly different set of policies and priorities than its predecessor.
These are all stories waiting to be told – and would have been already told, if productions hadn’t been shut down by the pandemic. When the floodgates reopen to new content, expect countless themes on our lockdown experiences. We may all be sick to death (no pun intended) of the events of this past year, but our society has been profoundly affected, and these changes will be explored on all levels, from the global on down to the personal experience for the rest of this decade. At least.
Those of us who work in the entertainment industry know that the world doesn’t need calamitous events to get the wheels moving. TV, film, theater – these are artistic pursuits, molded by unique temperaments and creative expressions, that march to their own drummers. Even if they seem to march in step as an industry as a whole, especially in response to societal changes.
On a personal level, even in the quietest of times, change is a fact of everyday life for an actor. You never know what auditions will show up on any given day or – oh, joy! – what bookings you’ll land. Conversely, you also can’t predict what dry spells you’ll experience or even why. You learn to go with the flow, not putting weight on any one opportunity until it truly manifests. Every audition is a type of “catch and release” – you learn to quickly understand and master a scene, creating a small work of art by auditioning to the best of your ability … and then letting it go. There’s no point in dwelling on what may happen with the audition, because most times you’ll hear nothing back unless you’re invited for a callback or you book the job.
Much is out of your control. Newbies to the business are taught early to regard their acting career as a “marathon, not a sprint.” It takes many years to train and become established in the business, with a multitude of disappointments and setbacks before becoming a working actor – one who can support himself through acting jobs alone – with no guarantee of success.
While there are exceptions, most “discovered” actors have actually been slaving away at lower levels of the industry for many years, learning their craft, building connections, and creating a growing body of work. The entertainment industry, and the life of an actor in particular, is a study in change and motion. Besides seeming like a marathon, an acting career can be a wild roller coaster ride. Some see it as one long, slow ascent, culminating in a euphoric rush when an exceptional role is won. Others see it as a long cycle of ups and downs. Still others envision it as a mad rush to places unknown, with twists and turns, and unpredictable speeds and slowdowns. Whatever your metaphor, know what you’re getting into and be sure to buckle up, because one thing it’s not is your grandma’s slow, predictable boat ride.
As a performer, opportunities do run hot and cold. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a new series of plumbing metaphors!) Sometimes auditions, callbacks, and bookings are coming fast and furious. Your type is in demand and there are plenty of roles for which you may be a perfect fit. And then there are other times when it’s “crickets” – nothing is happening and you may feel like you’ll never have a chance to work again.
It could be due to societal or industry changes, as presently with the clarion call to increase diversity in casting. Greater opportunities for those who were marginalized before, not so much for others who were considered mainstream and more often cast. It could be that you fit one type of character, let’s say a gritty independent outdoorsy sort, and the industry has moved on to embrace light-hearted comedies. Or you may have moved on to another stage of your life and are between types, such as being older than what’s considered “a mom type” but younger than what is expected in “a grandma type.”
I’ve heard working actors say that, throughout their careers, there have been many different periods when they seemed much more in demand. They fit the look or type that resonated with the trend of the day. They looked the part of the young champion, the popular idea of a good dad, the ideal of a competent business executive. And then after years of relative inactivity, they aged into certain roles that they hadn’t quite meshed with so well before and began working more than ever.
So what can you do as an actor about it? Unless you create your own content, there is little to control beyond preparing yourself by constantly training your acting chops, extending your capabilities, or trying new mediums (like voice over!). Live life as an active human being, interested in the people and events around you. Life experiences complete you as a person and make you more interesting in turn. You pick up new skills, perspectives, and understanding. And all these things can make you far more castable than someone who simply pines for busier days and does nothing in the interim.
So – and this goes for everyone - change along with everything else! Evolve and grow. Stagnation is death. And last I checked, there’s not much of a call for a lifeless body. That’s what the props department is for.