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Let’s Get “Real”

February 21, 2013

Back when I was trying to write fiction, I was often reminded of a quote attributed to several authors: “A writer is someone who writes.” That is, being a “real” writer does not depend on publication or payment or being able to survive on the fruits of one’s creativity, but on producing. The flip side of that: Adopting the character and affectations of a writer — hanging around coffeehouses, reading dense tomes, smoking Pall Malls — doesn’t make one a writer. Actual writing is required.

So is an actor someone who acts? What’s the difference between a “real” actor and a dabbler — or is there one?

I recently set a goal of becoming a semi-professional actor by my 40th birthday, about 21 months hence. I set this goal not because I care much about making money as an actor (though it would be nice), or because I plan to be able to be a full-time actor any time soon. Rather, I set this vaguely defined goal (which, I suppose, means being able to credibly audition for and occasionally get cast in professional productions as well as non-paying roles) because it seems like a benchmark of being a “real” actor. But is it?

A writer can produce works of brilliance and never see a cent for them in her or his lifetime. John Kennedy Toole had killed himself several years before his mother convinced a skeptical Walker Percy to examine the manuscript of “A Confederacy of Dunces”, now widely considered a seminal American novel. A painter can turn out exceptional works that win no appreciation until he or she has died. This lack of remuneration does not mean these artists were not “real” artists.

Acting is somewhat different in that some sort of audience is required in the practicing artist’s lifetime. Vincent Van Gogh may have had a hard time selling his paintings, but he could keep producing them. An actor who cannot attract any audience, or who cannot impress an audition panel, will not have much of a career, paid or unpaid.

But good work is done by unpaid actors, and shoddy work by the most financially successful. Actors also turn in strong performances in weak productions or films. And community theaters and experimental companies can produce work of a higher quality than that put up by established professional outfits.

With all that said, how can one define a “real” actor? I’m not sure. Perhaps it comes down to the seriousness of the performer’s intention. There is nothing wrong with being a dabbler or hobbyist, and such folks can do good work. But if their intention is to meet interesting people, have a good time on stage, and go to parties after, that individual may be less of a “real” actor than someone — maybe even in the same production — who sees the work as work, who acts like a professional even though unpaid.

I like to think I have already met that standard.

Peter Sig

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. The Reflective Artist permalink
    February 21, 2013 9:08 am

    Your post brings to mind a question I’ve been asking myself lately: are you a failure if you aren’t a celebrity? Or does that simply mean you’re less of an opportunist?

    The more I learn about acting, the skeptical I am about status and awards ceremonies, picking out the “best” of a certain group of actors who share a specific level of visibility. And it does present this strange paradox of bad actors making LOTS of money and good actors waiting tables. But sometimes it works out the opposite way, and there is again justice in the world. But only sometimes.

    I guess the only thing anyone can do to find any peace with themselves is consider what, to them, makes a real actor, and then strive for that whole-heartily. It’s probably the only thing you can do in any situation.

  2. February 22, 2013 8:05 am

    yes, I agree, you have to define it for yourself then strive for it. That’s the only way to stay sane and not bitter. But remember that once you define “real” for yourself, apply it only to yourself!

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