I know when I was a young student and later when I was a young professor how I would do my best to uphold the high ideals of theatre and acting. I unashamedly have published on my web site my most well-known lecture, "Theatre, Religion, and Football," in which I emphasize the long standing cultural need for and the historical honored position of theatre in our society. I am pleased that theatre is still an important part of the cultural scene of our cities. But along the way, the high idealism that believes someone is going to make a difference by their acting has been replaced by a cynical reality check about acting as a profession.
It is not just that it is nearly impossible to become a professional actor in the first place, it is also the crass commercialism that has turned what used to be a great art form into a huge business venture. The mythology of acting being some high status artistic endeavor long has been replaced by the lust for fame and fortune. The successful actor still acts because he is compelled to act, and money is not the object so much as is the acting itself. Indeed, the high minded actor will act for nothing if that is the only way he can act. And there remains still among New York stage actors the feeling that they are artists and that Hollywood film actors are prostitutes selling themselves for money. When I first got involved in professional film acting years ago, I can remember one of my former students being aghast at the fact that I had deserted the idealism of the theatre for motion pictures. Of course, I had not deserted the theatre and strove to maintain its idealism. It was, however, a lost cause amongst the financial realities of the bureaucratic structure of academia. The mythology of the Ivory Tower of knowledge, learning and culture in our universities has been replaced by the grim realities of FTE and state funding formulae, not to mention political indoctrination.
It must be a blow to the idealistic, liberal minded young person to discover that being an actor is as much of a business as being a banker. Indeed, it takes a bit of scratch to get your itch to become an actor satisfied. It takes money to get started and it takes money to keep going. I guess I should have listed under preparations that the aspiring actor needs to know is how to earn a living before trying to become an actor as that is the very first thing one must do—support himself and his acting habit. There are books to be ordered to give the candidate for acting success the informational preparation he needs. There are head shots, business cards, the printing of resumes, personal post cards, and even creating a personal actor’s letterhead stationary for correspondence is something the actor needs to pay for. Management software such as Performer Track and web sites for audition information and casting opportunities to subscribe to add to the financial investment of one’s acting business. Then there are acting classes and union initiation fees and monthly dues to pay when that level of success is reached. It totals up to a pretty substantial amount. Whatever happened to the actor as an artist?
The professional world of acting is far removed from the ideals of they young artist. Those ideals are only part of the mythology of acting, like Thespis and Demeter.
They are mostly lost among professional acting, but they are not entirely gone from society. While the commercialism of professional acting forces the artist to be a businessman, the freedom of amateur and semi-professional acting still allows acting to be pursued as an art. Thus, we have an active indie film industry and many film festivals for the work of artists to be displayed. We even have a few, small stage theatres whose work is geared toward art rather than money. They are to be applauded.
They cannot possibly survive without income, of course, but the fact that there are people who will choose art over money will continue the mythology for the world of acting.
In the final analysis, what acting most needs are successful actors who will then serve the art by nurturing budding attempts at creating, preserving and expanding theatre, cinema and acting beyond the commercial toward the pinnacle of art.