At the end of the month I'll be done with 12th Night, and done with acting, unless I can find a paying gig. I do look forward to writing every day without the enormous time commitment of rehearsal and performance. The time commitment is greater than just the hours spent with the other actors; acting takes over my life at home. I find it hard to write when I have an acting obligation I should be working on to perfect my part.
When I was in college my professors had nothing but contempt for community theatre. When I told one I was working for a local theatre festival in the summer, he said he hoped I didn't come back in the fall a worse actor for working with all those community types. At the time I was leery; his condescension struck me as a bit elitist.
Now I think my professors were right. I've tried to stay away from community theatre and work with companies that at least have the ambition to be professional regional theatres someday. That ambition does make a difference, but even so, those companies have no money and are forced to use actors with a community theatre mentality.
What do I mean by "community theatre mentality"?
It comes down to purpose. Of the three cardinal values defined by Ayn Rand -- reason, self-esteem and purpose -- purpose is the one that has been least explored by Objectivist philosophers (although I think I read that Dr. Tara Smith is writing a book on purpose). Perhaps it has been neglected because Aristotle made such a brilliant start with it.
Purpose is Aristotle's "final causation." It defines what one will do in an action.
In writing, I have come to learn that purpose determines whether or not a writer has a chance of writing something halfway decent. If you set your purpose as writing a comic book or a soap opera, that's what you'll get. If you set out to be a hack, you'll be a hack.
A writer cannot create great art unless he sets that as his purpose. Setting out to write great art does not guarantee one will succeed in meeting that purpose, but setting a lower purpose does guarantee that one will not write great art.
Of course, in our present culture, many writers never consciously define their purpose. They think something like, "I want a career as a screenwriter. I need to write what Hollywood will buy." This purpose pretty much guarantees that one is on the road to hackdom. To see the result, go check out the load of dreck at your neighborhood multiplex.
If a writer does not consciously strive to put art above money, he is doomed to a life as a whore. For many that is fine because they have no conception of any art greater than the whoredom they see in popular culture. To ask them to write something on the level of Friedrich Schiller would be like asking a punk rocker to play a diminished ninth chord.
The tragic cases are the ones who have some conception of what is better, but destroy the best within them in order to put food on the table in a mindless culture that only wants garbage. See Ayn Rand's short story, "The Simplest Thing In the World."
I write this as a defender of capitalism and money. Money is not the root of all evil. Money does not corrupt all it touches, as some Platonist might think. However, there are other values than money. It is the artist's responsibility to be clear in his mind that he does not compromise his art for money. Once you have that understanding, then I say go for the big bucks all you can. There is nothing in the least wrong with getting rich. The best deal is to make money while making great art, as Ayn Rand did. In the 19th century, before naturalism separated thought and plot, it was common for great novels and plays to succeed in the market place.
I should clarify here that there is nothing wrong with writing good popular art without deep ideas. Agatha Christie, P.G Wodehouse, Noël Coward, Harold Lamb and so many others wrote good, entertaining stories that do not rise to the standard of great art. I suspect that they all wrote what pleased them, what they wanted to read. To write a page-turner with suspense and twists is no mean achievement; try it sometime. But even on this level, a writer must be clear about his purpose and avoid any second-hand imitation.
In acting purpose makes all the difference. If an actor sets his purpose as making a career of it, then he strives for professional quality. He must meet the highest standards. Furthermore, he will put in the time needed to act well because acting will be a priority. Among professional actors there are differences. Some are content just mugging in sitcoms, so long the paychecks keep coming in. Others want to be classical actors and undergo more training.
Since I began acting locally four years ago, in every show there have been anywhere from a couple to a handful of actors who don't get their lines memorized until dress rehearsal -- and some never entirely get their lines cold. This is unheard of in professional theatre. Jon Jory in his book says actors should have their lines memorized after they block a scene: never do a scene twice holding a book. Noël Coward thought actors should have their lines memorized before rehearsals begin: don't waste precious rehearsal time fumbling around with lines.
Non-professional actors have day jobs, families and lives outside of theatre; acting is a hobby or a social activity. When you approach it that way, your thinking is different -- it's unprofessional by definition.
Non-professional actors have lower standards. (Many have no conception of standards or how to go about acting. They just get on stage and play make believe like children. Some actors with a little natural talent can get away with this their entire lives.) Non-professional actors are not going to work hard on their lines because they know they don't have to. The director can bitch all he wants, but he won't replace the actors for being late on their lines with someone new -- someone who would have only a week to memorize a part from scratch.
I'm just talking about memorizing lines here. All the other acting work you might read about in Stanislavsky is not a factor here or even for many actors in Hollywood.
I've worked with some fine actors. In every show there are a few who do quality work that could compete professionally if they wanted to. Those people keep the smaller Shakespeare festivals chugging along. My hat is off to those talented people who manage to do it year in and year out without pay. Long may they run.
I can feel myself getting lazy. I know I don't have to work hard. When other matters press, I know acting can be put aside. I feel the rust corroding me at the edges. Rust never sleeps. If I keep acting with non-professionals, then my standards will lower to theirs. It takes a titan of discipline to maintain standards when good enough is good enough. I don't know if I have that discipline.
So it's time for me to move on. From now on I either get paid or I do something else with my time than acting.