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Prompt 113: A Decade Plus As Ross
113. The television show "Friends" debuted in 1994 and become a cultural phenomenon for over a decade. What would it be like to play the same character for 10 years? Do you think you'd get bored? Why or why not?
Make no illusions: acting is a job. If you can't handle being on the same job for a decade, finish your contract and then move on. If a series is canceled, you move on. If in a sequel your character is written out somehow, you move on.
The only thing that makes acting any different from a job as a teacher or a plumber or a delivery driver or a meteorologist is audience exposure. However, anyone who has been in a given industry for anywhere beyond 5 years or so will have enough exposure to that industry to know the audience, and know the people who matter. Shifting jobs while staying in the same industry can be a challenge, though admittedly I assume it would be even more so were your career moves reported on in gossip columns.
Had I approached my degree in theatre like pursuing a job as opposed to "being an artist" or some other foolish, childish notion, I'm 90% sure I would be a working actor right now. At the bare minimum, I'd have a standard of living comparable to or better than what I have now. I would have bought into the system, realized that folks like Samuel L. Jackson and Steve Harvey have it right: a job comes along, you take it. You get paid. Sure you have to perfect your craft (build your skills so you're in-demand at your job), and a good actor is one who has spent a lot of time building their skillset and staying in demand. You don't have to be handsomest, be the most muscular, be able to juggle, and so on... But those things can be considered skills you have to offer. ...Well, except for juggling.
But that's how jobs work. You put in the time, you do better, you build your skills, you stay in demand. If you're able to keep the same gig for 10 years, then good on you. A lot of people worked to keep you in that position, and you pulled your weight. I don't see much magical or mysterious about it, honestly.
I remember being in college, pursuing my theatre degree (you can tell I have an actor's training because I spell it "theatre" and not "theater," eh?). There was one class that was massively popular and considered very exclusive. It was a demanding course that met four days a week, I think, and those who were in it were considered promising acting students. The professor was seen as strict and uncompromising, seen as one who demonstrates the sacrifice and discipline required in the pursuit of excellence in the craft. We would do hours-long improvisational performances, developing characters and devising back stories, investing hours of research into these performances. There were mock auditions every week with pieces we'd memorized or physical theatre works we'd have to do on the spot.
Besides the 20-page thesis required during a student's last semester, it was pretty much the linch-pin of the performance track of the school's theatre degree. If you were late for even one session of the class, you were knocked down a letter grade. The only story of someone escaping that fate was a lady who burst into the studio where the class took place, tears streaming down her face, with a university police officer in tow. She had a flat tire on the way to class, and only with the testimonial of the cop was she able to maintain her grade.
The year before I ended up enrolled in it, I saw the end-of-semester projects. These were one-person shows written and performed by the individuals themselves in front of an audience of their peers, about 20 minutes long each. This was always seen as a big deal. There was one guy who didn't show for his solo show. Word went around that he had slept through it or something, after spending all night trying to write and devise something for his show. Meanwhile, another student in the same class did the same thing: he stayed up all night working on a piece and then performed it the next day, likely making up shit as he went along. Since he was a darling of the department at the time, both of many of his fellow students and some of the faculty, of course it was met with enthusiasm and raucous applause.
Despite the apparent intensity of the course, I studied "the art" and was determined to be in that course. I auditioned for every main stage production and rehearsed for hours on performances and monologues in the prerequisite acting courses I would need to earn admission. I was admitted on schedule. The semester I was in that course also happened to be the semester my father died of cancer. Inevitably, the script of my solo show was about me navigating that rudderless period of my life without my father around anymore.
As the date of the performance drew near, I had to leave town to go to my father's funeral. This professor took me into her office one day and mentioned that, if I were to go to my father's funeral and miss class, then she'd "drop a letter grade."
"Fine," I said, and left her office.
My solo show performance was so captivating that - and this is no lie - I had convinced myself at the time that I didn't need to grieve my father's death... That I had worked it all out in that one performance. I'm being honest when I say that I was remembered fondly by both students and faculty of that department for years.
Fast forward to years later, I look at the theatre department guestbook web page, and the guy is on there, complaining that there was a lot of hot air about that course and about the entire theatre program. The professor of that demanding course also happened to be the chair of the department (and then later the entire Department of Fine Arts), and he felt that the course and the program didn't prepare the students for the industry, etc. etc. His reputation already was that he was just bitter and didn't fit in, or whatever, and I assumed he was just lamenting sour grapes and working out a bunch of bile. However, my experience paralleled his, though at the time - or even years later, as I read his guestbook entry - I didn't understand that.
Nowadays, I look back on that professor with perhaps more of a jaundiced eye. I don't necessarily blame her for my becoming jaded about the world of performance and storytelling. There are other professors, for instance whom I still hold in high regard and have contacted recently. However, there's no escaping the only thought I still maintain about that one professor: "Oh yeah, she's the lady who knocked me down a letter grade for going to my Dad's funeral." I remember nothing else about her.