Careers Clinic: Why am I not improving more quickly?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I went to stage school as a child, but never really pursued acting until my own kids were grown up.

I then joined a very good evening drama course, which I have been attending for the past year and a half.

Even though I was starting pretty much from scratch, I really enjoyed the first year and could feel myself making a lot of progress. I got much positive feedback from the tutors and fellow students, some of whom were already trained actors.

The second year has been harder. I moved to the advanced class and even though the teachers are equally encouraging, it now feels a bit like ‘two steps forward, 10 steps back’.

It used to be that I would come home every week feeling as if I had taken huge leaps. Now I often feel frustrated, comparing myself to other students.

I’d really miss the course if I wasn’t on it, but just before I sign up for another term, I thought I’d ask if this feeling is normal?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE Most of us will probably have one or two skills that, when we started, came easier to us than expected. (In my own case it is golf, but unfortunately only mini-golf, which is why winning the Irish Open remains a distant dream.) Those ‘surprise’ skills aside, the rest of what we have to learn in life, from walking and talking to driving or cooking, more usually comes to us step by step and through trial and error.

Performing is no different. If we are starting from scratch, or after a very long hiatus, it is logical that even if we learn just one technique, it automatically increases our skillset by 100% and we will feel the difference. There is a lot of power needed to get a car from a standing start to 60mph. Further progress from 60 to 70, 70 to 80 and so on is still progress, but is not going to feel as dramatic or noticeable. This doesn’t stop the car engine running, but our own ‘engine’ – our motivation – can be a little more sensitive and prone to doubt.

You mention ‘two steps forward, 10 steps back’, but each of those forward steps you take raises the bar that marks your personal best. That’s why, if you don’t hit that bar on your next few attempts, the fall feels further. It’s no accident that we often use sporting analogies when it comes to measuring performance of any kind. If you imagine yourself working out in a gym, the key to progress is to keep moving beyond your comfort zone. Once you can do all the machines with ease, it is time to raise the weights and make things a little harder, otherwise the gym stops being of any use.

How can actors put that concept to practical use? Musicians have always kept recordings of their practice to compare with later work and note the improvements. It is well worth actors doing the same thing, even if it is just through keeping a journal. Reflecting on and celebrating the progress you have made from where you once were helps with motivation to work towards the next level.

Aim to turn your frustration into focus. Ask yourself what one technique, accent or other area of growth would make the most noticeable change in another six months, and really work on that. Get your teacher’s feedback and support, too – after all, that’s what you pay your fees for. When you can tick off that new skill, start on the next one.

Obviously, this is a never-ending process. Equally obviously, when you find yourself feeling totally comfortable in any area, that’s your signal that it’s time to hit your ‘theatrical gym’ again.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne