Stephanie Street: We actors are adrenaline junkies who want to take risks
I’m pleased to report that my month of rest in January paid dividends. I reached the beginning of February feeling an enormous amount more human than I did at the start of the year. So much so that I found myself standing on top of a ski slope this afternoon for the first time in my life.
As I stared down the kilometre of snowy descent there was one thought, and one thought alone, in my head: ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.’
It was an intense experience. I lost every shred of dignity over the course of my six falls on the way down and I felt the sharp edge of fear almost the entire 10 or so minutes of my stop-start journey down, but I did it. And I am alive to tell the tale, with no small amount of pride, of how I learned a new skill at the age of 41. And, my word, it was one hell of a thrill.
It made me realise that in our business, we are all adrenaline junkies of a sort. One of the professional requirements of working in theatre is a love of learning new tricks. For an actor it can be a new accent, a new style of dance or – more for the screen than the stage – horse riding. For each job, there is a whole new character to empathise with and inhabit.
I remember my time at drama school with immense fondness for all that was thrown at us, one new skill after another: flamenco, stage combat, radio drama. We lapped it up, mostly (though there was some resistance to the flamenco). Actors are, professionally speaking, always on the lookout for the next new thing.
Of course, this mindset has its downfalls, but it strikes me as an overwhelmingly positive thing, this willingness to grapple with the unknown.
It’s a shame actors are not often asked to do the sort of roles they haven’t been seen in before
That is why it’s a great shame to me that actors are not often asked to do the sort of roles they haven’t been seen in before.
Casting almost always errs on the side of caution: “She hasn’t done Shakespeare before so let’s not take the risk”, “He’s not got any significant experience on TV so isn’t worth considering” or “She only does musicals”.
If any of those conversations were had in the presence of the actors in question they’d be screaming: “Give me a bloody chance. I’ll show you.”
I think the ‘business’ side of our industry is very quick and happy to categorise actors. While appreciating that is convenient for some, the rest of us want to take risks – or at least most of us do.
We want that awful, but vital, moment of “this is impossible” – because it’s only by pushing limits, and occasionally falling on our arse in the process, that we move on from what is just expected to what could be absolutely exceptional.