Thom Petty took up acting after working in medicine for eight years, with credits under his belt including 1984 in the West End. As part of a series of Q&A’s celebrating the contributions of theatremakers during the coronavirus crisis, Petty tells Giverny Masso how working in theatre made him consider the “stage management” of an anaesthetic room...
How did you get into theatre?
It was a late start. I’d been in medicine eight or nine years before I even started thinking about acting, and I hadn’t really done any before I was about 30. I took some classes, had a few lucky breaks and started working professionally. Medicine is great, but it’s a very uncreative world in a lot of ways, especially as an anaesthetist. It’s quite a technical job and wasn’t quite ticking all the boxes. When I realised I could do both, especially in the quiet times in acting, I got into a groove of doing it part time.
How have you found balancing the two careers?
I’ve found they went alongside each other quite well. There was a job in 1984 a few years ago and I could still do a day in the hospital and head down for the show and be there for the half. I think we get very set on the fact that acting has to be everything; if we’re not doing it all the time then in some way we’re not good enough, or a proper actor. For me, the perspective is very different. I’m quite happy saying that I’m an actor and that I do something else. Lots of people I work with in hospitals can’t understand that – they think I’m either a failed actor or a failed doctor. But shifting those perceptions is really important. We get a lot of our self-esteem from our jobs and we probably shouldn’t.
What is it like working during the Covid-19 pandemic?
A lot of the time is spent expanding the number of intensive care beds and ventilators. The whole way we’re working has changed, we’re in emergency teams ready to receive these waves of unwell patients. I’ve never experienced anything on this scale, it’s really quite daunting for us.
Has acting changed the way you approach your role in medicine?
Acting has helped me understand how people perceive you, and I think I’ve changed as an anaesthetist as a result. I’m really keen on the stage management of an anaesthetic room. I think it can be done very badly. I’m keen that the way we move, work and speak is careful and considered, because we get so many cues from the other side as a patient from the way somebody says something or the way somebody touches your arm. I’ve learned that from the work I’ve done in theatre.
How has medicine impacted your work in theatre?
From the other side, when you’re doing a play and you forget a line, it’s not the end of the world. Having that context of thinking: ‘I really want to do a good job but it just doesn’t matter if something goes wrong’ helps you as an actor. It’s not that it’s any less important, but it’s different to medicine. We make mistakes in medicine as well, and that’s a very difficult thing when you start; it’s very sobering when you make errors of judgement. Learning to live with yourself as a doctor making mistakes, that’s probably why we can live with making mistakes as an actor, because we’re used to that reflection and going: “Yeah, we’re human."
Training: MFA in acting at LAMDA (2019-21)
First professional role: Les Liaisons Dangereuses at Donmar Warehouse, London (2015)
Agent: Rebecca Singer Management
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