Thursday, December 22, 2016

What is a Professional Actor?

Recently, several audition notices have turned up in my inbox, seeking actors with disabilities. This has caused me to think about what it means to be an actor, with or without a disability, and what it means to be a professional actor versus someone who just enjoys playing a part. And how do you get to become one or the other?

I have worked in and around the professional theater for the greater portion of my life and I have seen many people work very hard and never make it big, and some people who just seem to be in the right place at the right time. Some of these folks are on Broadway, some are big stars in Hollywood, and some are right here in Austin. All of them have worked hard developing their craft, through hundreds of classes, rehearsals, performances, auditions… the work of the actor. And all of them study the human condition to delve into themselves and find the honesty and vulnerability necessary to embody their role, their character. But the question remains, what defines a professional? Is it the money? Nah, then many of my friends who go to rehearsal prepared to work hard and discover new aspects of themselves, and who then bring this discovery to the audience night after night, would be left out.
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones
Respecting the rehearsal process, learning your lines in a timely manner, listening to the director, honoring your fellow actors, showing up 100%, these are all part of being a professional. But they are also elements of just enjoying the dressing up and playing a part bit. However, if you are serious about being an actor, you have to audition, and if you want to do well with an audition, you have to prepare. And that doesn’t mean just for the day, it means prepare to not only try out for the part, but to win the part and then do the work that comes next.

The first step to prepare for a successful audition is to attend some classes, so you can learn what goes in to becoming an actor. Doing a little research reveals not many opportunities in the Austin area for someone to attend such a class. But wait, you say. There are a lot of acting classes for children and adults offered at the various theater companies and community colleges in town, as well as private classes offered by local directors, actors, vocal coaches, etc. Anyone can sign up, can’t they? Yes, and no.
Actor RJ Mitte dons crutches for his role as Walter Jr. on Breaking Bad. Both the actor and the character have a mild form of cerebral palsy.
A person with a disability may be challenged by an inaccessible class location – and many stages in Austin are also not accessible – or a bias on the part of the instructor against teaching someone whom they don’t feel may be up to the task. Most people can get some basic theater experience in their middle or high school years by participating in the drama club or taking a theater class – if offered. But as a person with a disability, are they offered a meaningful role that will provide the experience and inspiration to want more?

Being a professional anything requires hard work, and it is no different for actors. However, having a disability can add extra challenges to realizing your dream. The passion, the drive, the talent may be present, but if the opportunity is not, then the road ahead will be bumpy. I applaud the directors who sent me their audition notices and I trust that they will not only provide the opportunity, but the barrier-free access required for all of their actors to succeed.
Promotional image for the short film Guest Room shows Glee star Lauren Potter holding a blanket over part of her face.

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