By John Patrick
Does competition exist in the arts?
Well of course, it seems. There are 100 plays vying for the same grant, 100 red-headed actors vying for the same Wendy’s commercial, 100 skilled teachers vying for the same tenure-track position in a great department. But these might be all superficial and practical examples. Perhaps it is misguided to debate whether or not a spirit of competition is good or bad for training actors because I believe the very concept of competition existing in the arts is delusional.
Delusion is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a persistent belief that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.” So can the consistently subjective choices that we make in the arts industry actually create a field of competition? I say no, and the indisputable evidence exists in what a competition actually is.
For the clearest definition of competition, we can look at sports—a footrace in particular. There are runners; they begin from the same starting line, start at the exact same time, and whoever reaches the finish line first, wins. This is beautifully objective, and why some find sports so thrilling. If the race is subjectively fixed or manipulated in any way, it loses its integrity and violates the audience’s faith in the purity of the event in some way. It would become entertainment for entertainment’s sake rather than a true competition.
Viewed through this lens, an actor’s experiences with casting and the industry are clearly not a competition because the decisions casting and other industry people make regarding which actor to hire are completely subjective. The “role” the actor is vying for is anything but an objective finish line. How a production team chooses an actor to play a role, or any position on their creative staff for that matter, is filled with subjective opinions like “I really liked how she walked in the room” or “I can’t cast her … her voice really grates on me.” These bits of opinion help distill what they ultimately decide. They are choosing tribe members to embark on an artistic journey with, not holding stopwatches to verify who is the fastest. So how could an actor possibly “win” a role with that level of subjectivity stacked up against them? And as they compete with the idea of what the industry is looking for, they push their authentic self further away from the present moment.
The real goal then becomes to bring as much of one’s “self” to the event so that some- one might be able to see my unique sensibilities and therefore more fully and accurately assess whether I am a good fit for the tribe. This has nothing to do with beating someone out for a role, but rather about finding partners for inspired, complementary collaboration. This changes the game: it becomes about the abundance of opportunities to find each other as artists, not the scarcity of roles available to fight for.
The question for us as educators, then, is what atmosphere is most effective to coax a more transparent expression out of the student artist? What will replace competition as a tool for motivation once the student leaves the atmosphere of the training studio?
I offer these ideas as a starting point:
- Discovery fueled by curiosity. Not only can a student of any experience level inform and evolve an approach, but they may also blaze a new path that redefines a form within the industry. This means that as educators we must admit that we don’t know any “truths.” We passionately teach evolving theories that we subscribe to, that will most likely all be proved inefficient or irrelevant in 100 years.
- Let’s not serve the industry in how we train actors but serve the talent in front of us that will BE the industry. This perspective empowers artists to find the approaches that will serve their craft deliciously, selfishly. The environment in which we learn our craft has nothing to do with individual opportunity but everything to do with communal exploration and encouragement. We can still inform and prepare our students with skills relevant to our idea of industry needs, but we must keep the very idea of the industry a curious thing. Otherwise, we create a fantastical tyrant to whom we sacrifice all of our power.
- A desire to find and consistently serve one’s bliss. As educators, part of our responsibility must be to help our students identify what drives and motivates them, and what gives them great joy. Not the idea of someone else’s expectation of one’s career and bliss. After all, it is this very specific motivator that will sustain and empower these artists once they have left the safety of the studio and are facing the aforementioned rigged playing field of the industry.
- Let us acknowledge that artists have a primal need to be seen and to share a piece of themselves. This need does not have to be at the expense of someone else not being seen. It can be accomplished more succinctly when the training community acknowledges the need and therefore can better encourage and support opportunities for the need to be fulfilled.
I find these aforementioned ideas antithetical to the spirit of competition that serves to separate artists from each other and from their individual authentic sense of self. A perspective of generosity towards students and abundance of opportunity in the industry not only helps the psyche of an actor through the darker days of an artistic career but also deepens the level of transparency and power in the audition. In my personal career, I no longer contract with tension in response to perceived competition when I am able to acknowledge that delusional belief is creeping in. It is not just about feeling better and everyone getting along—it is about booking jobs as well. With these tools implemented and practiced, the actor’s success next to me is my success and greater collective joy. A powerful motivator indeed!
These ideas implemented as tools might appear less efficient or effective at first for some because they are far less known than the competition-based model celebrated in our culture and society. But with consistent practice as teacher and student over the span of two or three years, I find they robustly replace the space left by competition.
It of course is much easier to write and intellectualize about this new frame of mind that Miller Voice Method currently experiments with. It is quite a different experience, sometimes humbling if not harrowing, in practice.
Where the rubber meets the road is when I sit next to 10 red-heads in the callback, who look just like me, and an instinct kicks in that I must beat them out through Herculean effort. Instead of giving in to that competitive impulse, I then must choose to shift my breath to something more expansive and free in movement because chances are my breath is becoming held and static as the desire to “win” rises within me. In doing this, in that moment, I practice the new perspective that I actually don’t have to win the role from them. I simply need to breathe a generous breath of hope for our shared success as I walk in and dare myself to share a deeper piece of me that day.
I do hope I get the role though … I need the money; my kids are currently competing for every last morsel in my pantry!
This is an excerpt from an article published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group in the Voice and Speech Review, 8:3,on Oct. 30, 2014.