Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas |

Nathan Thomas

Where Is Fancy Bred?

You will be disappointed.

As this issue goes “to press,” (“to bytes”?), the U.S.A. seems to have gone a little unhinged.  International observers must get more than a little nervous each four years as the might United States goes through the un-nerving process of picking the person to fill the “most powerful” position in the world.  We do it in a way that brings out the crazy in both the candidates themselves and some of the candidates’ followers.  For me, I get to watch the process in the same way someone in another country does – mostly via television and the news and the internet.  Even though it’s happening in my country, the process doesn’t come to where I live for some time.  So, we don’t get the full value of the clown car full of weird candidates where I live. The field is smaller by the time the circus comes to my little corner of the world.  So I don’t get a governor or senator in a neighbor’s  kitchen discussing policy over oatmeal cookies like they do in New Hampshire.  But then, I’m not sure that I’d like some of these people in my house, so it’s probably all for the best that most of the selection process happens before it comes to my town.

I think politicians all over have the problem of over-promising.  Somewhere in the past they had some notion of what the world should look like.  And the world doesn’t look like what’s in their head. And they want to be liked.  And they want my vote.  Oh, and a lot more reasons besides – like ego and the ambition for power, certainly.

When politicians over-promise, they inevitably disappoint folks.

But, over-promise or not, people would have still been disappointed.

Disappointment comes to us all.  The question isn’t that we become disappointed in the human-ness of folks and institutions.  That is what will happen.  The question is, “What next?”

One of the things that seemed true of a lot of actor training when I was coming up was that a lot of performance skills were taught.  People came out of programs with their techniques – Linklater voice or Skinner voice, Alexander work or Laban work, Method or whatever.  An excellent student came out of the program knowing how to do the monologue and how to do the 16 bars.  But they didn’t know what to do with that.

When I was coming up, a few schools worked to get their students work.  But many programs had the liberal arts tradition of “We teach you to be artists, and after that you’re on your own.”  Indeed, in some circles, talking about jobs was virtually frowned upon.

So, as my peers and I have come into mentoring young folks, we’re much more about teaching all sides of the business, including arts entrepreneurship so that the young folks can continue to practice their art without having to go to the big city and being another drop in that ocean. Good on us.

But  . . . . . . there’s always that but . . . . . .

What do we give the young folks to deal with the inevitable disappointment.

Some kids come up having enjoyed heartily the experiences of doing shows in their high schools years.  Then they come to college.  Maybe it’s a little more challenging, but the comradery and the fun is still there.

I’ve had numerous conversations about this with other older folks.  A life in the arts is like a war of attrition.  Pulling through is key.  I know dozens of very talented peers who aren’t really working in or around the arts anymore.  Many of them far more talented and sensitive artists than I am.

You start off with your shiny training and techniques.  You go out on auditions.  You get a couple of lines in an indie film.  You get about one second that gets used in a regional commercial.  You get the small part in the play that’s being done in the converted arts space.  You get some friends.  You start to build a little bit of a reputation.  You may even get your SAG card.

But then the clock moves toward the 25th or 26th birthday.  Your 27th birthday is on the horizon.  If you’re a woman (and sometimes even if you’re a guy), you get tired of hearing that you need to lose a little weight, or you need towork out a little more. Trying to manage your day job and go out on auditions is tough.  You’re tired of living in Spartan conditions.  Your significant other, if in the business, gets jobs – but they’re out of town.  Your significant other, if not in the business, understands your work – but your s.o. would like to see more of you – more than the combination of day job and night acting will allow.  And since you love that person, you’d like to see more of them too.

In the mid/late-20s, actors flee the business. More in the early 30s drop away.  It’s tough hearing, “You’re too old” when you’re only 29. 

What happened to all of that positive energy that you started out with when you were learning how to place your voice and do shoulder isolations and analyze Shakespeare while you were working on a bit from the latest Stephen Adly Guirgis play for acting class?  What happened?

The anger can be directed in many directions. Some folks get angry at themselves for not “making it.”  Some folks get angry at their teachers or the “business” or the world.  Sometimes they take it out on the significant other as if it might have been their fault in some way.

I had a teacher in junior high who had wanted to be a Broadway hoofer.  But she got married to a guy, and they moved to the Midwest where she never got her real shot.  She’d mention it from time to time.  And you’d see it when she was directing hormonal kids in some stupid little one-act play written badly, but written specifically to be inoffensive to absolutely everyone.  She was still in the game, but on the far edges of it.

What can we give folks to deal with their inevitable disappointment?

Currently I’m working with some young folks who say they want to go out and teach in the high schools.  I’m doing what I can to introduce pedagogy to these nice young folks. Sure, you can a “mirror exercise” with you students.  Fine. But to what end?  What are you teaching?  Is that the lesson you want to teach at x stage of a student’s development? 

Before we swing into the final verse of this song, I feel it’s important to establish that life takes folks in many directions. In no way do I condemn the folks who use their artistic training for other fields of endeavor.  The stage manager who goes into supply chain management is a blessing to the company that gets her.  The actor who goes into marketing, God bless.  I do wish that we had a system – particularly in the United States that allowed for more flexibility and support for artists to make a living. But I don’t see that change happening soon.

In the end an acting teacher is a planter, at best.  A good acting teacher plants seeds that will grow into fruition when the artist is in the rehearsal room and on the stage.  A voice teacher can’t change a lifetime of bad habits in one semester, or even three years.  A teacher can give a map and point the way.  Making the journey is up to the student.

The other day I was talking with my potential teachers about the inevitable disappointment -- about the folks who fall away from the work.  And what do you give students to help them over the hump, if they want to get over the hump?

I don’t think technique is enough.  The land is awash in techniques available to the earnest student.  And I certainly think training is to the advantage to the young person as opposed to a lack of training.

But along with the technique needs to come a sense of mission.  If you’re going to make a sacrifice, what is the sacrifice for?  Applause?  Applause is nice, but a little silly.  Friendship? I have great affection for every cast I’ve worked with over the years and wish I was a better friend and communicator with them all. We could go down a huge list of reasons.

But I think the reason to keep at it is a gnawing desire to have the chance to tell stories that help us be more human.  Every day we see more and more examples of how de-humanizing different aspects of our world can be.  When a presidential contender spews hate about people of this or that group based on religion or ethnicity or where they come from – and an audience applauds – we have work to do.  We have the humanizing work of telling stories, of dancing, of making music, of making images and objects that communicate to each and every person, “You. You’re human.  We’re all human.  Don’t give in.  Don’t give up.  We’re all disappointed.  Things haven’t worked out the way that we wanted.  That’s life.  That’s human life.  We can get through it together.  We’re only human.”

We’re only human.  And that’s more than enough.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
Check the Archives:

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©2016 Nathan Thomas
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine



March 2016

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