Sunday, March 8, 2009

Amateur Night

Three months ago, I started teaching an acting class. It’s been fun to be surrounded by so many talented young people; all with a real desire to learn and get better at their craft. Recently, one of my students took me aside and nervously asked me if I thought she had the talent to “make it.” The question took me by surprise. Mostly, because she's quite good. I was happy to reassure her that she certainly could “make it” provided that the show business gods smiled in her direction.

The conversation flashed me back to when I was a young wannabe actor living in Austin, Texas and desperately wondering if I had the goods to make it in New York. I was terrified of the idea, but I also feared the possibility of going to my grave wishing I'd at least tried it. I had, at the time, a truly horrible job. I don’t even think this job exists today. I was a “file clerk.” Five days a week, I worked in the basement of a large insurance company where I literally "filed" all day long. Lit by florescent tubes, "the tomb" (as those of us who worked there called it) was a long, windowless room, lined floor-to-ceiling with tall racks of insurance files. From 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, I climbed up and down a rolling ladder, pulling the lists of “requested” files and then re-filing the files I had pulled the day before. It was grim, mind-numbing, soulless work. And it was the perfect job for me.

The utter boredom allowed me to daydream pretty much non-stop. I knew I wanted to an artist. I knew I wanted to make something of myself. Yet I also knew I could be totally comfortable staying in Austin. It was (and still is) a virtual Eden for regional artists. There was always plenty to do and see and hear. Yet part of me desperately wanted to measure myself against the big-timers in New York. Austin could never offer stardom. They didn’t give Oscars, Emmys or Tonys for “Best File Clerk.”

At the time, I was also appearing in a play at one of the local community theatres. It was a British drawing room comedy; one of those old chestnuts you could bring your grandmother to without being worried that someone would say “fuck” or take their clothes off. One night, I arrived at the theatre completely exhausted after eight hours of non-stop filing. I was cranky and depressed and felt (at age 20) that my life was already over. Who was I? Just a penniless college dropout with no game plan.

I pulled on my costume and trudged out to the wings. As I listened to the audience filing in, I started thinking about the glamorous Westgate Dinner Theatre located on the opposite side of town. It was an Equity house that booked "professional" touring shows. I knew that at this very moment, those actors were also standing in the wings waiting for their performance to start. But the difference was they were getting paid! Were they more talented? Were they more driven? Did they have “connections?” I knew that dinner theatre wasn’t exactly the big time, but it looked pretty damn good from where I was standing at the moment. As the houselights went down, I tugged at my uncomfortable collar. Who was I kidding? Our little amateur production now seemed shabby and embarrassing. My back hurt from climbing a ladder all day. I had papercuts on nine of my fingers. All I wanted was to get this over with and go home. Hearing my cue, I sighed and marched dutifully out on stage. And that’s when it happened.

The play was being staged in the round (with audience on all four sides). Unlike a normal proscenium stage (where the lights are in your eyes) when you walked out on this stage, you were keenly aware of the audience. I don’t know why, but on this particular night, I noticed them in a way I hadn’t before. As I hit the edge of the playing area, the whole audience turned their faces toward me…and smiled! This group of total strangers seemed oddly happy to see me; and I hadn’t even done anything yet! The very fact that I was even willing to put on this funny costume and at least try to entertain them, had won me a totally unearned place in their hearts. It was like a wave of goodwill had just washed over me. Suddenly, I wasn’t tired anymore. A surge of energy shot through me and I dove into delivering the best comic performance I could muster. The rest of the evening seemed magical. The cast landed every joke; every sight gag. The applause went on longer than usual and we bowed deeply in our goofy, period costumes. A few people even waited in the lobby to shake our hands. If there was even a ghost of a chance that I might be able to get paid for doing this, I had to pursue it. That night as I steered my dented Buick out of the parking lot, I knew I was going to New York. Six months later (on a song and a prayer) I did.

My hope was, of course, that my talent and charm would be recognized quickly and rewarded in short order with major stardom. That’s not exactly how it worked out. In fact, I’m still waiting for that one to work out. The transition from “amateur” to “professional” was neither as easy nor as hard as I’d expected. It began with a healthy dose of humility, followed by a few years of extreme poverty, interlaced with quite a bit of incredibly hard work. I’m not sure exactly how I fueled my ambition during that stretch, but I do know that I steadfastly harbored an unshakable faith that this dream I was chasing was the most wonderful destiny a young man ever could wish for. I guess it worked. I’m still here.

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary the word “amateur” comes to us from the Latin word amator meaning “lover” or amare which means “to love.” “To love,” when you are young and relatively innocent is, of course, quite easy. You are filled with nothing but great expectations and very little real experience to temper those dreams. Grown-up love (the kind that lasts, anyway) involves loving not just the dream, but also the reality. I try to instill in my students that most careers are a wonderful mash-up of the good, the bad and the ugly. Glorious victories. Shitty disappointments. Rapturous praise. Rotten tomatoes. Enduring friendships. Freaks and Fiends. Lavish attention. Followed by periods of complete and utter invisibility. During my first “professional” gig, I stupidly asked an elderly character actor why we had to do eight shows a week. To me, it seemed like a lot to ask. He smiled thinly and replied, “We do eight shows a week, my boy, on the off-chance that we might get one of them right.” Turns out he was correct about that. More often than not, that "one" - that happy attempt that goes well - does seem to make up for everything that proceeded it. Whenever we did a performance that went better than expected, I remember the old character actor used to clap his hands together and exclaim, "All is forgiven!" Being young, I had no clue what he meant by that, but it now strikes me the most elegant and concise definition of love I have ever heard.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at