“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being”
Hafiz of Shiraz
It’s 5 am on a Tuesday morning. Early October. I’m sat on a Megabus on my way to London. The bus reeks of alcohol, misery and sweat. The reading light above my head is broken.
I switch on the torch on my phone and take out the notes from my bag. I close my eyes and go through the audition lines in my head. The man sat next to me squirms in his seat and turns away. My heart is beating fast and I have a stomach ache.
I am restless, I am unprepared. I didn’t sleep and I didn’t have much time to think about the character – I worked in the restaurant the whole of yesterday when my agent called and asked if I could do the audition today. It’s for the BBC. I could have said no, but I said yes, immediately, because I do not get called for an audition every day. Especially not for the BBC.
If I am honest with myself there’s a nagging sense of disappointment somewhere deep down. I don’t like the character at all, the script is two-dimentional. She’s an illegal immigrant from Ukraine and I am fed with the fact that I have never seen an East European actress in the British cinema and TV play a doctor, a mother, a lecturer, an artist or just someone who, at least, speaks English well enough – people that exist both in my life and in the UK. My character is desperately clinging to her illegal job to stay in the UK at any price. She is abused by her boyfriend. She has a thick accent and has made no effort to speak the language properly. She is attractive, yet hardworking but also fragile – women from Eastern Europe are, of course, exactly that! Apart from being a generic stereotype the character has neither a personality nor a soul.
It’s not the first time I’m called for a role like this and that’s what bothers me most. It’s a recurrent narrative. I know that my agent only submits me for the roles where an ‘’authentic’ East European actress is needed – they know there’s no point to submit me for the roles which says “any background” because this means White British. This also means that you will only play desperate and starved East European migrants who wait tables, mind children and service the Brits sexually for the rest of your life, says a voice in my head. Your agent can’t even pronounce your name. They can’t even tell which country you’re from. They think you’re Polish because every girl with a foreign accent in Britain is, naturally, from Poland. They don’t….
Shut up, I say to the voice in my head! It’s an opportunity, I say to myself. It’s an opportunity, you cannot be picky…I’m so good at pushing my pride away. I cannot be picky. I am an actor after all.
We’re nearly in London. As I stand up to go to the loo, my stomach is burning, I feel my legs melting, my hands shake. I didn’t have breakfast and I didn’t have dinner as I finished working late last night. I drag myself to the toilet. I look at the mirror. I am exhausted. My skin is pale. You’re ugly, the voice comes back. You are so ugly, just look at you. Who told you you can perform at all? If you were any good, you would have made it ages ago. You would have… Shut up, shut up, shut up! I open the tap and wash my face. I feel the pulse in my temples.
The bus pulls in at Victoria. When I’m descending down the stairs, everything around me starts spinning. I can’t breathe. Suddenly I feel like I’m falling through the clouds. The next thing I can remember is a group of people staring at me from above. Worried faces. A woman is holding my hand, someone else is holding my bag, wallet and phone. Are you OK they ask me. Are you OK echoes in my head.
When I realise what happened, I jump! What time is it, I say? It’s quarter past 8 someone says and stares at me in disbelief. Shit! I have to be at the audition for 9 am. You should go to the hospital, says the woman who was holding my hand. She seems perplexed. I am not.
I do not care that I have just passed out. I can’t miss the audition! Oh, I’m fine, I say, no really, this happens to me all the time, I lie and even manage to fake a smile. No, don’t worry, honestly I’m alright, I say about to run and catch the train. I can’t miss it! I have to be there for 9 am no matter what!
At 9 am, I enter the casting room. I am so anxious and out of breath that I’m feeling sick. So you’re Inga, says a young woman who looks beautiful and rested – unlike me. Igne, I correct her. Oh, yes, Igne, so sorry, I’m so bad with names. Yes, so, our casting director is not in until the afternoon, but I will take a video of you if that’s OK. Sure, I say thinking that I could have just taken a video of myself back in Bristol. It will only take a few minutes – she speaks with the same dry tone as my dentist. Sure. And it does take a few minutes because it’s not even 10 past 9 and I am already leaving the room. Thank you, Inga, she says, have a lovely day! You too I say, my eyes searching for the loo. I know I am going to throw up.
How did the audition go, says my friend – also an actor – whom I agreed to meet for a coffee since I am in London. Yeah, went really well, I say, with as much fake confidence as I can still find in me. I skip the part about passing out at Victoria and the vomiting in the loo which took longer than the actual audition. You look really good, she says to me. Thank you I say and we both know we’re lying. I push the shame away.
On the way back to Bristol, my agent sends me an email saying that I didn’t get the part. I’m sure next time will be lucky, they say. I am, however, not so sure. All I am sure about is that my shift at the restaurant starts at 6 pm and I have to be back in time if I want to pay my rent next week. I close my eyes. The world is full of people and I am so alone.
This is an excerpt from my personal journal which I wrote as a reflection on one of the auditions that autumn some years ago. And whilst it is personal I know it is not unique.
If you’re an actor trying to ‘make it’ you might have been where I was. You have probably been on the same Megabus journey as me. You are often exhausted and stressed. The thought of not being good enough is somewhat present in you. Not only when you’re going to perform but also when you’re buying milk, washing your clothes or spending time with the love of your life. Unless you come from a privileged background and financial stability you probably are juggling another three jobs to pay your bills ‘whilst you’re making it happen’. That day job you have is low-paid and does not come with any guarantees like sick pay or maternity leave because that’s the price you pay for flexibility whilst you’re making it happen. You probably smoke or drink too much, you might not move enough and yes, your friends and family wonder when you are going to get a proper job and stop wasting your time. You don’t really talk to anyone about how you really feel. You might often feel lonely and disconnected. Being with people is even more difficult than being alone sometimes. Unless you do get a role and then you feel on top of the whole world again! Until the show ends and you’re back in the same hole again.
Some people expect you to be a little mad. Mental health struggles attribute to your artistic charm. And no one likes people who complain. And if you complain you are not resilient. And if you are not resilient means you’re not good enough. And if you’re not good enough no one will work with you. You have thought to quit it all, you really have many times, but what else would you do? You thought of random jobs or even doing a PhD. A strange mix of shame and hope is holding you back from making such decision. In the meantime, you’re losing confidence and you’re probably losing your mind.
This audition was one of the last ones for me and marked the end of my mainstream acting career which had never even properly begun. I would have probably kept going but I spiralled into a pool of darkness.
In order to pull myself out, I took a full-time office job in a boring accountancy bureau. It was quiet, white and stank of tomato and basil soup. The phone rang once or twice per day – answering calls and shredding confidential papers was all I was hired to do. I was not used to doing nothing. l loathed being unproductive. I knew I failed. I disappointed everyone and, first of all, myself. The office felt like a death sentence to me which I imposed on myself. But soon I learned that where there is a touch of death, there’s also potential for a transformation and change.
I told about my job to a friend. I told her there was nothing to do all day. Why don’t you watch TV series or something? She said. I hate TV series! I responded impulsively. She gave me a weird look. What? She looked puzzled and there was silence between us. Then we both burst into laughter.
This was the moment of epiphany.
I never watched TV series. I loved low-budget independent cinema. I didn’t give a damn about the BBC or big casting directors. I didn’t even have a TV. It never came to my mind to get a Netflix account or binge watching stuff on Amazon Prime. I would never even sit down on the sofa.
What I really loved was Beckett, Genet, Pirandello, Brecht and Pinter. I spent my life in movement, both dance and sports, and I was never really interested in naturalistic acting. I loved the absurd, the surreal, the grotesque. I grew up reading magical realism books and writing poetry. I loved animals, I was interested in philosophy. So – what the hell did I do in all those auditions in the first place? Suddenly, everything began to make sense. I was walking in the wrong direction.
If you’re an actor going through a difficult time, I would like to share a list of things that helped me and I wish someone had told me when I chose artistic path as profession:
- Ask yourself what you really want to do. The reason for your unhappiness might be because you’re in the wrong shoes.
- Do not glamorise your own or someone else’s mental health issues. There’s nothing glamorous in suffering.
- Take responsibility for your mental health – it is your task to make yourself feel better.
- Make sure you are eating, drinking water and sleeping enough. Rest is essential to sanity.
- Know when to take a break – no dream job is worth pursuing if it destroys your health.
- Equally, do not stagnate. Move on when you can.
- Speak to someone about how you feel. A family member, friend or a mental health professional will help to put things in perspective.
- Cut contact with unsupportive friends.
- Identify what triggers you: this can, apparently, range from a specific person to cherries that irritate your stomach and put you in bad mood. Know your enemies!
- Move! And do it everyday with no excuse.
- Do not expect the industry to change, but do not be bitter about it – there is a sea of wonderful people working in the performing arts, and there’s lots of generosity and warmth in it, too.
- Don’t forget that you’re an active agent who is equally shaping the industry. It’s also our responsibility to create a working culture which works for you.
- So, create your own work!
- If you’re going through a difficult time, hold onto your creativity. Finding inspiration and beauty which only the darkness can hold is one of most precious gifts you can give to yourself.
- Whatever is happening to you right now, know that you will create again. Creativity may hibernate or take a different route, shape and form but it will never die.
- You’re an artist, embrace it and live it fully.
Good luck and thank you for reading.