1997. At my local theatre, the same one where my youth theatre does it’s shows, there is to be a charity screening of the Life of Brian and a Q&A afterwards with John Cleese. My dad had secured tickets for him and myself, excellent. So we went along and watched the film, laughter ensued, then Mr Cleese came in for an hour or so, anecdotes ensued, then afterwards, unbeknownst to many, John stayed behind to do some signings. I didn’t really have anything for him to sign, so I took my ticket, not really wanting to miss out on the opportunity to meet one of my idols. Our turn came, I was very quiet, because I am generally quite quiet, and my dad was chatty, because he is generally quite chatty. “Another budding actor, following in your footsteps,” he said over my shoulder.

After signing my ticket, John Cleese looked at me and said:

“If you’re going to be an actor, get another job, like a plumber. Because when you’re an actor, you only work then the phone rings.”

Oh John, classic humour, those Pythons, like I’m going to need another job…

WHY DIDN’T I LISTEN TO JOHN CLEESE!!

Let’s fast forward a bit and those words ring in my ears constantly, not as a warning, but as an opportunity.
I wrote this after the reading a very interesting article on quitting acting, and was inspired with the need to share my experience and my thoughts on this very topical subject. When I was at drama school, I remember saying to myself ‘I’ll give it till when I’m 30’, and this brings me to my point, give WHAT till I’m 30? What was I thinking? Success? An Oscar nom? Even just a Golden Globe?? I think it’s very important to be clear about what we mean by being an ‘actor’ and being in ‘acting.’

When I was training, there was a massive stigma for being in it for the fame or success, we all had to say, ‘yah, I’m all about the process, just wanna create good work yunno’. And looking back, I’m not entirely sure I was being honest. I don’t think I was in it for the fame, but I definitely envisioned some semblance of fame and financial related success. I saw my life and career in some sort of continuously upward graph, now I realise it’s more of a squiggle, and that is OK. Great in fact.

The realisation came a few years ago, my then girlfriend decided to take up outside study in health, but she wasn’t giving up acting. I believe in part inspired by a friend of hers in New York doing (and still doing) the same thing.

Huh…

This had a very big affect on me and my way of thinking, I had always devoted my all to acting, in some way believing that if I didn’t I wasn’t trying hard enough. Bull. Shit. We all know how fickle this industry can be, and to invest in yourself is the best, indeed the only way to be. However you want to interpret that. It still took a long time to sink in for me and a few years ago, I took a step away from the industry, not quitting, just stopping hitting my head against the metaphorical brick wall. I was fed up with the crap, it wasn’t going anywhere. I met up with a very good friend who left the industry many years before, and she said to me, ‘so when do you think you’ll quit?’ And I thought, why do I have to quit? Again, quitting what? I’m not happy with what’s happening now, but why be so absolutist. And this is my reasoning, there is another way; and it’s whatever the hell way you want to go to BE HAPPY! (Cue sitar music and daisy chain tiaras.)

Not long after my ‘taking a break’ decision, I got a call from a director I have worked with in the past asking if I wanted a part in a show (standard). After a bit of thinking and organising, I decided to do it, and it was a brilliant experience. Not only was it a great cast and fun to do, I did it just for the sake of doing it, not because of ‘where could it lead’ or ‘what does it mean’. I reaffirmed to myself that I love to perform, and I can do that without buying in to the crap. So why would I quit the whole thing? I put my actual happiness first rather than on the back-burner, where I had been working hard for something that I thought would eventually make me happy. Oh the fallacy.

I think a lot of actors leave the industry because they aren’t getting any work, rather than the work itself. You don’t see that many famous actors going, “you know what, fuck this shit, I’m going to raise sheep in Cumbria.” Some, not many. Hey, if was sitting on a film set right now, I probably wouldn’t be writing this, I’d be choosing my next car. But even then, if I was on my upward graph, being the type of person I am, I would reach the apex, and have exactly the same thoughts I am having now, just in a nicer flat. I do know a handful of actors who did leave because they didn’t like the life. That’s cool. Even leaving because of lack of work is cool too, whatever leads to happiness, but there can be – there is – a middle ground, something between the work and working. And I think that was my problem, I was pursuing jobs rather than the work. That is a veritable employment M25. I now, genuinely, wholeheartedly DO want to create good work! Also, having been in the dating game for a little while now, the same rings true with that as in acting, being relaxed and happy and chill is far more attractive than being desperate and sad. Though of course, we all go through that stage from time to time, it happens to the best of us. That’s what friends and pubs are for.

After the ‘step away’ I started writing and had my first piece performed to an excellent response (yes, blah, blah, ego, blah), the point being I felt more satisfaction after that play than I had from actually performing in a role for years. Doesn’t mean I want to stop acting, maybe I will, maybe I won’t, whatever leads to my happiness, and writing makes me very happy. I also play a lot of music, and am putting a lot of thought in how I can earn money using my my skill and experience. I had another friend who did properly leave the industry for a couple of years, then returned to continuing work with a reputable theatre company. The ‘industry’ didn’t care about the absence… My now ex (we’re still BF’s, long story) is fully qualified, and loves what she does. Her friend in NY continues to practice health, perform, direct, write etc… Awesome.

Some people will be working loads, you might have gotten the recurring ‘Man with Sword’ in Game of Thrones, awesome, send me a postcard. Also you might have gotten a job with a puppet theatre taking Shakespeare to kids who have never seen Shakespeare before, awesome, send me a postcard (but you know, it doesn’t have to be as nice, budget and all that.) It’s all good.

I’m sure many of you reading this will think ‘er, I’ve been doing other projects on the side for ages, welcome to the party’ and you would be correct. Indeed there are many close friends of mine I trained with who have had projects on the go for years, and are doing very well and are happy. But I’m sure there others out there just like I was; ‘Success’ or nothing. It’s happiness or nothing. And isn’t happiness the true measure of success?

Sure, we don’t all have the means and the time to study again, do several jobs, take another artistic endeavour, but all our horizons can be broadened. You don’t have to a be a plumber, as John said, (though I have heard that can be VERY lucrative), but being an actor can fit in with an infinite number of things, if you choose. Sure, I get really down sometimes, I have to do things I don’t really want to, but is completely walking away the answer for me? Right now? No.

Yes, as an actor, you only work when the phone rings, but think, really, how much does that matter?

Epilogue: I originally wrote this article a couple of years ago, and since then have written and performed my own one man show, had plays of mine produced and performed regularly as a musician and have just gotten new head-shots to throw myself back in to the mix. I know… blah, blah, ego, blah. But that’s four years after my ‘deadline’. Funny old world isn’t it?

Series 3 of the podcast is now available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Acast. Episodes already released feature full-length interviews with Adrian Lester, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Riley, Kate Fleetwood, Sarah Ball and Jonjo O’Neill. Click here to listen!

Series 1 & 2 are also available free, along with a special live episode for Equity recorded in November 2018, and follow-up inteaviews with all seven of the emerging actors, conducted in October. Go have a listen

Patch Harris

Actor, guitarist, writer. My favoured acting prop is the side parted haircut. Has worked in Box Offices all over the West End, so honestly has probably met you all at least once.