Learning to take risks as an actress

Sometimes, tough love is just what you need to realize that you can do something, and do it well

I’m in second year, standing in a rehearsal hall in a far corner of the North Building, and I am taking my clothes off. My scene partner sits in a chair and watches me. I unbutton my blouse, drop my skirt on the floor, and kick my shoes to the side. It’s a funny thing—the worst part isn’t standing in a bra and underwear in front of a guy who looks at me like I’m a nice cut of beef. It’s trying to compensate for the fact that apparently I’ve forgotten how buttons work. We’re acting, or—in layman terms—faking it. I know that. But to anyone on the outside, this scene, brought to us by Judith Thompson’s play The Crackwalker, looks like sexual harassment.

Another of my classmates is in the room with us, watching our rehearsal. When we’re done, he turns to me and tells me the thing I know is coming but desperately don’t want to hear. “Kate,” he says. “I’m giving you tough love here: that is the most matter-of-fact strip I have ever seen. Take a risk already.”

I have never been more vulnerable than when I strip-teased in front of my classmates. I have also never been safer. And I never got tougher love than in theatre school.

It’s easy to say that a degree in theatre performance is useless. It looks like a cop-out, a reason not to do a “real” undergrad. But I would argue that a theatre program is basically a factory that produces students with more transferable skills than any other undergraduate degree anywhere. Look at any job description and here’s what you’ll find: “The ideal candidate will have exceptional interpersonal and communication skills, be highly organized, work well independently and in a group, and be punctual.”

What is performance if not communication? A good theatre program will teach students to speak, listen, write, and, maybe most importantly, make eye contact. It’s about pulling your weight in a group. It’s about having 30 hours of rehearsal a week on top of regular classes and still managing to eat three meals a day, sleep six hours a night, and hand in (most of) your assignments. Better yet, actors know how to do their work through their nerves, also known as acing a job interview.

And by the way, you lose five percent of your final grade if you’re late for class.

When I was in grade 12, sitting in my room with my university acceptances in front of me, it came down to two choices: either I was going to Concordia for creative writing and English, or I was headed for TDS. I rolled the dice, weighed my options, and made my decision. I was bound for Theatre and Drama Studies, and there was no looking back. I was 17. I was terrified. I had never seen a drunk person in my life and if you mentioned weed I’d probably go on a rant about the dandelions in the field between North and IB.

I’m sure if I’d gone to Concordia I’d be perfectly happy. I’d live in a safe little residence room, I might have one or two safe friends who think exactly like I do, and I’d write safe little essays about the Romantic poets. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, I got to play. I played with every kind of dramatic text from Shakespeare through the Restoration, careened through realism and absurdism and landed in this messy thing we call the present, where someone handed me a pen and a sheet of paper and said, “Your turn.” I have played with clown noses, masks, and swords. I have been (almost) naked and, at the other end of the spectrum, corseted and clothed until I could barely breathe. I built a community with my amazing classmates, graduating not just with friends but a bank of resources to draw on in my future.

Sure, it wasn’t always easy. I’ve been angry about roles I got or didn’t get. Teachers can be frustrating. Peers can be worse. Sometimes I felt like the whole world hated me and some power above was trying to tell me that being an actor was a really bad idea. But half the battle is learning to tell that voice to shut up. Saying with conviction, “I CAN DO THIS,” and then doing it better than anyone thought you could. I learned to take something that was against me and make it work in my favour.

I graduated last June with an HBA in Theatre and Drama Studies from U of T and a Diploma in Acting from Sheridan College. Currently, I am enrolled at U of T’s iSchool, working on my Masters in Library and Information Science. Maybe to some people it looks like I was too scared to take the acting industry by the horns. But think about the kind of information professional I am going to be. I can improvise, and I can talk to anyone. I am an analytical, critical thinker and I’m always looking for new things to do so I don’t ever get bored. And this is not just about me. It’s about every one of the several thousand people in the GTA who call themselves actors. It’s about all the people who graduate from BA or BFA acting programs and are out there in the world being excellent professionals in all kinds of fields.

I owe a lot to my professors and coaches. These are the people who refuse to listen to “I can’t do it,” or “I don’t want to.” Their foolproof reply? “Cry me a river. Now get to work.” They pushed me hard and never gave up on me when I pushed back. And when the time was right, they gave me all the free rein I needed to make the art I wanted to make.

But my real heroes are my classmates. They supported me for four years and continue to do so even though TDS is behind us. When I try to back away from something that scares me, I know my whole class will be there to call me on it. They keep me brave. They give me the same tough love I needed when I was shivering in a bra and underwear in a rehearsal hall.

At the moment I’m in the throes of writing a play for the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival. I often freak myself out about it, thinking the play won’t be good enough or my acting won’t be good enough or I’m just generally not good enough. Here’s a fact: nothing is ever good enough. And what would I have to try for if it were?

“Take a risk already.” I’m on it.

Kate Cattell-Daniels
Arts & Entertainment Editor