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Luck, Talent and Success

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I’m a really lucky guy. I have always known I was lucky because everyone around me told me so. Also, when I meet new people I tell them I’m lucky, twice. When I was 16, I won two turn tables by entering a TV Hits competition. I skateboarded for ten years without breaking a bone and my (top) teeth are straight. I have also been incredibly lucky in my career: I got into drama school (luckfest); I have an agent; and I have worked as an actor post graduation. I have also won several raffles…

If that doesn’t sound lucky to you, you are either incredibly lucky, or you believe in the power of talent. If that’s the case, I don’t blame you. With the increased popularity of talent driven reality television, the mainstream narrative focusses heavily on the value of talent in relation to success. The message is that talent and success are parallel, that they are mutually inclusive. If you are not successful you must not have talent, if you are talented you will be successful. As a strong believer in luck, I am calling bullshit on that line of thinking. I think talent plays as much of a role in an actors success as their cat does. Talent is a fantastic thing, but it’s not the only thing standing between you and success.

This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Six Thousand Six Hundred and Twenty Three of Us.

There are currently six thousand six hundred and twenty three actors based in Sydney (showcast.com.au). Most of us are represented by an agency and trying to “make it”. Generous friends and family tell us that our talent will shine through and beat the odds, but will it?

First, let’s look at the employment opportunities available in theatre.

Theatre SceneIn Sydney there are five major (equity award paying) theatre companies: Sydney Theatre Company; Belvoir St Theatre; Griffin Theatre Company; Ensemble Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare Company. The largest of these companies (Sydney Theatre Company) will employ just under one hundred actors to fill it’s 2014 season. So, for arguments sake let’s say there are five hundred jobs available in theatre each year in Sydney.

There are also approximately three major musicals that cast in Sydney each year. These musicals employ large casts and offer “triple threat” performers (singing/dancing/acting) fantastic employment opportunities. Being generous, musicals and opera represent an extra two hundred jobs each year.

Now let’s take a look at the potential for work in film and television.

FIlm and TVAccording to Screen NSW there are currently twelve film and television productions in production in New South Wales, with another ten productions completed already this year. This number doesn’t include the most actor friendly production in Australia: Home & Away. If you just scoffed… stop reading.

The number of roles available in any year will swing drastically depending on the number and scale of productions. Including advertising, I would say that there is anywhere between seven hundred and fifty to two thousand jobs available in film and television each year in Sydney.

So that’s two thousand seven hundred jobs divided amongst six thousand six hundred and twenty three actors.
2700/6623 = 0.407 Jobs per actor, per annum OR one job every two and a half years. Grim.

If success in acting involves working and earning money, then job scarcity is a major success inhibitor. The level of your talent does not influence the number of roles available each year, however if you’re lucky, it may improve your chances of getting one of them.

Talent or Experience?

In this job scarce landscape gaining experience and developing talent can be incredibly difficult. Where community theatre was once a platform for inexperienced actors to tread the boards, there is now fierce competition for every role. Drama school trained actors fight for exposure in a flooded market. Scores of actors audition for each part in co-operative plays that are unlikely to have an audience, let alone make money. Unfortunately the fall out of this is hundreds of actors who have no other way to gain experience other than to pay for it. And they pay a lot of money, for very little time.

The “advice” industry in Australia is out of control. A-list international acting coaches hold workshops in Sydney and Melbourne, to cash in on our hunger for success. Actors in Australia pay upward of $800 for weekend workshops where they spend one hour, over two days, with a tutor. Students pay to participate in the hope of absorbing some of the teacher’s talent. Masquerading as intensive workshops these seminars are more like evangelistic, break you and remake you, self-congratulatory, acting clubs with a cover charge.

If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, $800 an hour is an incredibly expensive pathway to becoming a great actor. Gladwell argues that in order to become an expert at something it requires ten thousand hours of experience. Which is why I believe, if you are lucky enough to get in, drama school is an excellent choice for young actors (approximately 3900 hours over three years).

But why do people still pay hundreds of dollars to attend these workshops if they don’t work?

The Graveyard AKA Survivorship Bias.

It is easy to focus on the famous alumni of an acting class without noticing that they only represent a tiny minority of their graduates. Larry Moss may have coached Leonardo DiCaprio, but he has also coached thousands of other people that are either unknown, no longer acting or literally in the graveyard. Yes, an acting coach is likely to (temporarily) improve you acting ability. And it will also give you a small amount of experience. But paying thousands of dollars to attend a weekend workshop will not make you successful, regardless of the number of movie stars who have worked with the tutor. Many great actors are making terrible coffees for very little money.

An inexperienced actor paying for an intensive workshop to learn how to act is like a virgin hiring an expensive prostitute to teach them everything they need to know about sex, in an hour. And similarly, they enjoy being indulged so much they tell their friends and the tutor that it was amazing. Claiming they have experienced a major breakthrough they head back into the world; born again, (acting) bible in hand, ready for success. And if that success doesn’t come, it’s not because of the ineffective teachings of the expert, it’s because of a talent deficit in the pupil, right? Oh dear.

Don’t Believe the Hype

Another unfortunate by-product of the belief in all prevailing talent, is an exaggerated reaction to failure. If you are talented then you will be successful, can rapidly lead to, if you fail (once or more) you are not talented.

I have seen the consequences of this mentality first hand. Let me tell you it isn’t pretty. Many of my friends are incredibly talented performers, some have been lucky and tasted success, while others haven’t. I know people in each group that believe in the value of talent. The successful boast of their exceptional talent, justifying their success to themselves and their apparently insufficiently talented friends. The unsuccessful, or yet to be successful, question their very existence. In some people this perceived lack of talent leads to anxiety, depression and a lack of self worth.

If you are successful and you believe that it is solely on account of your talent, congratulations. If you are unsuccessful and you believe it is solely due to a lack of talent, that’s rubbish. You were probably just unlucky.

There is No Secret.

Nobody wants to waste their life trying to make it as an actor without some form of success. My concern is that actors are spending lots of time and money on learning a secret that doesn’t exist. There is no key to success. The number of people who have followed the advice of any particular acting coach and failed, drastically outnumbers those who have succeeded.

LuckSo, if you are an actor, don’t waste time thinking that you are not good enough, small enough, smart enough etc. You don’t need to be or not to be anything specific in order to be successful. Value yourself, regardless of your experience, skill level or other peoples impressions of your talent. Spend that $800 on making a short film, hiring a theatre space or feeding your cat.

Acting is not a merit driven vocation.

Actors with less talent than you are working, and actors with much more talent aren’t. It isn’t fair, but if you’re lucky, it will be unfair in your favour. Good luck!

About the Author

Luke McMahon

is trained as an actor at the prestigious Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. He is now a professional actor based in Sydney, Australia. He recently finished working with Mel Gibson on his upcoming feature, Hacksaw Ridge.

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