The Act of Acting // by Francesca James
5x Emmy winner Francesca James carved her own path in entertainment–a feat more complicated in today’s world.
When Jack asked me to write something for this series, I hesitated, not knowing what I could contribute. But, as the time has gone by, it occurred to me that I might have an unusual perspective.
This last year has required a great deal of discipline, bravery, and patience from all of us. Our hearts have been broken with the shutting of all of our theatres and our inability to work at what we love most. Recently, one of my greatest concerns has been for the young actors that I have directed over the last several summers. Young actors just graduating from theatre programs across the country with high hopes and big dreams. Young actors who would ordinarily be heading into an exciting world of fierce competition but instead have been stopped in their tracks by the worst pandemic of the last 100 years. Many of them have been forced to give up their apartments and temporarily move back home because even their “civilian” jobs have disappeared.
I worry about the young men, but I have to confess that, in this culture, I worry more about the young women who seem to have a shorter working shelf life. They are twenty-one or twenty-two when they graduate. Twenty-three when they find an apartment to share with two other actors while they work a service job, go to discouraging open calls and hope for an agent. Maybe twenty-four when they get their first foot in the door and WHAM…COVID!!! In their mid to late 20s, they are now facing the possibility of what I think could be three unproductive years during what is often, for a woman, her most critical time for career building.
Because of this deep recession, I would expect that some of them are re-evaluating their childhood dreams. The dreams that inspired them when they were too young to understand and couldn’t have cared less about the realities and sacrifices of a life in art. But now, with no promise of work for quite a while, and without a source to help them weather this financial storm, they may be forced to start investigating a second career choice with a less volatile and safer road ahead. These young women are the sensible ones. The deductive thinkers who tally the pros and cons and act accordingly. I am one of these. Thirty-five years ago, with an Emmy Award in my hands for my work as an actor, I left acting to direct and produce. I refused to accept a life that depended on permission from others to do what I loved most in the world. I didn’t have the courage or the spirit of a gambler, but I knew what it looked like. I had seen it. It looked like the great Julie Harris who, as a child, when asked why she wanted to act said so definitively, “It is my life!!” She could never have accepted another path. Just the thought of it would have stopped her heart.
There have been others like Julie since then and there are even younger ones out there now. Young artists who would stop breathing if they thought they could never work as an actor again. This crop will have lost valuable time and it will be harder for them to gain traction after this Covid intermission. But I suspect they are spending this time reading the great plays they never had the opportunity to read while they were waiting tables. They are in artistic hibernation—educating themselves, resting and preparing for the battle ahead. For they will need “the hide of a rhinoceros, the courage and audacity of a lion, and most importantly, the fragile vulnerability of an egg.” That’s one hell of a neat trick in this age-obsessed culture but it’s possible. I know because I worked with ten such remarkable women when I associate directed Transport Group’s celebrated production of I Remember Mama in which ten actresses over the age of 65 illuminated all of the male and female roles with their years of life experience filtered through their seamless craft. Ten warriors of the theatre who had been forged in fire and survived several decades of success and failure because they understood what they had to contribute as storytellers was important. And while the sacrifices and disappointments were many, the gratification of being able to spend a lifetime in the theatre, exploring what it means to be alive in this world was the greatest gift they could have given themselves and us.
So, to those young women who stay the course because your hearts give you no other choice, my hand is at your back and so are the hands of all the brave and gifted women who made that choice before you.
We are waiting for you.
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