When people find out I’m an actor, often the first question they ask is “Film or theatre?” I’ve always answered film because that’s been what I wanted to do since I first wanted to act, and more recently screen acting is the only kind I do. But like many actors, I got my start in theatre.
At twelve, my mom signed me up for a two-week theatre acting camp after four years of me asking her to let me act. I loved it. So I got signed up for more acting classes, I did more theatre through these classes, and when I reached high school I switched to acting classes for film and television. I watched TV, I’ve been to see movies, but I’d never attended a play or a musical. So my acting classes were kind of my introduction and exposure to the theatre world, but I still ultimately wanted to do screen acting.
Theatre has heart to it. You get instant feedback from the audience, everything is done at once on that stage, and each performance is special and different in its own way. There’s an energy in theatre. You are your character for the whole run, and it’s a kind of acting that exhilarates.
There’s a lot more rehearsal. You can slowly develop your character over time, in relationship to the other characters and the story with guidance from the director and possibly the writer, too. You work with co-actors, you get to know each other over weeks or months, and you are comfortable with each other by the time it’s time to go onstage.
Film is an entirely different beast. You have to act without the response of an audience, you have to practice on your own, and there is minimal rehearsal before a scene. You act in scenes, one at a time, often out of order, and you do each scene over and over. If in a scene you start out laughing and end up crying, then you do it, hear cut, and have to get yourself back into the laughing place to do it again. When action happens, it’s you and the other actors in your own world within the story. You don’t always know actors beforehand and have to jump into scenes with them on the spot, however intimate. You only need to get it right once, and if you get it wrong, that’s fine. Do it again.
There is collaboration before you and after you. When you’re done, there are teams of people who take the footage, already a team effort with many departments, and elevate it to a complete thing. And then it exists, and will exist for a long time. When it’s done it’s completely different from what you thought. Everyone will see the same performance and have a different takeaway, and years down the line when everything’s changed and you have changed, the film is still there, a time capsule of sorts.
I can’t choose between these.
In my first year of university I went out for my first ever audition. It was for a play about Mary Shelley and her husband Percy. I was placed in a room with a bunch of white British people to audition for these white British characters. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get it, but the audition was fun.
However, the assistant director who’d been in the room for the audition liked me and offered me the lead in a play he was doing. So I did that. A short, ten-minute play with myself and my co-actor, Charlie, which we performed four times at the Theatre Royal Winchester. I got a lot of praise from it.
In university, I was part of the drama club and did performances with them. I did a few more auditions for performances at the school. At some point I auditioned for a student’s 2 minute short film and got a role in that, which was tons of fun to make but not something I show off.
And then I came back to Canada and did my part-time jobs and wrote my never-ending books and tried to leave acting in my past. That didn’t last very long. About eight months after returning from England, I went to three short film auditions in a month. I got all three roles. And so began my on-screen acting career.
But while I kept going out auditioning and doing film acting stuff, I also auditioned for theatre. I didn’t get any, and I wasn’t really surprised. I fit very few roles. I went to three auditions over the first year. The first was a Streetcar Named Desire. I had read the play in high school and loved it, but there’s not really a role for a half-asian Canadian girl and I can’t do a New Orleans accent. Steel Magnolias had more women and said they were open to diverse casting, but maybe I was too small, too subtle, too young-looking (I was mistaken for fifteen yesterday), or just not good enough yet. I was excited about the last one. I memorized six pages in two days and the role was for an Asian-Canadian girl. But I don’t really look entirely asian either, and there was someone better. I know she was better because I later saw that she’d won an award for the performance.
I kept getting film stuff, so I leaned into it. I wasn’t bad, either, and I loved it to boot. But in regards to theatre, I was discouraged. I thought I just wasn’t cut out for it.
This summer, I was approaching what was looking like an empty autumn. I didn’t have any jobs lined up, and I wasn’t sure what I’d do with myself. I was worried that I’d end up with nothing and felt the possibility of being a failure. I’d already had a slow spring and multiple summer projects had fallen through.
I saw auditions for Heritage Park on a local theatre website. They didn’t pay, but I didn’t think I’d get a role anyway. I’d just go for the practice, and besides, I hadn’t been to Heritage Park in years and had fond memories of it.
So I drove to my audition, taking my 2002 Ford Focus through streets straight out of the early 1900s. I went into the old hotel and filled out a form. I waited my turn.
I did not have six pages memorized. I hadn’t actually put a ton of effort into memorizing, although I worked on the characters and dialogue enough that I was mostly off script just from practice and repetition. Instead, with less than 24 hours between confirming the audition time and arriving at the audition, I thought more about the characters, what they thought, how they talked, how they held themselves, how they were different from each other. I was auditioning for a character in the Halloween play and another character in the Christmas play, both in this one audition. On top of auditioning for two characters instead of one, it was my first ever audition in which I had to sing. I don’t sing.
This was firmly a practice audition for me. I wasn’t going to get it. Heritage Park was more about European settlers than about the surge of Vietnamese refugees in the 60s and 70s, not that I looked like either one but I was more obviously not the former. I didn’t really fit in. Besides, my audition song was “Santa Clause is Coming to Town”. But I practiced, and I developed the characters, and I tried projecting my voice more, incorporating movement more, and becoming more of a theatre actor.
You might know where this is going.
I did my audition. Didn’t hear back for a while. Went on with my life. And then I got the email offering my the Christmas role I’d auditioned for. Awesome! I accepted.
The next day, I got a call from the director of the Christmas play. The Halloween director also wanted to cast me for the role in the Halloween play, and they wanted to know if I was willing to take on the challenge of both roles or if there was one I preferred to do, and it was completely up to me, they knew they were asking a lot of me…
I didn’t think I’d get any offer. I didn’t think I was cut out for theatre. But all at once, I got two roles from one audition, and I accepted them both. They’ve kept me busy, so I’ve been writing here less, but I like busy. I’ve managed not to miss a rehearsal yet, but I will tonight because it’s the first night rehearsals are being held at the same time. It won’t be the last.
Anyway, just a reminder that the next time someone asks you to choose between two things you love, you can choose both. And if you find yourself failing at something a lot, don’t give up, just work to become better.