What was that statistic about the Beatles? Oh yes – Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘Outliers’, posited the theory that one of the reasons the Beatles were able to reach such a pinnacle of fame and success was the amount of time they spent in preparation:
‘The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.’
Gladwell is careful not to suggest that it is experience alone that leads to success, but setting talent aside, he does imply that such intensive practise is what separates the merely ‘good’ from the ‘best’.
Of course the Beatles also had that most vital attribute, the confidence of youth – something shared by many young actors. Early on at drama school, I can remember a time in the pub – after a heavy day’s cavorting – when I asked some fellow students who they thought was the best actor in our year. Most people umm-ed and aah-ed and gave a few names, until the final chap, who said, ‘I think I’m probably the best.’ The rest of us were suitably outraged of course, but perhaps he was being more honest than we were – after all, no actor can hope to succeed, even in a small way, without a hefty shovelful of self-confidence. Underneath our rather British reserve and self-deprecation, there burnt in all of us a white hot little core of ego and pride.
Whenever people would talk of how difficult a profession it is, and how many actors are unemployed at any one time, I can always remember thinking, ‘Yes, but I’ll be all right. Once they see how brilliant I am, I’ll never look back.’
But that early blithe confidence is all too easily eroded if it isn’t shored up with a bit of outside validation, in the form of some faith invested in you by a director. When someone places their confidence in you, it gives you more confidence in your own abilities. In order to develop and progress, we all need someone to say ‘Yes’ to us.
It is a wonderful thing to discover that you are able to do something you thought you couldn’t. I can remember being terrified at the idea of improvisation classes when I started drama school, but then discovering that I was actually quite good at it, and more importantly, that I really enjoyed it.
In the same way, sometimes the only way to discover that you can play a particular part is when someone casts you in it. Perhaps they can see something in you that you hadn’t seen yourself, and a door will open to a whole new range of parts, or a set of abilities you hadn’t previously used.
Those actors who are cast in large, challenging roles will be stretched and exercised, and will meet an array of opportunities they hadn’t previously encountered. After any big part, you bound into the next audition radiating fearlessness and with slightly less to prove to yourself. And of course this makes you a much more attractive proposition to a director than an actor who hasn’t worked for six months.
If our confidence – and therefore, our ability – can grow and grow with experience, it’s probably also true that these things can diminish with inactivity. Most of us would love to play Hamlet or Medea but few will get the chance; I’m sure the profession is full of great classical actors or film stars manqué. We all know talented actors who just didn’t seem to achieve the heights we thought they would, simply because they were never given the opportunity to discover what they were really capable of.
After any stretch of time without working, it does feel that the acting muscles become flabby – that first audition after a gap can be surprisingly daunting. It’s very easy to feel one’s momentum slowing – the question is, can you build that momentum up again?