Thursday 29 September 2016

Katie Byrne: ahead of the pack

Why does a peer's success make us question our own?

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

A friend of mine has recently had considerable success as an actor. We met on the audition scene many years ago when I decided that I'd like to give acting a go too.

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'Audition scene' makes it sound terribly glamorous. It wasn't. This was the entry-level, portfolio-building, student short-film world of acting.

It's a cottage industry in which the director is often only a few years out of puberty and deferred payment usually means no payment at all.

This friend and I acted in a number of productions together. So many, in fact, that we'd burst out laughing whenever we arrived at a rehearsal and discovered that we were once again cast alongside each other.

I gave up acting after a few years, although I often wonder if I ever really gave it my all... or if I ever really wanted it at all. During those few years, I met actors and directors whose passion for the craft was so devout that it made me feel like an imposter. This friend was one of them.

I reminded him of this when he called around last week. "You weren't taking no for an answer," I said. "You were so determined."

He agreed, but added that it feels like he's only on the first rung of the ladder, and out of what he calls the "cesspool".

"Ah, but we were in the cesspool together," I replied wistfully, hoping that our shared history might somehow entitle me to an Oscars plus-one.

He went on to talk about the amount of scripts he turns down these days. "I always ask myself: why does this film have to be made?" he said.

I just nodded along, all the while thinking of a time when the pair of us would have bitten the hand off a tampon commercial.

I was no great shakes as an actor - I was much too self-aware - yet, as I listened to his adventures, I couldn't help but imagine what might have been.

Gore Vidal said: "Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies."

Nothing inside me died that day. What I felt was more of a helpless longing, and an acute awareness of my sudden relegation from co-worker to cheerleader.

Those in the arts have a certain reputation for begrudging one another's success. When a writer gets a book deal, there's always an ex-colleague who talks of their inability to string a sentence together.

When an actor makes it in Hollywood, there's always a RADA graduate who reminds anyone who'll listen that this rising star isn't even trained. Comedians, often too smart for their own good, are the worst offenders. They forensically dissect their peers' work in search of anything unoriginal or uninspired.

What's interesting here is that the object of their critique is very often somebody who occupies the same space as them. They tend to be the same sex, in a similar age bracket and in possession of the same qualifications. Sometimes their shtick is alike or there's a general similarity in style.

I didn't die a little when my actor friend became successful because, beyond a similar stint in the cesspool, we don't have much in common in terms of casting range or, more to the point, talent. Likewise, I didn't feel envious when a friend of mine got a record deal, nor when I opened GQ magazine and saw a fat kid I used to babysit done up to look like a cocktail stick-chewing matinee idol.

It occurred to me that day that Vidal's oft-quoted statement really only applies to the competitive and the resentful. For most of us, the phrase, "Every time a peer succeeds, something inside me dies", is much more relevant.

It's in these situations that the throat becomes tight, the palms become clammy and the actor that resides in all of us must deliver its best performance.

You have to convey delight when really you're wondering where it all went wrong. You have to modulate your response, trying to find the perfect pitch for genuine congratulations, even though your voice is now reverberating in your head and the end of the phone call has become a pressing concern.

Is this begrudging? I don't think so. We're pack animals and we unconsciously draw parallels with people we consider our equals. Yet, as with everything in life, it's not really about them, it's about us. Our self-concept is largely derived by comparison, so when a peer skips the next milestone and instead goes out of the stratosphere, we can't help but wonder why we didn't too.

There are two roads at this point, and most of us take the wrong one. Often we allow ourselves to become envious, critical and bitter. We consider their success a symbol of our failure rather than an augur of our own good fortune. We allow the gap between us to widen instead of seeing the gap as our next bridge to cross. We forget that a peer's success is a sign of our own impending progress - that's why you became acquaintances in the first place.

When a peer succeeds, you have every reason to celebrate, even if it's human nature to die a little first...

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