“You're a bit late”
From what I can tell over the phone, she not only seems to be a very open and sweet person, but she is also a person eager to learn everything she can about where to go, how it works and what experiences I have had in the real world... “And how was that for you? Is state-run really better than private? Where do I even start to prepare for the entrance exam?” My old friend's little brother's girlfriend is considering going into acting after her business studies and I am more than glad to share my knowledge with her. She is so lovely and I can feel myself reliving the excitement that I first felt when I decided to pursue the arts as a career. But then she says something that makes my blood boil. Well, it's not so much what she says, than her quoting a statement that was made to her. “Oh... you are 23? You do know that is a bit late to start out in acting right?”
For those of you who are not familiar with the situation, here in Germany there are two different types of acting schools - those that are run by the state, and the privately-owned academies. While the state-run schools are free-of-charge they only accept about 8 students per year out of a pool of 600 - 2500 applicants. Many claim that graduates from state-run schools are better for that reason - they only accept real talents in the first place, while private schools will take anyone because they need the money. However, there are a lot of questionable politics involved. The rule that the age limit for state-run acting schools is 24, is one example.
Acting is by far not the only field where “boosting the young and fresh” is preached. Have you ever tried arguing with someone who believes that „in order to be successful you have to start young”? If you ask me, that idea is problematic on multiple fronts. For one thing, it puts enormous pressure on our youth to be active in as many areas as possible ('till the point where they become overwhelmed), and it creates the illusion that once you hit 25 your life is set, your life is over, it only goes downhill from there.
I can't really talk about other cultures and, yes, there have been times in the past also where aging was considered to be something negative (the fountain of youth comes to mind) but our modern day, western society seems to be obsessed with youth to a degree where we are actually petrified by wrinkles and bald spots. (And I will admit - I almost cried the other day when I thought I spotted my first gray hair). Of course the arts are not unaffected by these notions. Worse yet, the artistic world is pushing them. Botox and plastic surgery in Hollywood, retouched photographs of models on billboards, blowing the audience away with tricks and effects... I could go on and on. But aren't the arts supposed to challenge popular beliefs? Aren't we supposed to be the ones who make the impossible possible, miracles happen and show that there are not one but many other ways?
I have met so many people over the years who wanted to be dancers but would now never become flexible enough, singers but would now never be able to create that range in their voice, actors but would now never be able to break into the industry, musicians but would now have no way of competing with those who have worked with music software programs since they were 14. Seems to make a lot of sense, doesn't it? But then I wonder... how did the guy I met on set who started performing in his 40s and the woman I read about who launched her career in her late 80s do it? How did I become a dancer and dance teacher when I didn't truly start pursuing dance until I was 21? How did my mom become a singer, my friend a painter, my old colleague a film maker? Are we all exceptions? Are we especially talented? Or did we simply find the nerves to say: Fuck it! I'll do it anyway!
It's about what you bring to the table
Sometimes we have to drown out those voices from outside and inside our own heads. We have to take that leap of faith, go for what we want and trust that... no matter what happens... we will be okay. But hey! I get it. Much easier said than done, right? That's a great mindset when you don't have mouths to feed, bills to pay or a retirement to save up for. There are certain responsibilities that come with age and the choices we make in life and we don't all have the privilege to hit “reset” and start over. As Arianna Huffington stated: Failure is not the opposite of success. It is part of it. Can we allow ourselves to fail once we get older? There are financial aspects to be considered as well as personal ones. Can we really allow ourselves to invest our money, energy and time into an artistic field of our choice when we can't say for sure what we will gain from it? My answer is yes! Because while none of us can say for sure where that path will eventually lead us, I can guarantee you, that the journey will be a rewarding one. Learning an art form means learning about the world that exists within the realms of that form, the world that surrounds us and the world that lives within us. It is fascinating to me how the laws of physics and psychology come together so a human being can create a composition consisting of paint, sound or movement. We draw from what we see, approach topics from a different angle, examine subjects more precisely – and learn so darn much about ourselves in that process.
You know what the best thing about art is? It's not about speed! It's not about quantity! It's about what you bring to the table! Just think of all those experiences you can draw from, what stories you have to tell and if you are drawn to an art form, chances are there is a reason that art form wants you to speak through it.
I know what you are thinking. That's all nice and fluffy and hippie and all, but it doesn't change biological truths. It doesn't change the fact that when you are younger you do learn quicker, your bones and voice are still developing and you simply have more time to master your craft. Aye, there's the rub – to put it in Hamlet's words. We have this idea in our heads that we are only allowed to call ourselves true artists once we have perfected our craft. Even once we have completed our studies, visited multiple master classes and achieved our goal of performing or displaying our work in our dream space... Can we ever truly declare ourselves fully baked artists with no more to learn? No? Then why in turn not believe a person just starting out already is an artist who has something to say? Art is ever changing and ever evolving. The way you create today might not be the same tomorrow. So if you can't let yourself fall on the floor anymore... choose a different move. If you can't reach those high notes... transpose. If they won't hire you... make your own. If your fellow musician has more knowledge of that music software.... it's okay! Your music is not supposed to sound like theirs!
To quote Whoopie Goldberg quoting Rainer Maria Rilke: “If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing… then you are a writer.”
“The same age you will be if you don't”
I do not believe that just anyone can be an artist. I don't think producing tones is the same as singing or moving parts of your body is dance. I don't think you can just put a splotch of paint on a wall and call yourself a painter. You might disagree with me and I am curious to read why. For myself, I see a true piece of art of any kind to be an interplay of skill, talent and a hell of a lot of hard work.
Ha gotcha! - you might be thinking. So, there must BE certain criteria to call yourself an artist. If not age and duration of working in the field, what are they? How do you measure skill, talent and hard work in the arts? I will not presume to know the answer to that. But just as I don't believe that your grades in high school will define whether you will be a good doctor or not, I don't believe the importance of what you have to say can be determined by something as superficial as weight, ethnicity, gender or age.
If you are called to the arts early on, that's great! I also started performing relatively young because that is what I loved to do. But my mother is a performer. Our whole family life was centered around music and theater. If a child's family does not expose them to the arts, how can they know whether they like it? Maybe you weren't at a place in your life before where pursuing an art form seemed like an option. But you are at that place now. Whether you will make a full-on career out of it is not up to any of us to decide really. And you will meet people who have already made up their minds about the correct starting age. But we need to give people the opportunity to change their minds. If they are not confronted with an alternative – why would they rethink their position? But first and foremost we have the right to be happy with our life. And that happiness will in turn animate others.
Art does not belong to the young, the beautiful and able-bodied. Art belongs to whomever is touched by the action of creation. Just imagine what you might create if you let yourself. Who is to say how good you will be? How will you know if you don't try?
And if I still have not managed to convince you... maybe Julia Cameron will. When she was asked: “But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano / act / paint / write a decent play?” the author and teacher answered: “Yes . . . the same age you will be if you don't.”
ALSO ON THIS TOPIC: Julia Cameron - The Artist's Way