“Brevity is the soul of wit” is a quote attributed to playwright William Shakespeare, appearing most notably in his play Hamlet. In the second act Polonius says, “Since brevity is the soul of wit / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief…”
Merriam-Webster defines ‘brevity’ as “shortness of duration / especially : shortness or conciseness of expression.” Other connotations surrounding the word include (but are not limited to) bluntness in speech and the quickness of human life.
I have ‘brevity’ tattooed on my arm.
Being a child actor from the ages of (roughly) 10-14 I was molded, in my formative years, by the adults I was surrounded by. Though I was never in Hamlet, this tattoo represents some major lessons that were planted in the fertile soil of those four years. Learned through observation, these lessons have taken six years to grow into a strong value. Strong enough to have its seven letters forever engraved in my skin.
In the first professional production I was ever in, Beauty and the Beast, I was eleven and I played Chip. Cute.
My fondest memories from the production (aside from the rush of the lights and the audience on opening night) were the robust laughs in the rehearsal room. On the first day of rehearsal (a day known as the ‘first day of school’ by those in the industry) I remember sitting wide-eyed and completely in awe of the way the actors introduced themselves. It was never ‘I’m Jim and I’m playing the beast.’ It was always something to the tune of ‘I’m Jim and I am a beast. Oh sorry no, I’m playing the beast.’.
Full disclosure, the beast’s name was not Jim and I’m sure his joke was less corney and far funnier. The point of the matter is that each and every individual somehow made the whole group laugh in the 30 to 45 seconds that was their introduction.
I was one of only two children in the room — The other one being the boy I split the part with for child labor regulations. I was eager to show everyone that I could play right along with the big kids, and when the time came for my introduction, I confidently said, “My name is Ethan and I’m playing Belle.”
There was an uproar of surprised laughter.
Lesson learned: to be funny, be brief. Jokes lose their flavor the longer they are chewed on.
I fondly look back on the productions of those four years. Each one was filled with joy. Joy from the camaraderie in the cast, the recognition from my peers at school, the admiration of an audience and the honing of a craft. Frankly put, my soul was on fire when I was a tween and early teen.
But productions are only half the actor’s job. Maybe a third of it. Maybe an eighth.
When people think of actors, they think of rich celebrities and the ease of their lives. But the reality of the profession is that there are many, many professional actors that you never hear about.
They go from regional theater to regional theater. National tour to national tour. If they’re lucky they’ll book a broadway gig but those are few and far between. They’re inducted into unions like Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) and Actor’s Equity, and for most actors, these markers are where the career begins and ends.
Productions are only half of these actor’s jobs. The rest is auditioning.
In the audition rooms, the wit of the rehearsal rooms is scarcely seen. It smells of sweat and desperation. It is tense and it is lonely. There is a goal and the goal is to impress the casting director and beat out the rest of the competition.
But actors will not say this.
They will grin and tell you that they love auditioning: ‘I really love it! It’s like another chance to perform for me!’
Through their anxiety and gritted teeth they will smile and lie about how happy they are to see you there too: ‘Oh my gosh! It is so good to see you here! Are you up for the part too? You’re such a star!’
If you haven’t guessed, they are not happy to see you there. Not in the slightest. It probably ruined their day.
The same actors you once worked with, the same ones that made you laugh and charmed you with their genuine smiles and kind eyes, now stand before you with false confidence that they hope will shake your own.
I know this because I was this. I learned through watching when I was 10, and by the time I was 14, I was actively engaging with all of these nasty, competitive behaviors. And these behaviors, these fake interactions will break the spirit over time. It is soul crushing.
I look back at the audition rooms now with a certain frustration that I was never able to break the cycle. I was never able to just say to a guy that was up for the same part, “damn, I’m really nervous and I know you’re talented so that makes me even more nervous.” Chances are, if I had said that, we both probably would have ended up with far less anxiety.
Lesson learned: to be human, be real. Say what you feel and your soul will soar. Beat around the bush and be drained of any real connection.
A large part of my identity is wrapped up in the fact that I had this wild, miniature career when I was a child. I have had countless emotional issues stem from the fact that something I loved so dearly seemed to end before it even began. By the time I was 14, my voice had changed. I was too old to play child parts and too young to play adult parts. I was told by my agent and manager that it would be many years before I could work again, and was promptly dropped by both.
But I look back on those four years with such immense gratitude that I enjoyed every single moment. I didn’t take a single minute for granted and wasted no time at all. I met a cast of kooky characters and I’m not talking about the fictional people in the scripts. I’m talking about the real, flawed, joyful, lonely, hysterical, warm, loving, and talented actors I was privileged enough to work with and learn from.
I have been told by my family and friends to return to acting because I loved it so much. But I won’t. Those four years were a production in and of themselves and any good play leaves you wanting a little bit more.
Lesson learned: the best seasons of life, the ones you learn the most from, are sometimes the shortest. Savour each moment because you never know when they’re occuring. After all, there is inescapable brevity in the entire human experience.