Acting and performing can be a lonely career path. If you are also the only creative in your family, how do you discuss your craft with family members? Abiola Ogunbiyi provides some sage advice.
As the only performer or arts professional in your family, gatherings and get-togethers can feel like an endless wait in the wings for your star turn as Lone Creative Ranger. And whilst every family comes with its own preordained dose of awkward, it doesn’t do the soul any good to spend summer barbecues and/or Christmas dinners giving a full breakdown of every audition you didn’t get that quarter, apologising that the work you did get clashed with your cousin’s wedding, or explaining (again) why you pursue a performing career in the midst of all the instability, rejection and higher car insurance premiums.
I’d like to say things get better with time and credits, but I know first-hand this isn’t necessarily the case. After an eight year professional career, I still get asked how “the acting thing” is going. “The acting thing?! Uncle, that acting thing just paid my flat deposit. Thank you very much.” (mic drop, glass raise, wine pour).
Quips aside, it’s no easy feat to enter an industry of continuous flux, flow, and false eyelashes, let alone being the only person in your family doing so. That being said, with a few tools in your armour, it can become a manageable, and every now and again entertaining experience.
Before I go into some suggestions, let’s get straight to the serious part. It is extremely important to remind yourself that you never have to justify your career choice to anyone. Your job is your job and is your choice. And if you ever feel like you are being mocked for this choice, you must make that crystal clear, and trust that the individual, or group, will respect your wishes. Especially your nearest and dearest. Ask them to have respect for what you do because it is a hard job, and the more support you have, the better. Geez Abiola, this is just the introduction, calm down. I know. Forgive me. But I truly think that by showing how serious you are about your craft in the first instance, you will be treated seriously by those who truly are there to support you. OK. Big talk over. Now on to some lighter ideas.
A Spoonful of Sugar; a Big Pinch of Salt
The first thing is to make a choice not to pre-emptively put your guard up, and come into situations immediately on the defensive. Tell yourself that all comments and questions about your work are meant with good intention (even if they’re not, it really is in your best interest to view things with rose-coloured glasses). No matter what industry you work in, or job you have, families are a complex kettle of fish for everyone. So remind yourself that you are not alone in that regard, not only as a performer, but as a person living a different life to others within a family.
Share the things that excite you and invite your family to share those experiences with you.
Teach an Aunt to Fish
Paradoxically, a lot of assumptions about the industry have come from representations on television and film, and now to an extent, reality TV; as someone living the actual, unfiltered reality of this life, you have a chance to debunk some of the myths first hand, and you should. It’s important for performing artists to explain how this industry really works, if not only for one’s self but for the good of all artists; it serves us all to have people within all tiers sharing honest insights. Think of it as your own behind the scenes tour. Explain how the casting process works, talk someone through a self-tape, perhaps whilst making them help you record one (my mum has now become an assistant director/apprentice cinematographer through this ‘two birds, one stone’ method).
Share the things that excite you and invite your family to share those experiences with you. A few years ago, my mum took me to watch Macbeth in the cinema. She slept through the whole thing, but the thought (and popcorn) is what counted. Whenever and wherever you are working, let your family know. Invite them to watch your work, or send pictures of the creative process if they can’t make it. Always try to offer your family a chance to support you and your process (post-show dinners always welcome).
Make ‘em Laugh
The next time you’re at a family gathering, and someone asks you to sing a song, do a monologue, or provide some form of evening entertainment, bring some comedy to the occasion and counter with some witty repartee. Try an “Actually, you’ll have to contact my agent first.” or “I don’t work weekends anymore.” Reclaim the power over your craft and have a little laugh in the process.
Within this humour though, it is very important to stay self-aware. If you start to feel insincere or as if you’re providing humour at your own expense, then abort mission. I repeat, abort mission. Self-depreciation is dangerously seductive. The ability to make fun of ourselves might appear endearing, but in an industry where our self-esteem is already more vulnerable to knocks and blows, we won’t do ourselves any favours turning gloves on ourselves. If you ever just want to lay low in all regards, take the opportunity to polish your craft and pretend you have a really bad cold!
Even though almost every non-homework doing daytime hour of my childhood was spent practising the choreography of MTV music videos, and every evening falling asleep to our VHS copy of The Sound of Music, it was still a shock for my parents to hear that I planned to earn my British-Nigerian bread and butter as an artist. Thankfully, my family have respected and supported my decision, and ultimately been my biggest fans. They have pulled me up when I have been knocked out of many a dance round. They have brought me good vibes and great chocolate in times of injury and vocal rest. And, most appreciated of all, they have knocked me down to size when I have blown my thoughts out of proportion.
Pursuing a career in an industry requiring unwavering determination and focus can make it easy to disconnect from the world at large and lose sight of the bigger picture. Having family who work in other areas can provide a great deal of perspective and bring a much-needed lightness to the way we view our own hashtag actors life.
There is some change needed in the narrative around performing arts careers; as those within them, I think we have a big part to play (no pun intended) in contributing to that change. Let’s take pride in every aspect of our field by explaining it in clear detail to those who ask, and trust that by respecting the way in which we discuss our work, others will too.
With a combination of understanding, education, and quick-witted banter, you can have the final say over your role in your clan, whatever occasion the table is laid out for.
Abiola Ogunbiyi is an actress and screenwriter, whose performance credits include Mamma Mia!, The Book of Mormon, Alone In Berlin, Girls (Theatre); Jamestown, The Interview (Television), and A Boy Called Christmas (Film). Her short film Sexellence won Best International Film at the Portland Comedy Film Festival (2018), and Best Comedy Short at the Grand Budapest Film Festival (2019). In addition to writing and acting, Abiola runs the platform To Be A Better Artist, facilitating workshops to support wellbeing amongst creative professionals.
Headshot by Crista Leonard.