Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Life on Offer

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Seems we’re in a time of particular upheaval in the cultural community. Changing technology and changing attitudes are dramatically rewriting the arts, especially those connected with writing and music, and they’re certainly changing the ways we share information and opinion. All of us are scrambling to adjust. New options open up as old options collapse. In such a changing landscape, how do we make a living and create a life?

The stress fracture between living life as an artist and making a living as an artist is not new. I suspect it’s always been hard to bridge the gap between what is commercially viable and what speaks deeply to the human condition. And I suspect that there have always been people who sell out on artistry in order to cash in on an audience. Think of Hamlet’s famous instructions to the players in Shakespeare’s play—it doesn’t take a great imagination to conjure the shoddy acting he rants about!

I’m thinking about Hamlet because I recently heard a fiery delivery of that passage (from the front seat of my car, no less) by the wonderful Gordon Pinsent, an actor who got his start as MTC got its start.

Now a charming octogenarian, Pinsent shared his observations about a life in the theatre arts (stage, film, television, radio) with a huge appreciative crowd at McNally’s this past October. He said that for him, being an actor is like living many lifetimes: you get involved in the relationships and the challenges afforded by each character. You experience their values, their struggles, their pain and exhilaration. It’s intense, demanding, satisfying—and very real.

Then you’re done and everything goes quiet. You wait for the phone to ring or you hustle something together and hope someone will see it as viable. You’re vulnerable.

In his memoir, Next, he points out that the most important work for an actor is “to remember who you are, so that when you leave the house you take you with you. You don’t leave you behind. You don’t go out in the world to impersonate. We’ve got impersonators.” I asked him about the irony there: how do you stay true to yourself when your calling is to assume the identity of others?

He laughed about that, then he came back to that notion of living several lives and the good fortune that’s wound into that. Every experience enriches you, teaches you, expands you, he says. Every character you perform deepens and extends your own.

To me, this is the essence of authenticity in an artist, and the only real protection against the anxiety and vulnerability that inevitably dogs a life in the arts. “Being yourself,” as Pinsent puts it, “may be the richest thing you have.” Whether or not it’s what the world wants to pay for, it’s what you have to offer. And what you can offer, finally, is of a higher value than what you receive.

When the crowd gave him a standing ovation at the end of his talk, Pinsent shrugged and smiled. “I’m just doing my best to live a giving life,” he said. Amen to that.

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