A performance of The Donkey Child at the Hillbrow Theatre, Johannesburg. The writer says the truth she wants to share with all the young people who ask her about a career as an actor is that taking a keen interest in the business side of the industry will set them free. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)/Archive
A performance of The Donkey Child at the Hillbrow Theatre, Johannesburg. The writer says the truth she wants to share with all the young people who ask her about a career as an actor is that taking a keen interest in the business side of the industry will set them free. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)/Archive
Florence Masebe  Picture: Supplied
Florence Masebe Picture: Supplied
Earlier this week I was struggling to find words for my submission to parliament on the commissioned works clause of the Copyright Amendment Bill. I tried hard to continue procrastinating as I was not feeling up to the task.

I suddenly felt small and my voice seemed inadequate for what sounded like such a big-deal platform. I became the type of artist I complain about. The kind that does not want to be bothered with matters beyond their brand and its money.

Why should I be spending energy on laws when my job is just to act? I have a go-to phrase that I rely on a lot when things go strange on any set. “I’m here to act, not to fight.” It is often followed by “I know my lines. Don’t involve me”.

It may work briefly at a shoot but I am quite aware that now is not the time to say: “I just want to act”. In fact, now that our lawmakers are finally hearing us, we can’t afford to squander that voice. Yes, many of us just want to focus on the craft but there are other things that will get in the way of the craft if left unattended for too long. The uncomfortable business needs our attention too.

“I want to be an actor.” These are words I hear often from young people who are still at school. I also hear them from professionals who are on other career paths but are convinced they are born for this and want to follow their dreams.

There must be something about this game that makes everyone want to play it. I don’t remember wanting to be an actor so badly. I just know that once the bug had bitten, I had no other option but to follow this wild dream. I come alive at the sound of a countdown to action.

Florence Masebe Picture: Supplied

I get a certain satisfaction when the camera stops rolling and I know the magic has been delivered. It’s a beautiful feeling. I love being an actor. I love taking the viewer on a crazy roller-coaster ride from role to role. I love telling a good story and bringing complex characters to life. I think many actors share this sentiment.

If you follow the things I often say about this industry, you’ll be forgiven if you’re shocked to hear me waxing lyrical about being an actor in South Africa. After all, week after week I dedicate a lot of ink to pointing out the many things that are wrong with film and television production. I hate that I don’t run out of messy situations to discuss.

In fact, I spend a lot of time reminding myself not to care about many of the cries that land in my ears. There are times when I have to tell myself not to care about the arts and all the tales of misfortune that one gets bombarded with daily. There are times when I don’t want to know about the wrongs.

I am at a point where I look at, and want to laugh at, myself and the few well-meaning souls that care too much. I need to be told by a caring voice to lighten up and enjoy the privilege of being one of the better-treated individuals in the business.

I need to stop getting bothered by industry matters that don’t directly affect me or my immediate comforts. I really should learn. My sector of the arts is tiring.

I know that each young person who has told me that they want to act, does not expect me to tell them the brutal truth about our work. It would not be kind to do that. It is better to let them think that theirs will be a different path. That their talent and dedication will be enough to save them from the harsh side of the industry.

Perhaps in my next talk to young wannabe actors I could focus on the textbook stuff. Maybe it’s best that we keep the positivity going and pretend we don’t know a rough side.

Let’s keep up appearances and make them believe that being an actor means being rich and living large. I shouldn’t be the one to tell them that their favourite actor might be depressed as they are tired of watching repeat episodes of works they did years ago and are still not getting paid royalties. Or that by the time the 13-episode drama they shot starts to show on screen, they may not remember where the money earned went.

I have not mastered the art of telling aspirant actors that they are likely to graduate from drama school and end up working at a takeaway.

How do I tell them that in the real world only a fraction of the people they watch on television are living the glossy life associated with their fame? These are truths I don’t want to accept as the norm.

So when I don’t discuss these things openly with young people wanting to enter the industry, it is not because I’m being dishonest, but rather that I prefer to share knowledge that gives them a fighting chance to make it. I don’t believe that the narrative of poverty and desperation is one that should be attached to the lives and careers of actors forever. It is unacceptable that it continues to be our reality.

The truth I want to share with all those young people that ask me about a career as an actor, is that taking a keen interest in the business side of things will free them. Knowing how things are supposed to work versus what productions are trying to get away with, will empower you to stand up for yourself. Understanding contractual obligations is not something that an actor should regard as an optional extra, it is obligatory.

Knowing laws that affect your daily environment should be part and parcel of being an actor. My truth includes encouraging aspirant actors to go out of their way to find information on the industry. Understand the business across the sectors. Get bothered.

Don’t count yourself out when it matters most. Making submissions to parliament on legislation that will change the way things work may not be convenient or glamorous. It does not even come with an appearance fee or any other payment. What it gives each of us is an opportunity to change the narrative for creatives in the audio-visual space. No holding back, it’s submission time.

* Masebe is an award-winning actor, and a producer of television and film content. She is the author of The Heart Knows.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent