I've heard it said that ‘there are as many reasons to act as there are actors’. In fact at one point in time I might have been one of the people to say it. However, in my mind now, there is only one good core reason to act - because it makes you happy. If it can't do this, you shouldn't be doing it.
Happy - what do I mean by this? I mean that acting in the greater sense should serve no other purpose than that of those other activities in your life should, to make you and others happy. So often, we as actors feel like we are meant to be serving 'it', sacrificing for 'it' (and in some senses this slight use of reverence can be a useful perspective to help get us beyond our own narrow egos). However, ultimately, acting is not an entity. It cannot experience joy or suffering. It is a concept; a loose term applied to a collective series of behaviours. It experiences no form of sentience or consciousness itself and so, although it can be helpful at times to think in terms of the service of others when we perform, if acting causes you or others unnecessary suffering, it is not ultimately serving your goal. At least not in the way you're doing it.
Reframing the Goal
The main goal of acting should always be to bring you joy. At least on the individual level. This is an often unrealistic ideal. But so are all ideals. The point of an ideal is to act as the Magnetic North on our compass - to guide us and help keep us on track; to bring us as close to that goal, that ideal, as is humanly possible. Of course it's not going to be smooth sailing, and I'm not suggesting there aren't inevitable times of disappointment and suffering, but these will come on their own. We don't need to help cultivate them further.
With this new approach in mind, we are free to start tailoring our lives and conditions as best we can towards a worthy goal - One that can align and harmonise with the rest of our lives, instead of being in seeming competition.
This isn't all to say that other reasons can't also come into the mix. They can. It's just that, in the end, I believe they should all come back to this core principle. Over time you may develop a kind of reverential relationship to acting, gaining a sense of purpose by committing to something bigger than oneself. But this sense of purpose should serve to make you more happy. One may feel a deep connection with others or sense of transcendence when one acts and that’s fantastic. But this connection and transcendence should itself serve to make you more happy. It should cultivate more well-being and bring more joy, contentment and peace. If one develops a kind of unhealthy worship for the craft of acting and those that teach it, and with that comes a need to defend and sacrifice oneself for it, this is unhelpful. If it is not serving to bring you or others more happiness and contentment, this relationship should be rethought and transformed. As long as this goal or ideal is kept in mind regularly and all other pursuits are geared towards this purpose, we are on the right track.
In order to really have a chance at doing this, we have to examine what drives us to act in the first place. This reminds me of times in my life when I used to stand in the mirror before a show and say to myself with exasperation, "Why do I do this to myself?!".
'Why do I act?' I used to ask myself this question periodically throughout my early days of acting. But it wasn't until I was finally able to articulate what had been driving me for so long to act that I was able to make valuable shifts and progress in my abilities as an actor and meaningful changes that led to much more happiness. My unconscious 'objective', running through my life and directly coursing through my relationship to acting, was 'to prove I'm worthy of being loved'. I did it in every moment of every day and acting had been my main tactic towards achieving this. I had become totally self-identified and addicted to acting. I remember one time signing up to four different classes and workshops all at the same time, while also trying to maintain a job and personal life (hint: the personal life dropped first). The craziest part is, it wasn't even possible. The classes literally overlapped in their dates and times, yet somehow I kept pushing and trying to convince myself that I could do it all. And the worse I felt about myself, the more pressure that built up, the more acting I HAD to do.
When I finally realised (through counseling and a lot of self-reflection) what my unconscious objective had been all along, I suddenly realised that with this newfound awareness, I had the ability to change it. I was now, at least in one sense, back in the driver's seat. I set about gradually shifting my focus from trying to be worthy, to accepting I am already enough and then eventually into not giving a fuck about my worthiness or unworthiness in the world.
Let’s Flesh it Out
For example, I am writing these words on my laptop now, but why? The reason for me is because it makes me happy, both in the short term and long term. The feedback can be both immediate and distant if one is accurately primed. The quiet, focus and sense of accomplishment and purpose I get from the act of writing itself is immediate. It allows me to occupy my mind on a single task that interests me and puts me into a state of 'flow'. But I also think of the people I hope to benefit from what I'm writing. So my pursuit makes me feel connected and useful to others (at least in an imaginative sense). It gives me a sense of selflessness that brings me warmth.
Conversely, there is also the danger of my human impulses to impress, prove my worth and cheat death (by leaving a form of legacy). With these sorts of qualities I have to be careful that they do not become the driving factors, otherwise the sense of well-being and contentment that I get from writing will be overshadowed by anxiety and neurotic attempts to solidify a sense of permanent self and identity. I will become identified with the task itself and instead of having a healthy relationship wherein I am content and joyful, I will have a neurotic unhealthy relationship wherein I am constantly insecure about what I'm doing. By having a healthy relationship I'm also able to better serve the craft itself by not imposing my sense of self-worth onto it. It remains more pure and unsullied. There is a simplicity to it and a elegance within that. If I attach my self-worth to the task itself however, I am confusing the situation. Instead of sitting down to write in order to help actors develop a more sustainable craft and relationship to acting and life, I become compromised and placed in a constant unconscious battle for my 'identity' every time I sit down to write. I am unable to focus my attention and faculties fully on the task at hand and am instead oscillating back and forth between writing and an internal fight for survival.
That’s great, but what does this mean for me?
The same goes for acting. The more one can separate one’s sense of 'self' identity from the equation, the better your acting (and life) will become. Because you'll no longer be fighting for your life every time you walk into an audition, rehearsal room, or even sit down on your bed to learn lines or read a play. It's counterintuitive and I can't ask you to trust me (we don't know each other!). But what I can say is try it out for yourself. If any of this logic seems even the slightest bit true or helpful, give it a go. Test it against your own experience. It's the only way to find out. Remember the Buddhist saying, “These teachings are like fingers pointing at the moon. They are not the moon”.