Wrestling with “Success”

The week of September 20, 2012, I was on the cover of NOW Magazine for their fall theatre preview. I was opening a play with Nightwood Theatre, starring in a new two-hander opposite one of my acting idols, the great Susan Coyne. I had recently closed Iceland, a sold-out SummerWorks hit that would later go on to win the playwright, Nicolas Billon, the Governor General’s Award. I also couldn’t pay my rent.

I look back on that week as a pretty perfect representation of my career and, I imagine, the careers of many others in the arts: Looks pretty good from the outside, barely keeping it together on the inside. So much of what was going on for me professionally felt exciting and inspiring, and at the exact same time I felt like a complete failure. It made me wonder—and I still wonder, all the time—how exactly am I defining success? What is it to be a successful actor?

But first, I mean… Let’s be frank. That anyone pays me to act, ever, and that I can legitimately say that it’s how I make a living (tenuous though that living may be) makes me a successful actor. I am one of the lucky ones, and I know it. But even that gives me pause. I’m a “successful working actor,” and yet I constantly live with so much uncertainty and instability, so much anxiety, so much fear and doubt. I feel like I’m pretty much a wreck all the time, and yet I’m considered a success story?

I’ve started looking at my own success—and I’m not even entirely sure how I’m defining that word—in a number of different ways. The first is the good and pure and noble one: artistic success. For a long time this was the only one that mattered to me. Am I doing work that I’m proud of? Am I challenged by it, excited by it, will I grow from it? Are the people I’m working with good people, and good artists? Is it obsessing me? If I can answer yes to these questions, even if the thing is ultimately a disaster, I feel artistically successful. Andromache kicked my ass in every possible way—physically, intellectually, emotionally—and I loved every second of it. (Audiences and critics, on the other hand, were very divided as to whether any of it worked at all.) The Road to Paradise played to small houses but was the most vitally important story I’ve ever been a part of telling. As I’ve aged, though, the importance I place on that kind of success has shifted.

With Susan Coyne in Nightwood. Photo by John Lauener.
With Susan Coyne in Between the Sheets by Jordi Mand (Nightwood Theatre). Photo by John Lauener.

That week—that NOW cover/can’t-pay-my-rent week—marked a turning point. Maybe it was having turned thirty that year, maybe it was having recently moved in with my boyfriend (now my husband) and feeling like I needed to hold up my end of this partnership in a new way, but all of a sudden a different definition of success started emerging: financial. Artistic success now had a pretty fierce competitor.

Feeling like my financial stability was more important, more pressing, than my artistic satisfaction was scary. It made me feel like I wasn’t an artist. Like I couldn’t hack it, like I should go get “a real job.” And I still have those thoughts every day. When I see a “Now Hiring” sign at the bakery down the street I think, “Maybe I should just do that…”

I don’t imagine I’m an exception when I say that the financial instability that comes with this profession stresses me right the fuck out. I don’t want to have to rely on my husband to float us because I have no work on the horizon. I want to be able to take a vacation without fearing we’ll regret it, and to be able to pay off my Visa bill. I want more security, less anxiety. When I feel financially stable—and those times are scarily few and far between—that’s when I feel like I’ve got my life together. That this little career of mine is going all right; that I have made some sort of success of myself, whether I’m doing satisfying artistic work or not.

But financial stability isn’t the only measure of success that has revealed itself to be hugely important in my life. I’m also somewhat appalled to admit just how much I measure my success by what other people think of me. Whether it’s fellow artists or critics or audience members, those opinions act as a barometer of sorts. And it’s far less a question of seeking positive reinforcement than it is of needing a simple acknowledgement that I exist. Is anyone aware of my work? Am I worth talking to after a performance? Worth following on Twitter? I am high for days if someone stops me on the streetcar to say they saw The Seagull. And I don’t read reviews during the run of a show, but I sure Google them afterwards and always note if I warranted a mention, be it good, bad, or indifferent. All of these tiny ways that I feel acknowledged, that my work is acknowledged, they’re important to me. And I can’t always tell how much of that is about wanting my work to make some sort of impact and how much is just my ego. I find it embarrassing and a bit shameful, but I can’t deny that it’s part of the myriad ways I can feel like a success or a failure on any given day.

Three and a half years after that NOW cover, I find myself in virtually the same spot. Two days after a swishy gala premiere at TIFF for a film I starred in, Hyena Road, I was back to what I’d spent most of my summer doing: reading at casting sessions. At the time of writing this article, I’d just been nominated for an ACTRA Award for that same film, yet I was also pacing around my apartment in a nervous sweat praying I get an audition for something—anything—because I had no work until the spring. See? Looks good on the internet, bit of a mess in the flesh.

I always wonder how everyone else feels. When I’m envious of another actor’s career, I’d love to know how they think about it themselves. Do they feel like a fraud the way I feel like a fraud? Do they worry they don’t live up to the idea other people might have of them? We have so many tools at our disposal to present the very best version of ourselves—the smartest, the most interesting, the most attractive. It is so easy to share our accomplishments with the world. It’s so easy to spy on what everyone else is doing, and then feel woefully inadequate. Maybe I will never feel “successful.” Maybe that doesn’t even exist, and I need to find new language for whatever this pursuit is. Satisfaction, maybe. Or contentment. Though maybe if I felt those things I wouldn’t feel the need to keep going with it. Because that pursuit, that struggle, is so much a part of living life as an artist, isn’t it? If we felt we’d achieved it, we could stop. So maybe the pursuit of the thing is the thing. And maybe someday I’ll make peace with that.

12 Responses to “Wrestling with “Success””

  1. I loved the honesty and humility that Christine brought to this piece.
    In my opinion, Christine is a tremendous success and very worthy of all the praise she receives. It is enlightening to read that her concerns are not far off from my own and that people we admire in our industry share the same anxieties, fear and struggles with self worth. I can certainly relate to all of that.

    It’s so easy to be brought town by a small house, a negative review or sadly, the success of others. I think we easily lose sight of our own goals and confidence when we think no one is noticing the hard work and craftsmanship we pour into our work. But perhaps Christine is correct that the struggle is part of that work and it keeps the fuel on our fire.

    Very brave and very well written. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great article young lady. I like the part about talking to other artists about it. Talk to anyone for that matter. You don’t need to doubt you should or not. Self doubt is an important issue.

  3. Thank you for putting into such eloquent words what I feel every day. Hope to cross paths with you one day. xo

  4. Thank you for your honest article. I relate! It made me reflect on this issue and how I’ve come to terms with it, after a quite a struggle. Maybe I can offer some advice from the (deep) trenches.

    Clearly, success can’t come from just one source. Which is why we can have success yet feel unsuccessful at the same time, or not successful for very long, because there are competing values.

    We value more than one quality related to success, and they all compete for fulfillment. You outlined qualities most of us value, to different degrees. Some people will have an easier time feeling successful because the various qualities are not in intense competition for fulfillment. It was easier for you – as it was for me – to feel successful when younger when other values weren’t in as much competition with the value of artistic satisfaction.

    But at least for me, I am convinced by now that the most practical strategy is not to try and define one’s way out of the success problem. To redefine, reframe, what success means to me. I’ve had my share of supposedly breakthrough “paradigm shifts.” For a short time I would be elated and motivated by some new reframing.

    Now, I don’t trust them. Because they were really about denial, about rejecting who I am. They were abstractions and distractions. As an artist (writer turned director), I’m really good at imagining; that’s my strength, but it can also be my weakness because I can seduce myself into believing things about myself that are wish-fantasies, not realities. How I might like to be, that would better allow me to feel successful. This leads to frustration because it’s escapism from the bedrock of my life, as it is, and likely will be.

    I learned about myself the hard way that I’m never going to stop caring about financial security. I used to try to talk myself out of it – aka redefining, reframing. Same thing with recognition — I know I’m never going to stop wanting it, no matter what I do. Everything in this line was really just suppression. Pretending. I also used Buddhism (“desire is suffering”) to try and warp myself into submission.

    Nowadays I think the most practical strategy is 1) know and accept who I am, and 2) efficiency. What are the qualities I value most, and how can I fulfill them all at once?

    So for example, constantly update about the market, do lots of work in genre since it has the most commercial potential possible, bringing both financial and popular success, but do it with depth and flair, so it can satisfy the value of artistry. Three in one.

    I regularly like to remind myself that Shakespeare wrote to be popular, and that he made investments in theatre companies and other things and salted away his money to live in prosperity. In his work he combined all three qualities that mattered most to him.

    Writers create stories from scratch, which gives us a lot of leverage for pieces of the pie – financial, recognition, and artistic. Directing reinforces this. But actors can too: it’s why they learn about the business end, align with like-minded business partners and form their own production companies, and maybe, if inclined, become directors as well.

    I wasted a lot of time trying to live according to redefinitions and reframings of the meanings of success. My advice from hard experience is accept who you are and don’t try to change through redefinitions and reframings of what success means. Focus is power, with the caveat that it applies most effectively if you first focus on who you really are, in whole.

  5. This is such an eloquent article. It is so true. Thank you for this article and the comments. This is all so true. We need to find our own truth.

  6. See also – writing, comedy, etc. You can be highly visible, win awards, and have what looks like success from the outside, and be desperate to pay the bills. More and more these days, it seems artistic success doesn’t preclude the need for a day job and/or a supportive partner.

  7. Being a senior artist, with over 45 years in the business, I relate to Ms. Horne’s honest and generous essay about the challenges of making a living in this frustrating but exhilarating profession. I love what I do and have been fortunate enough to find satisfying work, but not all the time. The lack of security, the sense of rejection and the isolation one feels when not engaged is real and frequent – we just get better at accepting it. Reliance on my family, friends and colleagues for emotional support has been crucial and sustains me. But it is hard sometimes. I am grateful for the friends I have made and the strides being made in the area of diversity. Emotional challenges remain for all of us, and the necessity for our enduring mutual and moral support continues to be valuable and cherished.

  8. “Satisfaction, maybe. Or contentment. Though maybe if I felt those things I wouldn’t feel the need to keep going with it.” — oof this is so it.

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Written By

Christine is an actor, bird-watcher, walk-taker, and new mother. Born and raised in Aurora‎, Ont., she now splits her time between Toronto and the Northumberland Hills.