Maybe that’s just how it is when you opt for a career on the stage or screen

by Miriama McDowell
Sun 1 Mar 2015
4 min read
  • Miriama & Talanoa
    Miriama & Talanoa

I’m away from home at the moment. Working. It’s a big part of the life of an actor, being on the road. This time I’ve been away for two months. I hit the road just as the new year came in, and I’ve moved in and out of my car I’d say about 25 times since then.

I grew up moving in and out of houses, so I think it was inevitable that I’d go one way or the other. Either I’d get itchy feet and move incessantly, or I’d feel a need to stay put and ward off change. I’m more of the former. When I was a child I used to count the number of houses I’d lived in as I went to sleep, a kind of a litany, a comforting reminder of where I’d been. Now I do the same with the number of countries I’ve visited – if I don’t count airports as a visit to a country, I’m hitting 17 at the moment.

After I graduated from drama school, which was over a decade ago now, I bounced from job to job for about 15 months, not really living anywhere. I remember working on a radio show with a veteran actor, and I talked about wanting to unpack my bags, move into a place and stop shuffling about.

He understood my dilemma. “Oh yes,” he said. “I remember the point in my career where I decided to have a base. Get a room. Put a bed in it”. 

I was all ears, hoping that I could gauge my tenacity by his experience: “How long did you tour around before you did that?”

“Eighteen years”. Wow. And I thought I was a gypsy. Nothing like the old school actors to put you in your place.

My zippy little Toyota has learned to accommodate this nomadic lifestyle of mine, although  I suspect it resents the way (thanks to my addiction to op-shopping) I push and shove and squeeze things in when I’m on the move once again and find that there’s stuff I simply can’t bear to leave behind.

At the moment, I’m dreaming about a filing cabinet. It’s at the Colombo St Salvation Army in Newtown. It’s long and low and made of galvanised steel. In my dreams, I invent all sorts of ways to truss it up on the roof of my car. Then we’ll be off, hitting the highway all the way back to Auckland.

Of course the difference with me now is that I have a three-year-old in the car too. She fits in around the huge, aged terracotta pots I found for 50c each in the hospice shop in Marton, and the 80s fizzy drinks crates I picked up off the side of the road in Paekakariki.

People talk about kids not being “handbrakes” but it’s no such philosophy that keeps her at my side when I’m working. This just happens to be the way I make my living, so we both have to be on the road a fair bit. Luckily for me, my daughter is adventurous and confident - and she embraces new places and experiences with an open mind and a great deal of pluck.

But, also luckily for me, I have a great bunch of friends, most of them working in the Arts and willing to step in and take her on adventures when I am stuck in the black box of the theatre for days on end.

It’s a strange lifestyle, living off the theatre. It takes a certain personality type I reckon. As an actor you need to be vulnerable, to make yourself open to emotions. It’s sort of the opposite of what we do instinctively as human beings. But in your lifestyle you have to be able to make yourself vulnerable too.

Jane Campion calls it “negative capability”, a term she stole from Keats. In order to be an artist, you have to embrace the unknown, trust your intuition, and accept uncertainty. In real terms as an actor, that means you have to keep your year open, not fill it up with a “real job”. You need to be ready to step in to work when it comes. I know many fine actors who couldn’t dwell in that void and had to find other ways to make their living.

Negative capability is the arch enemy of one great New Zealand institution. The mortgage. I was living in London when the global financial crisis hit, and the panic in the air was palpable. I remember how, from one day to the next, the city emptied, the tubes became spacious and comfortable, the suits disappeared and all that was left were the op-shoppers, carrying their finds through the empty streets.

At the time, I was thinking: “Oh yes. Now everyone is living in the unknown. Now the suits know what it’s like to be an artist, having to live off what you have, and having to trust that another pay packet will come along – not regularly maybe, but that it will come”.

I write with much bravado, but the fact is that I’d love to have a way of paying a mortgage. And nothing keeps me up at four in the morning like the fear of not knowing how I will pay my rent in March, April, May…  But this is the life I have chosen. So I close my eyes and start at the beginning: “100 Wallace Road, 29 St Albans Ave, 10 Herbert Rd, 9 Kelly St, 8 Woodford Rd...” and drift back to sleep.