Jess Bryson


I went to UBC theatre in 2004. The program required you do a year of their theatre theory and acting classes, then you audition for the main program. I had gone to an arts school, so I was familiar with both.

The teacher was a walking stereotype of an acting teacher. Stretchy pants and thin scarves. Cruel to women, if she wasn’t ‘successful’ then they can’t be, flirtatious with men, cuz sexual power feels gooooood. At one point, she decided that Stephan, an athlete, was her favourite because he was “raw”. I vividly remember her having him go on all fours and growl and bark like a dog and we had to “act scared”. I was, but because what the actual fuck was this?? Everything with her was about power. “I’ll break you down to build you back up again”. Only it seems like part two was left out entirely. You’d see people who had been cut from the performance program and they were shells of their former selves. I am FAR too defiant for this shit.

The cruel part is how much people don’t care, the average casting director doesn’t have the energy for a note, let alone a dig at your looks…

One day, our instructor loudly proclaimed “if I don’t make you cry in class, then you’ll fail!”. That was it for me. She CANNOT fail me for not crying! I was disillusioned and I was out. I opted not to audition for the program and just get an academic degree in theatre. Fuck them, fuck that, I don’t need “to be built back up again”.              

Randomly, I went to the club’s day and saw UBC improv. I had no real experience with it, but it was performance, comedy and they didn’t look suicidal. I auditioned, got on a team and it became the art of my adult life. Improv is the purest form of theatre. Demanding, exciting, narrative, surreal, you’re actor, director, writer in one! I love it! I finished my theatre degree but I got my real training in improv.

After school I got headshots and an agent. I didn’t book. But I also didn’t experience the “we’re being cruel here because it’s incredibly cruel out in the real world!” Which was often said in theatre school to justify being awful to a 20 year old. No, it’s not. The cruel part is how much people don’t care, the average casting director doesn’t have the energy for a note, let alone a dig at your looks, take or whatever last part of your originality remains. 

I moved to Toronto. I found more improv. Carved out a life and even some money in comedy. I kept auditioning, booked small non-union, nothing great. Still, never experienced a mean or rude casting house. In fact, the garbage spoken at theatre school would be considered incredibly unprofessional in the real world. I even ended up in some tv/film rooms (the big leagues) and EVERYONE is completely pleasant, professional and they bring you in because of YOU. 

Theatre school had it all wrong. Don’t strip young people of their originality and passion, turning them into identical acting robots with great diction. Those people are so well trained in human emotions have completely forgotten how to feel in a genuine way. To work on the stage, well you better sing and dance. It is a slog but because you better be prepared to move for work: regional theatre is calling! TV and film does not need projection and it revels in uniqueness and thinness, well, or fatness (please no average weight). Commercials are where the money is and are entirely based on how you look (do you have the chin of a Tim Hortons employee??). And auditioning is exhausting, you better love that or you don’t love the job.

And I didn’t. I spent 10 years auditioning and hated it. I finally booked a union commercial ($$$) and it was…. Fine. I did not love it. It never captured what I loved about acting in the past and improv and my own projects (see Theatre Topikós first hit play!). And I quit.

Theatre school’s greatest gift to me was being so shit I could see through it. It allowed me to turn towards improv (art of my life) and doing art that I believed in and did only for the joy (WordPlay).

In conclusion, if someone says to you “I’m going to break you down to build you back up again” they’re an abusive boyfriend and you should run! You’re great as you are!

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