On realising the importance of maintaining friendships

I recently received sad news regarding the passing of an actor I’ve worked with a couple of times in the past; the thought of someone so young, talented and positive no longer being with us is awful to contemplate, and has also made me realise just how easy it can be to grow apart from people in an industry where there is often a distinct lack of security and continuity.

It would be disingenuous for me to say that I was close friends with the person who has passed, but they were someone who I got on well with whenever I worked with them; they always worked had to be at the top of their game, and had a positive outlook which rubbed off on those around them. They were very much one of those people who it felt like you could pick up where you left off with, after having not seen them for a while – whilst our respective careers took us in different directions, the fact we had worked together and had a good time doing so meant that we had a positive shared experience which made it easy to stay friendly with each other. This feels true of a number of friendships and relationships I’ve formed over the past few years, and is something I find to be truly rewarding about working in theatre.

But conversely, it’s also reflective of one of the things I find most difficult about this industry. I can look at my Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and see hundreds of people who I’ve met, worked with and have developed some form of relationship with – but the sad fact of the matter is that I don’t see or stay in regular contact with the vast majority of those people. The numbers are hugely conflated due to the temporary nature of much of the work we create, as unlike many other fields where people work in one place for a long time we often engage in short-term projects – particularly when freelancing – or have to move jobs in order to find opportunities for professional development; we accumulate friends and acquaintances during these times, and as we go off in our different directions other people fill those gaps and often we drift from those people we knew before.

This isn’t to say you will get on with, or want to stay in touch with, everyone you meet or work with. It’s a statistically unlikely so say that you won’t meet someone who does your head in, rubs you up the wrong way or who you just don’t click with – and naturally you will drift apart from these people and fail to stay in touch. You might see each other and be polite, but it’s not a relationship you may feel inclined to maintain – sometimes you’ll stay in touch out of a sense that it could be a good professional relationship to keep, but it won’t be the same as a real friendship. Sometimes, though, you’ll stay in touch with those people as much as those you truly care about.

As for the people you do care about, then invariably they’ll be pretty awesome. This could be for a number of reasons – they might be fun, passionate, talented, committed or something you consider equally positive – and the circumstances you meet in will usually be conducive to building a friendship; the arts often seem laid-back, and attract like-minded people who recognise they have shared values. In theatre we work hard and play hard, and often we do both with the same people – if working on a show, you’ll spend the majority of your waking hours with the same people, and by both working and socialising with them you’ll build trust and friendships much easier. The majority of people I’d class as friends are people I’ve worked with over the years who I’ve enjoyed such a relationship with, where we’ve just clicked in a way which makes me truly appreciate the opportunities to meet people which working in this industry presents. I genuinely believe that I wouldn’t have met such awesome people had I not chosen to work in this industry, and it reassures me in my moments of doubt that I’ve made the right career choice. But staying in touch with these people can be difficult at times.

There are plenty of relationships which will stand the test of time, and where you stay in regular contact with people; if you really click with someone, then you’ll make the effort to stay in touch with them. But even in these instances it can be difficult; if either party relocates for work or personal reasons, then geography becomes a factor. And even beyond that, the fact that many of us don’t work a 9-to-5 day contributes as our commitments may not complement each other – there are a number of times I can think of when I’ve been free but friends have been in rehearsals, on tour or something similar. And besides, when working with new people you also feel a commitment to them – to spend time with them, to get to know them and to socialise with them. The production experiences is often likened to a bubble, where things can be quite intense and you spend the vast majority of your day with a small group of people; at these times, you can struggle to find the time, energy or inclination to then meet up with other people – you most likely just want to rest when you have free time.

So we end up maintaining these relationships through technology; the odd text message here, the odd Tweet there. We keep an eye on Facebook to find out what people are up to, and to send them birthday wishes and invites to our own shows. We send emails around asking for favours and notifying each other of rooms available to let when we go off on tour. And we self-promote ourselves shamelessly. It’s great to let our friends know what we’re up to, and to be invited to share their successes – but it’s usually a poor substitute for a real friendship. Far be it from me to suggest that it’s a completely hollow act – I’ve got a number of friends where geography means we simply can’t see each other, and the technology allows us to maintain relationships which in the past might have been lost – but it also provides us with a convenient way to feel like we’re staying friends whilst forgoing that closeness which is intrinsic to strong, lasting relationships.

I’ve now been living out of London for about a year now, and as the vast majority of my friends and the people I’ve worked with over the past few years live there it means a number of relationships have suffered. I can’t afford to constantly jump on trains to London to see people, watch the shows they’ve been working on and have a proper catch-up with them, as much as I would like to – instead, I’ve been vicariously experiencing their lives by relying on technology to keep me updated. I am as guilty as anyone at using technology to allow me to pretend I’m maintaining real friendships, and I know this is a fallacy. From my closest friends to those I just get on with well on the occasions I see them, there’s a danger these people will end up being no more than an avatar of someone I used to know. And that’s something I don’t want to be true.

It’s an awful to think that someone I never really stayed in touch with is now no longer with us – it makes me feel guilty for not making more of an effort to stay in touch, and for trying to convince myself that I could use technology as an alternative to real contact. It’s been evident from what I’ve seen that so many people have been shocked and upset at their loss, which I think is a true reflection of how they will be missed – regardless of how close their friendship was, or how often they saw each other. We share so many fleeting moments in life, and working in theatre seems to make these moments even more frequent – so value them, and the people you share them with. And don’t let the people become a shadow of a time gone by – even when the industry does its best to keep you apart, don’t let it.

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