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In her final column for A Younger Theatre, Emma Bentley writes on the things she has learned during the pandemic, and her plans and outlook going forward. 

More than a year ago I wrote about how I couldn’t view anyone else’s success in this industry without feeling a pang of jealousy. I am glad to say that now I DO NOT FEEL THAT WAY ANYMORE. And my God, does it feel good. I don’t think I could have gotten to this point, or at least this quickly, without the pandemic opening up some time to step back, re-evaluate and re-frame my thinking. This is all starting to sound very self-helpy, I know. And yes, I have been having therapy. But in case there is anyone else out there reading this in a similar position to me, here’s 800 words about the way my thinking about being an actor and writer has changed throughout COVID.

It was happily ironic that there were actually a lot of benefits in being an actor who didn’t work that much before the pandemic. When everything started to shut down last March, I immediately felt this massive relief of pressure, like, “Oh man, I don’t have to TRY for a while, I can stop feeling guilty about not emailing casting directors, trying to make stuff on no budget, trying to DO SOMETHING!” Plus, because I was already used to working another job, it wasn’t a massive shock to the system to be working 5 days a week in a coffee shop. When people were posting pictures on Twitter feeling out of sorts in their supermarket uniforms I was like, huh, I’ve been doing this the whole time without making a fuss about it. In fact it was a relief that I could just focus on being a barista without trying to juggle it with all the other appointments, castings, theatre trips, etcetera.

Then, as the pandemic settled in and other actors started to talk about missing performing, I couldn’t relate. Yes, I miss performing every day but not anymore during COVID than since I left drama school in 2014. It might sound sad to some of you reading this, but it was actually really great that I didn’t have any work lined up and therefore I didn’t have any work cancelled. This started to light a fire in me (with the help of Headspace app) to focus on the present rather than dwelling in the past or trying to pull myself into the future.

It also allowed me to deal with (what I didn’t realise until last year were) deep-seated feelings of disappointment and shame relating to my Edinburgh Fringe show in 2017. For 3 YEARS I hadn’t come to terms with how the show had not turned out to be the success that I wanted it to be, but in the last 6 months I’ve allowed myself to properly work through that. I’m not sure I can explain exactly how all of the cogs of my brain have been altered but I think it’s something like, “it doesn’t matter now.” I’ve managed to get myself to a place where I am able to believe that everything happens for a reason, and everyone who needed to see that show saw it, even if that was only 500 instead of 1000. It’s a relinquishing of control, meaning all I can focus on is what I choose to make now.

I also feel this sense of actual excitement about the future which I honestly think faded away maybe after the first 2 years out of drama school. I don’t know what’s round the corner, but it could be something really exciting — who knows?! I’ve found a revamped love of sitting at my desk in my bedroom with a cup of coffee and writing and planning stuff! And maybe it’s the fact that I have been immersed in the coffee industry for the past 11 months where, if anything, it’s gotten busier during the pandemic, but I don’t feel worried or depressed about our world of theatre. I’m excited for us. The world has almost completed Netflix, and so people are going to be genuinely thrilled to see a live show when it eventually happens. Yes, I know it’s not going to be as simple as cramming 200 people into an uninsulated dungeon at Vault Festival by next year, but whatever is safe, people will do.

You might be reading this thinking this is starting to sound a lot like the “she doesn’t even go here” girl from Mean Girls who just wants to bake a cake of rainbows and smiles. Okay, I hear you and I understand there may be some reluctancy to get on board. I agree that positivity in this case involves a fair amount of letting go of what makes sense. When I say to myself that the next 6 months are going to be great for me, I am ignoring the other voices that are saying “there are no castings out there” or “everyone is sick of online shows and no one cares about you.” None of this new positive mindset involves exact science and things that make sense. But what it does call upon is creativity, imagination, and a little bit of magic. And that’s why I wanted to be an actor in the first place.

This is my last article for AYT! I want to say thank you so much to everyone on the team for nurturing me as a writer for the past two years, especially editors Samuel Sims and Ava Wong Davies. AYT is an incredible platform for young theatre columnists and it provides important criticism in our industry. If you can, support us through our new Patreon, and people like me will be able to be paid a small but important fee for their work, helping them to think about their writing in a completely different way. Trust me, it would really make a massive difference.