I have been thinking a lot about acting. It’s a conversation that keeps going around in my head and I think I am only starting to understand this craft that I have been practising all these years. But I am also coming to grips with why I do it when sometimes it feels like a dangerous sport. One from which you have to protect your mind more than your body. 

I have been blessed with an interesting past. ‘Blessed’ because everything that pertains to living is helpful to the craft of acting - us actors are holding a “mirror up to nature”. And by ‘interesting’ I just mean that, like everyone, I have been through some shit. Good and bad. I had a privileged white upbringing in South Africa and my parents provided for all of my physical needs. In 1992, my final year of high school, the first five black students were permitted into my school. Since high school I have understood the cruelty of strangers and the isolation of being different. My father and I didn’t see eye to eye on many things and that created a relationship fraught with drama and silence and judgement, from both sides. Since that time I have never quite been comfortable with people who have not proven themselves to be loyal friends. These life experiences have led me to become an introvert. 

Byron Mondahl in rehearsal for Hamlet.
Byron rehearses for the Hamlet tour.
Photo by Sophie Giddens © RSC Browse and license our images

The other day I arrived at rehearsals feeling tired from the schedule of rehearsing one show and performing in another, learning lines for Lear at every opportunity. Seeing everyone talking and laughing and greeting each other, my instinct was to hide at the side of the rehearsal room. I am amazed at how powerful that instinct is - every time I enter a room. Some people will think that surely you have to be an extrovert to be an actor but that is not necessarily true. I know plenty of actors with an introverted soul. It just means that I need quiet and time away from people to recharge before joining the masses once again in rehearsals, on the street, in a theatre auditorium. I am content with this, mostly. I know most of my faults and I have done so much work on making sure that these don’t become other people's problems. 

Why do I do this job? Wouldn’t I be happier being a librarian? I sincerely love my books. I love silence. Perfect! But alas…no…because way back in nursery school I discovered a puppet theatre that fascinated me, then in primary school I had my first roles in silly end of year concerts and that hooked me even further. When I hit high school and things became complicated in my head and heart and the rules of love I grew up with were as transitory as a bully’s fist or cutting word, then acting became something far deeper. Far more vital. Acting became therapy.

On stage I could rebel against my normal life, against my apartheid-riddled country. I could say and do things that I would never dare do in my real life, because I learnt, from a young age, that I wasn’t to feel things or say things that would disturb the peace. The stage was a place that all the lies I lived could be unravelled and brought into the spotlight. It was the only place that freed me. And it was a revolutionary platform where all the rules I was forced to follow meant nothing or could be broken.

My empathy for human beings, good and bad, was developing quickly and acting gave me a mind in which I questioned everything and believed nothing. I had to find out for myself, and through the many different characters I have played, that empathy and understanding of my own nature has developed and grown. Without this job I could well have been a more rigid and frighteningly unsympathetic person. And that doesn’t mean that it’s all good. I have had to face all that is awful, sad, selfish and brutal in me and every day I have to fight to keep those things in control. And I have faced all the love and empathy and joy inside me that I share with my friends. But knowing all the time I don't share easily. 

The Hamlet poster showing the full cast list, next to a wall covered in colourful graffiti.
A poster for the show in London.

When I am acting, there are two things happening. There is the introverted Byron who stands in opposition to the Byron that is forgetting himself and becoming the character he is playing. That character is expressed through me, all because of how I have experienced the world. Knowing all the time that it’s still just Byron. It is in that space between me - everyday Byron - and me - the character - that some kind of weird magic happens: as I perform on stage something becomes still inside me and I am, in a way, liberated by the words I speak and the characters I play and by the extremes of what they do. It's as if I am liberated by some bizarre unknowable healing process. I am a far more confident actor than I am in my person. It’s enough to say that I am a more empathetic person because I found acting but I also know that without this job I would not have had a way of freeing myself from silence, judgement and fear. 

It’s not an easy profession. We ask a room full of strangers, who sit in the dark, to judge our version of the truth, every night. This sometimes seems nonsensical and some days you feel like a hollow scared shell on that stage with thousands of pairs of eyes staring at you, waiting for your version of what’s real. There are still panic attacks but also much joy. This is the way I get to express me and, because of that, acting saved my life. And that’s why I do it. 

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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