Story telling from Australia
I’m not a tennis player. I’m a writer and part-time gardener and I know nothing about tennis. I was rubbish at sport at school (especially tennis) so I’m not remotely qualified to talk about the game you play professionally and I wouldn’t dream of being so presumptuous normally… only the thing is, it’s summer here in Sydney, the garden was left to fend for itself while we enjoyed the holidays and that meant I saw you play at the Apia International Tournament on Tuesday.
I have failed at many things in life (largely unsuitable jobs and unsuitable relationships) but the one thing that really infuriated when was when I failed at something I was good at.
Did you know that I once held professional Equity membership in England and in Australia? No, why would you, we’ve never met and there’s not much a professional tennis player would have in common with a struggling actor, yet watching you play that match on Tuesday I was reminded of the years I spent struggling to succeed on stage.
It wasn’t lack of talent that scuppered my chances (although let’s not pretend I was the next Judy Dench, I was good but not that good) and you’re certainly a far more talented tennis player than I ever was an actor. No, the root of my failure lay in far more frustrating territory.
I tried too hard.
I can clearly remember the occasions when I relaxed enough on stage to let the performance flow; when I was connected, focused and completely unaware of time passing. Moment by moment I was ‘in the zone’, trusting that all the work I’d done beforehand – the training and the rehearsals, the creative play and text exploration, the blocking and line runs – would stand me in good stead. All I had to do was turn up on time, focus, relax and let it happen. On those few occasions when ‘flow’ happened, people flocked to congratulate me on a magnificent performance, which I remembered nothing about.
It happened twice – that’s all – out of hundreds and hundreds of performances, and the rest of the time my creative spirit was gripped in a tight chokehold, strangling any hope of joyful release. I was convinced that if let my concentration drop for a moment the performance would falter and I would fail miserably. I never did fail and audiences were generally appreciative but I never really succeeded either.
Now I get the fact that as a tennis player you can’t ‘take your eye off the ball’ and concentration is important, but I kept thinking about theatre as I watched you try harder and harder out there on court that day, and my heart went out to you. Sam Stosur you are a supremely talented tennis player – you’ve won the US Open for goodness sake – and you clearly know what you’re doing.
Of course, I never had an opponent on the other side of the net staring down at me and daring me to lose; most of the time theatre is a collaborative sport (unless you’re being mercilessly upstaged) but it’s a sport nonetheless and there’s no shame in failure; success only comes when you’re willing to fail.
The shame is if you get beaten not by your opponent but by your demons, because at the end of the day it’s all just a game, isn’t it? Acting is called ‘play’ acting for a good reason (and oh how I wish I’d realised that years ago) and sport is surely called a game for the same reason. Both activities are meant to be enjoyed, aren’t they?
I admire your courage in getting back out there time and time again to stand in the brutal arena of a tennis tournament, where the raucous cheers of encouragement must be hard to take if you can sense you’re losing the battle. Presumably you do it because you know you’re really quite good at it.
That’s why I don’t give up on writing. I was always more comfortable with the quiet solitude of writing than with the noisy hype of theatre but failure still looms large. All of us struggling to succeed in creative ventures face rejection and there’s no denying that it hurts, but it hurts far more when you scupper your own chances of success.
The second draft of my next book is due back from the editor any day now and it will be covered in changes, corrections, comments and queries that will alarm me. I will struggle to remind myself that it’s meant to be an entertaining read and I will worry that I’m no good as a writer. All I can do then is bring my best game to the page, make a cup of tea, relax and try to enjoy the process.
Those people who can silence their critical inner voice have an edge that no amount of practice can match, so keep going Sam, relax and remember you do know what you’re doing.
May the flow be with you.