Producers, writers, directors, dramaturgs, choreographers, agents, actors, singers, coffee runners. You name it and it exists in show biz, where just about every facet of the theatre has its designated leader–the one who takes control of that job. This is done for obvious reasons: No man is an island, and burnout should be avoided.
But what about the mentor? What function does this title serve? Is it even a position worth considering when it comes to describing the jobs of the theatre? I would unequivocally argue: yes!
More than a teacher, the mentor takes the student-teacher relationship to the next level, instilling not just knowledge but wisdom upon the fortunate. The lesson does not end when the bell rings or the class is over; the guidance continues after school and throughout life. Through the mentor you are opened to the fact that the world is your classroom and, if you are of age, even the bar. I had wonderful acting training in my undergraduate years, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that I learned more about what drives an actor (life, love, loss, etc.) by grabbing some beers with two or three individuals who truly transcended the role of “teacher.” They became mentors. I maintain close friendships with them now, well beyond graduation, still asking for their advice as I navigate the always tricky waters of professional theatre.
Not everyone can attain this lofty mark, however. Indeed, what makes the role so special is its exclusivity. Personally I would count only two in my life, and they shepherded me through the trials of high school and college theatre, respectively. They were men whom I looked up to for being themselves in the face of adversity and completely selfless in their work as well as patiently listening to the seemingly endless problems that can befall a student of the theatre. Will I have more in my life? It is hard to say, for while anyone can be a mentor, you can’t find one simply by looking through the classifieds or applying for one. It just happens.
While I believe everyone should benefit from a mentor’s guidance, the door swings both ways: You must take some initiative as well to cultivate the relationship in the same way you would with a best friend, faithful dog or trusted lover. Anything lasting has to be built on a foundation of mutual respect and accountability.
As I grow older with various real-world experiences of my own, I’m learning to “send the elevator back down” and give a hand to those younger than me. Not that they’re much younger, of course, but age has very little to do with experience. I’m finding that with even the little amount that I possess, I can share some with kids whom I meet in elementary and high schools. They’ve got a long way to go so if I can give them just a nugget of insight, it could be the difference in having them reach the next level. Such was my case so, to all the mentors out there, thank you; and to those of us who have them, appreciate what you have and never let go.