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 as its designated leader, the one who takes control of that job. This is done for obvious reasons: no man is an island and I think we all agree that burnout is to generally be avoided.
But what about the mentor? What function does this title serve and is it even a position worth considering when it comes to describing the jobs of the theatre? I would argue unequivocally so.
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 undergrad 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 and the hallmark of which is that I maintain close friendships with them now, well beyond graduation, still asking 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 I looked up to for being themselves in the face of adversity, for being completely selfless in their work, and patiently listening to the seemingly endless problems a student of the theatre can have. Will I have more in my life? It is hard to say, for while anyone can be a mentor, it’s not like looking through the classifieds and finding one with a good resume. It just happens. And while I believe everyone should benefit from a mentor’s guidance, the door swings both ways: you must take some initiative yourself to cultivate the relationship the same 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 now 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 and I’m finding that with even the little amount I posses, I can share some with kids I meet in elementary and high school. 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 got and never let go.