PITTSFIELD — David Adkins knew in high school that he wanted to be a professional actor, and he has spent his entire adult life both working and teaching in that profession.
Adkins, currently appearing in the Berkshire Theatre Group's production of "Dracula" at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, has been involved with the BTG and one of its predecessors, Berkshire Theatre Festival, since 1985. Now in his 60s, Adkins has served as the director of BTG's actor intern training program, which is currently on hiatus this summer.
We spoke with him about his life as a professional actor and as an acting teacher in a recent interview.
Q: Why did you pursue acting as a career?
A: I think it's almost something that's inexplicable. I went to a play at my high school and saw one of my fellow students in an Agatha Christie play and I knew in that instant I wanted to be an actor. I was born on the eastern shore of Maryland, I grew up in Baltimore, and I went to a prep school in Baltimore, and they had a very good theater program. I started seeing theatre in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and my parents took me to theater on Broadway.
Q: What was it about seeing that person in the play that made you want to do this?
A: I think it was how visceral the form is. The energy. I actually saw it as almost an athletic sport in a way. It truly is. Acting takes the whole body. It takes everything you have. I realized that it demands that you be in the present, and I realized that's what I'd been seeking my whole life, whether it was a cliff side on the Rockies or climbing Mount Rainer or being on stage and fully immersed in a play that takes every ounce of your energy and concentration. I realized that's what I was in it for.
Q: What were your next steps?
A: It's interesting. I never thought I would become an actor. I actually went to Dartmouth to become what everyone else in my family is — doctors or lawyers. I was trying to decide what to do. By chance I filled out an application for a summer apprenticeship at [Berkshire Theatre Festival]. I was accepted. I arrived here that summer, and my life felt changed. By the end of the summer I was going to The Juilliard School.
Q: What goes into the thought process about making acting a career?
A: Many of the best actors, many great actors, do not thrive in the business because when you add it all up some are not interested in [the business] because it's a very demanding profession. There's an old saying, they don't call it show business for nothing, and that's true. You have to be able to take the rejection, quite frankly, which we all hear about and is very true. You almost have to build a thick skin in a business that asks you to have a thin skin on stage. It's almost as though you have to make a choice to be in this business at a certain point.
Q: How do you survive as an actor when you're working at the community theater level?
A: Television. A lot of people in this business are working on television if they don't have a side career. I'm able to do one or two guest starring roles on television just about every year and that really helps support everything. ... There are people who are teaching, which I did five years during the summers, as well as acting on the stages here.
So you carve out a life. I have been fortunate enough that I have been able to for the most part to make it on the business. Every once in a while you get a big paycheck and you sock it away and you nibble away at it while you continue your life. I'm very much an actor for the work-a-day. I have never really hit it really big. ... The thing is I was pretty much able to work full-time as a regional theater actor for much of my life. It was always just enough to survive.
Q: What types of jobs do you take when you're starting out?
A: Nowadays, the young people, I hear from my students, are doing a lot of things on the Internet. You can work for a company from your living room. I was doing things like bike messaging, which was awful. In my 20s I worked as a carpenter. I drove a flower delivery truck taking flowers to go through customs at JFK Airport. I would park my delivery truck at a parking spot, run in and do an audition then run back out to my truck. It sounds funny now, but it was very difficult.
Q: What keeps you going?
A: That's a a really good question because I have many times in my life said I can't do this anymore. I'm done. It's just too hard. I feel beaten down and I feel depleted, And then because I think of the company you keep, you surround yourself with people who believe in you or believe in the idea of an artistic life, and another script is suddenly plopped down in front of you and it's really hard to say no.
I had a friend who said, "You know we're never going to quit, Dave; we're lifers." And in a way it's an apt expression. Of course, being a lifer is someone in prison and by no means do I mean the same thing. But sometimes it feels like you're in this situation that you can't get out of, this artistic life, and that keeps on going.
I think there's a hardheadedness, a doggedness and also some need. I feel like there's nothing else that I do. It's not just what I do, it's who I am. It's undeniable. I've tried to deny it. I've tried to step away even briefly and it just keeps pulling me back in.
Q: Do things change after you've been in the business for a while?
A: My relationship to acting has changed as I've gotten older. When I was younger it was my sole focus. Then, it didn't feel like there was any possibility for anything else. I was fortunate enough to be able to eke out a living basically traveling around the country in resident theaters. I was offered many times to be a company member in different cities around the country but I always wanted to be in New York.
Q: What do you like better, acting or teaching actors?
A: Acting. I'm an actor I really enjoyed directing the students I really enjoyed running the program. I do love teaching because I found that I really had to look at what I'd been doing over the years. In some ways it really upped my game.
Q: What are the best and worst parts of acting?
A: The best part of acting in many ways is in the relationship with the other actors and directors. There's nothing like being in a room full of actors. it's a completely different world. Actors are some of the most interesting and really smart people that are really tied into what's going on in the world around us and there's always a laugh to be had.
It's a really deep bond that we have and we form these very intimate relationships in a short amount of time. We might work with each other for seven weeks and not see each other for two years and you can pick up seemingly where we left off because we have this brother and sisterhood.
The hardest part for me is a perpetual sense of dissatisfaction, that the work is never done. That it's never finished. The truth is art isn't about getting it right. But we want to get it right. Art's a messy business. That's why it's special. That's why audiences come and see us.