First published on LinkedIn Pulse
A fanciful dreamer can imagine a life as a performer, but it takes a bold inclination to make it happen. I myself was that way bent at a very early age, and as an acting teacher and coach I have traveled alongside countless students as they have embarked on the same path. But while performing hopefuls often trumpet their red-hot passion, as if that is somehow qualification enough for the job, the truth is that all the desire, yearning, and passion in the world are nowhere near sufficient to help anyone successfully negotiate the incessant and varied demands that a life in the arts places on you. If simply reading that disheartens or discourages you, then you must seriously reevaluate your career goals. If, on the other hand, you are already well prepared to stare down the obstacles you will face as you pursue that goal, then what follows will shed some light on what to expect and what you can do to enhance your chances of success.
Don’t be a sparkler!
Dreaming of a life as an actor, dancer, singer, comedian can be intoxicating, and fill your head with unreal expectations and glorified notions of what your life might be. When I opened my first acting studio, I was continually thrilled and invigorated by the ardently passionate students that came through my door. Some of them were fiercely determined and set to work like industrious ants. But many were less substance than show. Like 4th of July sparklers, they burned hot and bright for awhile, crackling loudly about being “all in” for the long haul. Unable to tell the difference, I was always enthusiastically and entirely on board. But as the sparklers began to tackle the work and learn of the many steps they would need to take to turn their dreams into realities, they would change, until, over time, they lost their flame, their sizzle burned out, and their crackle was heard no more. Some sparklers were short and stopped glowing in just a matter of weeks; some were much longer and burned for a year or more before they extinguished. Regardless how long it took, each inert student disheartened me, and like a sad child looking at the dormant remains of a sparkler in their hand, I wished I could make them burn again. Eventually I learned to protect my own heart by committing fully to my students without investing fully in their dreams, and understanding that while their initial passion may have been genuine, the ceaseless demands the performing arts made on them translated to more work than most of them wanted to expend. I understand. So should you.
So here is a primary truth you need to believe: For the vast majority of performers, the work will always be at least as much about finding jobs as it will be about performing itself. Think about it, even if an actor books a one-year tour of Beauty and the Beast (and the truth is that most of us actors book jobs that last much less than one year at a time), at the end of the year the actor will once again be out of work and need to find the next gig. Know then that being a working actor or dancer or singer or comedian is hard work, and be honest with yourself about your willingness to do that work, which includes: searching out auditions on a regular basis; spending time outside of rehearsals to dig more deeply into your script/music/choreography/joke pad; keeping your body fit and strong, not thin necessarily, but able to meet the physical demands of your particular line of work; forgoing social events, smoking, drinking, and partying for the sake of maintaining stamina and vocal health; constantly improving your technique with workshops, classes and/or a private coach; networking so as to stay in the loop of people who are in a position to send auditions and jobs your way; working for free to catch the eye of agents who can help you secure better gigs; and always marketing, marketing, marketing!
Willing to do the work? Great! Then next, know this:
Performing is often a young person’s game and for many it is not a lifelong career. Partly that’s because the constant go-go-go requires great energy; partly it’s because the intensity of pursuing a performing career makes it difficult to commit to anyone or anything else. Performers typically work off hours that prevent them from participating in evening events and weekend gatherings; they may travel for weeks or months at a time, leaving behind friends, partners, and families to take jobs in other parts of the country or even the world; and unless they have great means and the willingness to let other people play a major role in raising their children, many of them delay having families because they are so often not around. That is why so many people pursue performing careers through their twenties and then tire of the lifestyle and leave it behind, opting for other careers, both in related fields and in areas so entirely different that they could have never imagined pursuing them. Take solace in that knowledge. Knowing that it is possible, even likely, for you to pursue your artistic dreams for some years, and then, when you are ready, move on to a different career and lifestyle, should be a comforting and encouraging consideration. Rather than believing (or worrying) that the exhilarating, but maddening life of a performing artist will determine your destiny for decades to come, understand instead that you may quench your artistic desires while youth is still on your side, so that you end up, as the saying goes, having had your cake and having eaten it too. On the other hand, for many people, myself included, the passion for the work, the energy to get it done, and the willingness to continually pursue opportunities never subside. My twenties may be far behind me, but I still cannot imagine having any other profession.
Still with me? Super! Then here are three important points to consider:
1. Be flexible. Be open to accepting jobs that may land you in front of people whose attention is desirable and appropriate: clerk at an agent’s office, assist at a production company, work as an arts administrator at a theater, and intern anywhere you can that relates to your field. Be willing to do work that is ancillary to your field to help sustain you, support you, and keep you in the game while you are pursuing your career. (There are many more jobs for arts educators than there are jobs for artists themselves. I, myself, have spent most of my adult life doing the work I love, but in addition to my work as an actor/voiceover actor and director, I teach, I’m an acting coach, I write, and I spend hours each week selling myself.) Be amenable to roles that lack glamour in order to build a resume, make connections, learn things, and earn money. I am most familiar with what that means for an actor – corporate, medical, and compliance training videos, for example, as well as marketing, sales and other non-broadcast, non-entertainment films – but I am sure the same kind of options exist for singers, dancers, etc., especially if you are non-union. Speaking of which….
2. Being in the union may not be the brass ring. Looking for the “BIG” career? Then the union is the only path for you, but consider your options carefully before making that choice. The truth is that annually the vast majority of union performers do not earn any money at all in their fields, and once you become a card-carrying, dues-paying member of AFTRA, SAG, Equity, whatever, you cannot audition for or accept work outside of the union without getting permission and making arrangements, if at all. Yes, the union gives you exclusive access to major players, big league projects, and hefty paychecks, but it also places you squarely in the midst of the largest pond with the biggest, baddest, and most numerous fish. If you are willing to pursue your career outside of New York, LA, Chicago, and Nashville, then being in the union may not be your best choice, especially if you have health benefits from a significant other in your life. Keep in mind, too, that in today’s entertainment-ubiquitous world, the opportunities offered by non-union jobs are much more plentiful than they once were and often quite lucrative. Regardless, be mindful to…
3. Maintain your integrity. This point may be relevant to actors only, but it’s too important to omit. If you are comfortable with the idea of, or even aspire to, work in the pornography business, then do so, but if not, do not accept jobs that are questionable. Anyone can be a filmmaker in today’s technological world, and many people are, but horror films and slasher movies are low hanging fruit for professional wannabes who lack the talent or tenacity to write real scripts with fleshed out characters and authentic dialogue. If something feels wrong, from an ad in Backstage to a casting call to an actual shoot, don’t let yourself be swayed into doing it because you think it will help your “career.” If it’s not legit then it is more likely to hurt than help your chances of getting where you want to be as an actor, and regardless what it may do for you, if you hurt your inner self by doing something that feels shameful, you will taint your desire to continue working.
Last, let me say this: Everyone knows that pursuing a career in the performing arts is challenging in many ways and for many reasons, but few people outside the field understand how many different ways a career in the performing arts can manifest itself. That is why so many of those people, even out of love, will discourage you from pursuing your dream. (I wrote an article for them that you should send their way entitled Advice for the Worried (fill in the blank) of an Aspiring Actor.) They, and perhaps even you, mistakenly believe that the road you want to travel has only two sides… you either “make it” and live large or “fail” and falter. But setting out to become a performer is a road trip, not merely a road, and so it has myriad possibilities: you may travel the major highways, while others will take lesser known side roads; you may head out in the height of rush hour to be a part of the frenzy and flurry of activity and people, while others will leave in the wee hours of the morning when nearly everything is dark and sleepy; you may drive your own car, while others will hop a bus, hail a cab, thumb a ride, or simply walk.
Ultimately, you must be the one to decide what road trip to take. If fame, fortune, and a big career are the only things that will satisfy you, then go for it with everything you’ve got! You don’t need me to tell you how poor the odds are of “making it,” but if that is what you must do, then I encourage you to commit to it fully, and I root you on along the way. If, on the other hand, you can envision a fulfilling life in the arts that barely, if ever, brings you to either coast, then you will probably have an easier time of it, but I still encourage you to commit to it fully, and I cheer you on as well. Either way, the journey will be what you make of it as you negotiate the unexpected turns and travails along the way, and I could not possibly wish you more success!