Talking to people you love about your profession in the theatre
Over the Christmas break, I had a “big talk” with my family about what my future after grad school held. I have long maintained that I really didn’t start these two years knowing precisely what I wanted at the end of the two years. This past semester, however, has helped me realize that I want to perform. Full time. For a living.
Though this decision dawned on me gradually and after a great deal of introspection, I wondered whether friends and family would perceive it to be whimsical, starry-eyed, or even a little bit foolish. After all, I had been a teacher for ten years. My days had been ordered, my income had been steady, and my artistic life had been nourished. Why would I want to change that? But I arrived at the same conclusion that many actors come upon: “I just have to.”
I knew I needed to share my decision with my family and also give them a glimpse of how my life was going to look as a working actor. I also knew that I would need to approach this topic with a spirit of empathy. While my parents are terrifically loving, I knew there was going to be many aspects of this new life that they simply weren’t going to understand. It was my responsibility to educate them, allay their concerns, and address some common stereotypes. Here are some talking points from that “big talk” as well as some advice.
I can make a living in the theatre without being a household name: For my folks—and probably yours too—there are two types of actors: community theatre actors and famous actors. Most people are completely unaware of the scores of talented, successful performers who are working—and feeling quite fulfilled—but who aren’t headlining on Broadway. From regional theatre to tours to Broadway ensemblists, there’s a vast population of musical theatre bread-winners in that space between “semi-professional” and “star.” And furthermore, I might not be a star right away, but give me some time.
EXTRA CREDIT: Show your parents the Instagram account for “Humans of Broadway.” It includes some great profiles of real people—many who you probably wouldn’t recognize on the subway—but are no
less a part of the vibrant Broadway community.
Having a survival job does not mean you are a failure: This is the point that may give your mother pause, your father a raised eyebrow, and your skeptical neighbor fodder for a wisecrack about waiting tables. The stereotype is unavoidable. Most actors make ends
meet by doing something unrelated to acting. You know what? That’s ok. Are you getting worried financial talks from your mother? Try to calm her fears by actually crafting a financial plan and showing her. Are you getting derisive jeers from your Aunt Tillie about how broke you’ll be? Let her skepticism fuel your fire!
EXTRA CREDIT: Check out Stefanie O’Connell, actor and finance expert. Her book, The Broke and Beautiful Life is available on Amazon.
Actors work looks different than other “work”: It’s easy for people to identify with the work of an office job. You go to work from 9-5. You have a computer. There are meetings. You have a supervisor. Similarly, people identify with the work of a manufacturer. You go to work for the late shift. You stand on the line. You assemble parts. There’s a tangible product at the end of the assembly that can be bought and sold. But an actor’s work simply looks very different. It is in itself a variety of tasks. It resembles an office job in that there’s daily correspondence, scheduling auditions, going to production meetings. It’s like a factory job in that there’s a day shift for rehearsals and fittings and a night shift for performances. But it also includes things that don’t look like work. An actor’s work includes going to the gym so that your body is physically fit enough to manage the stresses of a show. It includes going to photo shoots and press happenings which look very fun to the outsider but require a great deal of energy. It includes going to voice lessons and dance classes so that you can keep your craft honed. It’s a great deal of work, just not work you might recognize.
EXTRA CREDIT: Let your Google calendar stand as proof of the variety of appointments, obligations, and to do lists that an actor juggles.
‘It seems like you’re always having coffee, lunch, or drinks with someone’: I am. I am building relationships with people. Theatre relies on collaboration. Collaboration relies on having a team. Artists often build teams from people they know and trust. It seems so simple, but a cup of coffee and a good conversation can help me stay on the short list for exciting new projects (and can be tax-deductible). The old adage “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” is especially true in the theatre.
I may be on social media quite a bit more, but I am crafting my brand: One aspect of being a working actor in the 21st Century that those even a half a generation older than millennials might have trouble grasping is that social media is crucial in your networking with other artists, finding and booking jobs, and gaining a following. Considering that a casting choice can come down to how many Twitter or Instagram followers you have, the two minutes that you take to edit a photo and slap a filter on it might help in securing the next paycheck. The direct relationship between social media followings and acquiring work can be a vague concept, but it’s real. Social media is a slow burn; consistent engagement with your followers means you are steadily and authentically growing your fan base. Yes, you have one of those now.
By the way, I now have a brand: I have to think of myself as a business now, and businesses have a particular way that they market themselves. Some actors consult specialists to help in this endeavor. They need to be conscious about presenting the best version of their authentic self on social media, on headshots and reels, and in relationships with other artists. Think about strong brands like Apple. You know exactly how you feel about Apple products and you can recognize their products in milliseconds, because their branding is so clear. Conversely, sometimes businesses decide on complete overhauls of their business or products. Think about how Domino’s remade their pizza from the crust up a few years back. Sometimes actors need to be Domino’s Pizza, and that can be jarring for their loved ones.
As you discuss being a working actor with people close to you, consider two more broad ideas. First, that there is no one big “talk.” Actually, your lifestyle is going to be ever-evolving, and you can take people on the journey with you by sharing in a continual dialogue. Secondly, remember that in discussing any life choices with your loved ones that both they and you are coming from a place of love. Keeping these things in mind will make the “big” talk a little less monumental.