Like most people who call themselves actors, I’ve known what I wanted to do for about as long as I knew what “acting” was. I started in dance, and I was quite good, but the parts I liked most in dancing were the acting parts. I always got the bit parts in The Nutcracker (“sled girl”, “naughty ladybug,”) and was always better at modern dance than ballet, where I could more openly express emotion. I still love dance, but really, it was a just a portal through which I discovered what I actually want to spend my life doing– theatre.
As you all know, if you’ve been reading, I’m well-trained. I went to the premiere performing arts boarding school to study theatre for my last two years of high school. I attended a top-tier university in New York City to study acting. I’ve been an apprentice at two different, well-known festivals, and I received my union card about a year after graduating from college. No one can deny it– I’ve done my homework.
As a kid, I had OCD tendencies. I was a perfectionist. I couldn’t ever be late. No “puffies” in my ponytail. I never missed an assignment in school. But I was also a very, very angry and a very, very sad little girl. I mean, let’s just diagnose it right here– I was bipolar.
I’ve written here about how my eating disorder(s) is a part of my psychological struggle, which I’ve been fighting since childhood. I started restricting unconsciously, because I was working too hard. I was trying to be too good. In recovery, I “let myself go,” got messy and angry and ugly and gained too much weight and fell apart and was late and fucked up all the time. Neither were gold-star moments in my life (and by moments, let’s call a spade a spade, I mean YEARS).
I think a lot about those two parts of me– the perfectionist homework-doer, who crosses her T’s and dots her I’s, and loves the feeling of succeeding because she put in all that hard work; and the messy girl, who forgives herself when she falls apart and trusts herself to make it to the other side, and who knows that sometimes hard work just means getting through the day.
Being an actor, or an artist of any kind, I think is finding a constant balance between these two extremes. And I don’t think I quite anticipated it upon embarking on my life. I guess I expected that if I did all my homework, I’d just be a really good, successful actor. And god knows I did my homework. But life isn’t quite like that.
There is the work, of course. The side of the “biz” that’s just nose-to-the-grindstone.
1. Look at audition listings every day. Make notes about when the EPAs (Equity calls) are.
2. Attend the EPAs (this means getting downtown to sign up for a slot at around 7am, while your appointment may be as late as 4:20 and the auditioners aren’t even really looking, since the call is just required by the union.)
3. Say yes to any audition that comes my way via my agent or some other means. Appointments are how you book jobs. Getting appointments is the key.
4. Say yes to any reading/workshop offered. At least you’ll be acting, and maybe, just maybe, someone will see your work.
5. Keep your headshots updated. Spend 500+ on top-notch headshots every two years.
6. Make a demo reel. Film it professionally. Spend the money to get it put on Actors’ Access.
7. Prepare for your auditions/readings/workshops/roles IF YOU’RE LUCKY.
8. Attempt to follow your agent’s suggestions– lighten your hair, lose weight, clear up your skin, dress better.
9. Stress out over what outfit to wear for each audition. Have days where you pack three changes of clothes and shoes, plus makeup and hair stuff, plus resumes/headshots and sides, and carry them in a backpack over your huge winter coat in 3 degree weather in NYC.
10. Oh, and during this time you’re not actually making any money acting.
Now, that’s all very extreme, and not every day is like that. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been blessed to have had a number of auditions (that 3 changes of clothes thing is a real true story from last week), and even a couple of callbacks, but failed to book the job. I’ve gotten so close I get apology emails from the casting directors (this NEVER happens).
And that’s where we come to the funny thing about the arts.
You can get an A+ in “being an actor,” but it still doesn’t mean you’ll succeed.
Frankly, some of the people I run into at auditions are those kinds of people– they go to every open call, they send thousands of postcards to CDs and agencies, they buy books to help them organize their finances, and they know EVERYTHING there is to know about EVERYTHING.
Hilarious true story– those aren’t the people that get cast. Those are the people who wait tables and wait tables and work HARD and never book a union part and end up as waiters. Or as indie theatre producers, or who get married and move to Philly. Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course. Everyone should do their homework.
But acting isn’t like school (unfortunately for those of us who did really well in school). In school, you turn in your homework on time, do a great paper, test well, and you get an A. Just like that.
As an actor (or an artist of any kind), you show up on time, do all your work, do it really fucking well, and then you never get a call. It’s like working really hard on a ten-page paper, turning it in on the due date, and having the teacher take one look at at it and say, “Oh, no, I prefer Georgia to Times New Roman,” and trash it right in front of you. You want to say, “But look harder! It’s so good!” or “I can edit that so easily, just give me a chance!” but it’s already round-filed.
All this to say, I think that it’s important to balance. If all I did was “work” on my “career,” I’d feel like a major, total failure. Because after all the hard work of the last month (okay, no, monthssssss since my last job) I haven’t had any measurable success.
But it isn’t just about the homework. It’s about being ME, and living my life, and knowing, deep within myself, that this moment is temporary. To forgive myself when I get another “no” or I’ve gone months without a “real” job. To acknowledge that I’m WORTH forgiving. To trust myself enough to believe that the next job will come.
It’s not that you don’t do the hard work– it’s that you don’t depend upon it to make your life perfect. I don’t think I expected that when graduating from high school, or when I moved to New York, or really… ever. Until the last two years of being in the world. I’ve become more and more comfortable with it, but I have to constantly remind myself that the balance is the key. As one of my favorite professors loved to say about the process of acting (and, ergo, the process of living) is “always balancing, never balanced.”
“You will be fierce. You will fearless. And you will make work you know in your heart is not as good as you want it to be.”
― Ira Glass