Act Smart: Don’t Quit Your “A” Job

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We’ve each gotta do what we’ve gotta do to get the bills paid. If we’re really lucky, we’re getting paid to do the thing we want to do the most, i.e., “acting for dollars,” as my friend O-Lan dubs it.

But there are inevitable stretches where life can start to feel like one of two very dangerous things.

The first is a fairly common phenomenon for most of us at some point in our acting careers, especially the beginning point: that head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone, bring-home-the-bacon (or appropriate vegan substitute) time. You know—the months (or years) when it feels like we’re scrambling to make rent, pay the utilities, and keep ourselves in current headshots. During these times, it’s extremely helpful to have what friends in the recovery world call a “B” job: some non-taxing, reasonably well-paying job that covers our monthly expenses and leaves some time and resources left over to pursue The Vision, a.k.a. the for-now dream of becoming a professional actor.

Most of what this column has been about for the past 10 years has been giving you tools for these stretches of an actor’s career, when we’re squeezing all our acting-related stuff in between trying to make a living (and see friends, and keep some kind of handle on health and happiness, and so forth). Learning to do things in very tiny increments is critical when you’re in start-up mode, or even during lulls in a successful professional career. (It’s probably not news to you, but rarely is even a successful acting career without its occasional dips and turns.)

Mindset is important for the actor in this phase, as it is for all artists, always. But of special use, I like to think, are the “do a little every day” tools I try to sprinkle in here now and then, little actions you can do in 10 minutes, 8 minutes, and 7 minutes or less to keep your pro-acting fires burning. (And there is a whole list of additional columns at the bottom of that 7-minutes-or-less post, if you want to keep going.)

Most of us are so desperate to work at any kind of acting, especially paid, that the second kind of dangerous stretch seems silly before you encounter it. If you’re fortunate, though, you will, and it’s good to be prepared. Because someday, you may need to do absolutely nothing besides acting for a living, and it’s in there that a far more insidious danger lurks. Trust me: if all you are doing is “acting for dollars,” and there’s no love lost between you and whatever producer is signing your paychecks, the beautiful thing inside of you that drew you to art in the first place, that made you willing to undergo all kinds of nutty sacrifices, work all kinds of crazy hours, make all number of cross-country moves—that beautiful thing will shrivel, and die and both your talent and your happiness with it.

The answer for an actor—or any artist—is to never, ever quit your “A” job. When you’re finally earning your living as an actor, your eternally restless actor-self needs bigger, deeper challenges to keep growing. This may mean working for free sometimes. This may mean doing things that pull you out of your artistic comfort zone, but that feel awkward or even uncomfortable—and, sometimes, that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with acting.

As an artist, no matter where you’re at professionally, your “A” job is to grow as an artist. And that, my friend and colleague, is the greatest job in the whole, wide world.


BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: After more recommendations than I can count, I finally got around to reading Epictetus, father of the Stoic philosophy, and MAN, most of me is wondering why I waited so long! Well, that’s not entirely true. I was pretty sure that anything labeled both “Stoic” and “philosophy” was going to be a tough slog. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing, nodding, and—mark of the truest truth—wincing in recognition. The adaptation I read combines the best of this great slave-turned-freeman’s recipes for a happy, useful life into one snappy manual titled The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. Whether you feel like you missed the class on getting life right or just need confirmation you’re on the right path, there’s wisdom, humor, and inspiration galore in this compendium of instructions gathered by Sharon Lebell.

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “The Communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.

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