Would you take a different approach to your career? You might take more risks knowing you had a safety net. What if, as a child, you went to a private school for gifted students? You might have more confidence. So the next time you compare yourself with someone who’s more “successful”, remember they got there because they had help – as far back as a well-supported childhood.
For most of my life I’ve worked in a “dysfunctionally independent” manner. I foolishly believed that if I asked for help, it meant that I was
Fifth Grade Me
incapable or lazy. I actually believed that successful people were those who only did everything on their own. If it’s meant to be, then it’s up to me! …..right? When I was a working in Chicago, I had it in my head that if I took a class from a casting director, then I was “cheating”. For me, the only way to be a respectable actor was to get an agent, audition, and prove myself worthy with a long resume. Yeah…
In preparation for my move to L.A., I took an on-camera class from a casting director’s assistant, but never expected him to help me. Turns out, that’s how life works. While I did well at my first TV audition, it was his good word to the CD that tipped the scales in my favor, and I got the job. (Some gal named Tina Fey was also up for that role. I wonder whatever happened to her?)
Once I landed in L.A., a friend turned me on to CD workshops, and by gum, they worked! Later, an acquaintance cast me in a staged reading of his screenplay which got me an audition/booking for a national commercial! So random. An old friend from Chicago got wind of my little successes and walked me into her agency where I landed an agent! Then the dry spells came, then success, then – you know the drill. I started to wonder if there was something missing, something that I still didn’t know? At my age, what else could there possibly be? Turns out, a lot.
So I invested in career coaching. I used a system that worked well for awhile, but doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for different/better results eventually lost its flavor. Without knowing were to go next, I released the need to figure it out. And as life would have it, a perfectly timed email arrived in my inbox that gave me my answer.
I immersed myself in a higher level of coaching. It taught me the difference between being a “list doer” and being an explorer. When we explore, we learn through real-life experience. We move from knowing about something to actually knowing something. My decisions came more quickly, my creative flow became easier, and my definition of success completely changed. But it’s not just the exploration that brought me rewards. It was the letting go of the idea that everything was solely up to me.
I no longer resist the undeniable give-and-take between me and my wisdom, all of mankind, and the Universe.
Well-meaning coaches everywhere are telling actors to treat their careers like a business. We’re told to be the “CEO of our own Company”. We’re expected to spend a minimum number of hours working hard at our business. But working towards a bottom line “at all costs” is a prescription for anxiety and depression.
Here’s what this prescription neglects to include: Acting careers don’t exist without both the business and the art, plain and simple. They are two inseparable sides of the same coin. While most actors intuitively know this, they still believe that the only way to get work is by sacrificing and grinding away at marketing, networking, and self-submitting 24/7. Look back – haven’t we all gotten some good gigs just from doing our art? Work begets work, as the saying goes.
When I was just out of Conservatory, I worked hard “doing the rounds”, checking in personally with every office on a regular basis. It paid off with auditions and jobs by the end of that first year. But I also experienced the fun work of doing theater (often for free) that got me auditions and jobs as well. (I still do it.)
The key to living in our art and thriving in our business is not balance, but harmony. When we try to force balance by scheduling times and assigning days for either art or business, we muck it all up. Balance is natural. The idea that we can control desired career outcomes based on time spent, is an illusion. The business (and life) impersonally shifts, but we insist on taking it personally. When finances are low, we experience anxiety, guilt, shame, and when our creative skills go unused, we become depressed. The pain lasts as long as we distrust the natural ebb and flow of life. The pain deepens when we think we’ll never get out of anxiety (no money or job) or depression (no artistic fulfillment).
Ebb and Flow.
An actor’s life is filled with so-called good years and bad years. This is a constant. While we know the thrill of getting that big check from an acting gig, we also know the pure bliss of doing creative, ensemble work with no pay at all. Yes, the possibility of that dream job — both financially and creatively fulfilling — always exists, but once we see the natural ebb and flow of things, we begin to trust and allow it.
Instead of trying so hard to live up to soul-killing standards of being a business first and an artist second, just notice the obvious thing to do. You know when your business needs marketing. You know when your art needs a Viewpoints class. We are just so bombarded with outside voices telling us how to be a “successful actor” that we’ve stopped listening to our own voice.
You are genius. You are wise. Listen to your own voice.
Ian and I were enjoying the oceanside pool at a five star hotel in Hawaii, when he sheepishly said to me, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Excuse me sir, you don’t belong here’.” (c.1997)
While in Hawaii, I pose like King Kamehameha.
That I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the country (and beyond) because of my various acting gigs, has not gone unnoticed. But how did I do it? When I was finished with conservatory, I took classes – just for fun – at The Second City, but a few years later, they hired me to tour. Just to keep sharp, I took classes at ImprovOlympic (RIP), which led me to performing with Boom Chicago in Amsterdam – because the producers knew me from the iO stage. While playing with new scripts at Chicago Dramatists’ Theatre, I met a producer/actor who was establishing a live industrial business. I ended up working with him for the next ten years, and made good money as an actor while traveling to many states including Hawaii, and later to Europe.
In March of 2020, I once again landed an out of town gig, but my flight was suddenly cancelled. I felt the rug burn my feet as it was pulled out from under me. The silence that replaced auditions over the next several months was deafening. There was nothing for me to do except… surrender. Every business – including show business – got busy figuring out how to work safely amidst a deadly virus. Slowly, auditions – in the form of self-tapes – began to ramp up. Productions were actually happening – virtually, or with masks, or with social distancing, etc. My three day gig that was canceled five months earlier was offered again in August. That three day trip transformed into a seven week job, escaping Los Angeles’ historic heat wave. Even in the middle of a world pandemic, I was traveling because of an acting gig. And that same departure week, I shot a national commercial.
So you want to know how I did it? Well…um…I guess by now, you can see that I had no real strategy. There are strategies galore out there; books of “how tos” flood the market, but when we follow someone else’s path, we do NOT get the same results. Authors cite statistics showing how their method is the best, but most methods’ effectiveness decrease the more times we use them. If I had a method to teach (and I don’t), here’s what I’d say: Show up. Explore, try stuff, experiment. In physics, it is said, For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But in life,
For every action, there is…a reaction.
Look at the good stuff in your life. Ninety percent of it was unplanned, but it happened because – on some level – you just showed up.