Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Day 87: Lessons no one could teach me

I found myself advising the mother of one of my teenage students today, in regards to her daughter's struggles with deciding how/if to pursue acting as a career.  A few days ago I was consoling and advising another young student -- this one college age -- as to how to explain to her parents that the fact that she isn't working on Broadway after auditioning for 8 whole months doesn't mean she should give up.  What to tell someone at the beginning of this long arduous journey?  How do you prepare/advise someone for a path completely unpredictable except for the fact that it will include heartache and frustration and financial insecurity and self-doubt and loneliness, along with the far-too-brief moments of transcendent artistic, spiritual joy?

The truth is, you can't.  There is no advice, no formula, no words one can say to the young one consumed by the beast of artistic ambition to spare her suffering.  I often hear myself say "I wish someone had told me [blah] when I was young", but of course they probably did, and I just didn't hear it.

Nonetheless, here is some of the hard-earned wisdom I try to pass on to those who seek such advice from me, in an attempt to at least clear a few brambles from their path and steer them away from a cliff edge or two:

  • Don't go to school for the performing arts.  No one truly cares where (or whether) you went to school; they just want to see what you can do.  You will get far far better training studying privately with teachers and coaches and designing your own curriculum than you will get in pretty much any program.  With few exceptions, the best teachers don't teach in universities, because they can make far far more money teaching privately in a city like New York (while also side-stepping the politics and hoop-jumping of academia).
  • Do go to school and study something that interests you.  Study philosophy, psychology, art history, political science, biology, whatever.  Broaden your world.  Make yourself a more complex, well-rounded person.  This will all serve you as an artist, and help prepare you for my next piece of advice:
  • Prepare for a parallel career.  I was always told I would need a "fall-back" career, something to do if I didn't make it.  Well, of course, I was going to make it, so I didn't need one.  In fact, I didn't want a "fall-back" career, because then I knew I would end up falling back on it.  If I gave myself no option except to make it, then I'd have to make it right?  (wrong)  Here's the reality: except for the most miniscule percentage of people, even highly successful performers -- those who have had national tours, performed on Broadway or at the Met, have made blockbuster movies or been on Law & Order -- have times when they are not making money as performers.*  Even if you "make it", you will have to support yourself by other means at times.  If you don't want to spend the largest chunks of your life temping or waiting tables, figure out something you would like to do that allows you some flexibility for your artistic pursuits and train yourself for that.  I have found that for myself with my teaching - the only reason I'm glad I have a master's degree in voice performance (even though nothing of what I learned in grad school gets passed on to my students).
  • Make time for friends and family.  It is so easy to say "I can't, I have rehearsal" (my mom actually bought me a t-shirt with this on it once, and I wore it with pride), and then wake up years later when your career is stalled to realize you have no friends and your marriage is on the rocks.  There is no one audition, no one show, no one opportunity that will be the deciding factor in your career.  You can't always sacrifice your career dreams for your friends and family, but you also can't always sacrifice your friends and family for your career dreams.  In the end, your relationships are what sustain you, what nourish you, what make you a whole person, and are what you can count on when the dream eludes you.  Besides, who are you going to thank when you win your Tony?
  • Lastly, if there is anything else in life that will make you happy, do that.  It is rare that the moments of joy outnumber the moments of pain and frustration in this business, so it is only worth doing if you are miserable not doing it.
*A statistic for you: According to Actors’ Equity Association, just 18,000 of its 47,000 members were working in 2006–07, with the average number of work weeks at 17 weeks per actor in a year. Nearly 70 percent of these working actors earned $15,000 or less from work on stage; just 6 percent earned more than $75,000. 

There is assuredly more advice I  could wax on and on about, but I need to follow the advice of my best-boyfriend-ever and get myself some sleep now.
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