My dad said “To be an actor is a lonely life. Everybody wants to make it, and you might not make it.” and I said to my dad, well it depends on what “making it” is then. I was a smart kid, I said it depends on what making it means. He said what do you mean? I said well, you’re a teacher. If I can make a teachers salary doing comedy, I think thats better than being a teacher.
Over the summer I worked at the Red Barn Summer Theatre. I was in three shows and understudied a fourth. On my off-nights, I took tickets at the front of the house. The patrons were always sweet and complimentary, and went out of their way to say nice things about the shows they’d seen me in. One evening an older gentleman and I were chatting when he asked:
“So do you want to be an actress then?”. I was confused. He had just told me how much he liked the first two shows I’d been in. I fumbled for a response.
“Um…I mean…I am an actress. They pay us here.” I stuttered, not wanting to be rude.
“No but I mean like a real actress.” He persisted.
Then I understood. He meant was I trying to “make it” as an actress. I was not offended in the least, just a little taken aback. Most people outside the industry seem to believe that the only reason anyone would pursue theatre is to ultimately become a famous movie star. Working summer-stock in Frankfork, Indiana is certainly not the glamorous life of an actress I pictured when I was five, but it was three months of supporting myself completely by acting, and I was proud of that. So a smiled at the patron and told him that I planed to return to Chicago at the end of the summer and continue acting.
Lately I’ve been contemplating my definition of success. I feel strongly that I have to settle on a definition for myself, and not let what society considers “making it” be my only guide. Once I define it for myself, I can set goals and take specific action towards achieving them. If I don’t, I’ll just be aimlessly wandering. Really its acting 101, figure out your super objective and relentlessly pursue it. But what is my defenition of success?
What does it mean to “make it”? There are so many possibilities it makes my head spin.
What does it look like? Is it having a career like my hero Cate Blanchette? Winning Oscars and running a theatre with her husband? Is it being a movie star and all the superficial things that seem to go along with it? A publicist, high profile relationship, pictures of me in a tabloid wearing designer jeans and aviators to get a coffee with words written over me proclaiming “Stars, they are just like us!”
Or is it something else? Is it the ability to work? Is it simply the ability to support myself through my art? Will I be satisfied if I am lucky enough to work in regional theaters? Is my definition of success becoming a company member with a storefront in Chicago? Is it spending summers at Utah Shakes or working at the Goodman? Winning a Tony? Teaching acting at a college? And if I am fortunate enough to accomplish any of those things, what comes next?
I don’t really have an answer yet, but in the meantime I’m not getting worked up over a harmless question like “Do you want to be a real actress?”. I know in my heart I already am, regardless of how other people define success as an actress.
(The quote from the beginning of the post is from Dave Chapelle’s inside the Actor’s Studio episode. He certainly has a clear idea of what defines success and what he is willing or not willing to sacrifice for it.The episode is absolutely fascinating, so if you can stand James Lipton’s fawning, check it out)