What does it mean to “Make It”?

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.

~Dave Chapelle

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)

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3 thoughts on “What does it mean to “Make It”?

  1. Dear Erin,

    You can be anything you want in this life and the only one who has the right to judge what “success” is, is you! The key is to dream and if those dreams seem impossible at times all the better because nothing worthwhile has ever been accomplished without there first being a dream of what could be. Then, coupled with vigor, drive and passion anything is possible and every dream can be realized. Keep striving to reach your goals and you will win wherever that finish line may be. Keep smiling, Uncle Timmy

  2. We were recently presented with this exact question by the upper administration here at the University where I teach, in regards to judging the “success” of our alumni. Our VP of Academic Affairs questioned the validity of our program, because “it’s not like we are putting out stars left and right.” Most of the outside world assumes that all actors who get a higher Ed degree are only successful if they win a Tony or Oscar, and in recruiting its amazing how many schools use their alumni “stars” as the sole basis to choose their program, as if by going there you will automatically achieve the success that the less than 1% of their alumni have achieved.

    After much self assessment, we came to the conclusion that success to us is simply to be using your degree in theatre to in some way impact your daily life. Whether that means taking the stage on broadway, directing the school play at the small town some unity school, or as the the marketing spokesman for a company. Any career or life activity in which your theatre degree plays a part in your success in life, makes you a successful alumnus of our theatre program. It really boils down to your own personal life goals and your own measure of success. To me the high school teacher who directs the school play can be just as successful as the actress giving her Tony speech.

    Follow your dreams and never look back!

  3. Pingback: Can you call yourself an actor if you are not a working actor? | ChicagoActress

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