Can you call yourself an actor if you are not a working actor?

Why, except as a means of livelihood, a man should desire to act on the stage when he has the whole world to act in, is not clear to me.
~ George Bernard Shaw

I’ve gone through many drafts on this topic. I’m writing from the biggest post-college rut I’ve had so far, with no show on the books and barely any promising auditions in sight. Preliminary drafts so far have been laundry lists of woes and insecurities surround the life of an out-of-work actor.

So to avoid sounding like the whiny, insecure mess I’ve become, I’ve been seeking outside opinions, and I’ve come across some great ones.

My younger sister is an assistant at a lobbying firm in D.C. She studied political science and is very ambitious. I had a conversation with her about whether or not I can call myself an actor. Here is an excerpt:

Erin: “No, you are right. But when I don’t have a show, and no shows booked for months to come, it can be hard to identify as an actor.”

Caitlin: “When I order coffee and sit on buzzfeed for hours on end it can be difficult to say I have any kind of career. But I do. I know I have a career because I know that this is temporary and I know that as long as I keep going and keep working I’ll keep getting opportunities and keep hitting those opportunities out of the park. Like when I was given 2 hearings to cover this week because they know I have fast turnover and can handle it. Its about taking opportunities and sometimes its about failing and that happens.”

At a brunch recently (where all good advice is exchanged) I posed the question to a friend. Can you call yourself an actor if you are not a working actor? He answered that even if you are not a working actor, you are always working on BEING an actor.

I like this approach because you take back ownership of your career. It’s easy to complain about a lack of opportunity, about not being the right type or not finding the right projects. If you are working on BEING an actor, that puts the ball back in your court. It puts the emphasis on actions you are taking towards your goal, and holds you accountable. When I really take a step back look at what I’ve been doing lately, it is clear there are more ways I can be my own advocate. More submissions, taking classes, developing special skills, and putting myself in a headspace where I am ready for the next show to come right now.

The path I choose is very different from the path my non-theatre friends and my little sister choose. Their paths seems to include committed relationships, stable incomes, and occasional trips to tropical places. Mine includes diaper changing, constant rejection and the knowledge that even if I am working at the top theaters in Chicago year-round, I still won’t be making the kind of money they are. I’ve written before about the concept of making it. Personally, I think someone assuming an actor wants to ”make it in Hollywood” is a little like assuming every lawyer wants to be a Supreme Court Justice. We all have different paths and goals.

I don’t have a charming or funny anecdote to go with this topic. It can suck to be an out of work actor. It sucks so much you don’t even want to TELL people you are an actor. But if there is one thing I’ve learned since leaving college, its that no matter what job I have, no matter where I go, in my heart its my greatest wish to be an actor. To be part of a company of story tellers. To go to the theatre, put on my costume, tell a story, and engage in one of the only places where you can experience real magic.


Overcoming Professional Jealousy

“Fulfillment comes from developing your own talents, not wishing for someone else’s” -Unknown

We’ve all been there. You are sitting in your PJs mindlessly trolling your Facebook news feed and BOOM someone you know has just been cast in that amazing part, at that amazing theatre, doing that amazing play. The entire community rejoices with 57 “likes” and comments. You are super excited and join the congratulatory celebration.

Then you feel it. That twinge of jealousy and disappointment. “Oh man, they didn’t even want to see me audition for that.”  You start to wonder if you’ll ever have an opportunity like that? Then that voice in your head starts whispering “Well of course you won’t get a chance like that. You didn’t go to the right schools. You aren’t talented enough, pretty enough, smart enough…. ”

I don’t know the source of the quote I opened with though I’ve known it since high school. It’s always provided me with the strength needed to silence that nasty voice that pipes up whenever I am dealing with professional jealousy. The only way to overcome professional jealousy is to stop comparing yourself, stop looking at what everyone else is accomplishing and start accomplishing something yourself.

For me, the jealously is only a passing thing. Its my ego wishing that people were impressed with me, wishing I had the security that I imagine other people have. It’s a blip on my emotional radar that is easily remedied by reminding myself of simple truths.  I remember that my love for my friends is stronger than my ego. I remember that no one is totally secure in their talent or job. I can be truly grateful to be surrounded by talented dedicated artists, and learn everything I can from them. I am also thankful that when I’ve been successful in the past, my friends have always been excited and supportive.

I will not succumb to bitterness and jealousy. I will use successful actors as my model, as my example, as proof that a life in the arts is possible and potentially lucrative (or at least livable). Successful friends are living proof that dreams come true. They are walking examples that people with similar backgrounds can make an impact. So I will work harder. I will spend more time practicing, I will spend more time in class. I will develop my own talents rather than wishing for someone else’s.

When I get jealous its because I am operating under the false belief that I would be happier living someone else’s life. Remember that this life is not easy for anyone, even if it seems so. Everyone, no matter how successful, has had their own struggles and disappointments. So stop wasting time wishing are start working.

So you’re not working now? Read more plays, add some new monologues to your repertoire, write more, take some classes. Keep sharp, because you don’t know when you’ll be called upon to be at your best. Also, the more time you spend working on yourself, the less time you have to compare yourself to others. Find creative outlets so you don’t become blocked and bitter.

Remember that what you have to offer is completely unique, and trust that eventually someone will be looking for exactly what you are offering.

Having a life to go back to…


“Work; obviously someone else decides when you’re an actor when you work and when you don’t. When you’re popular and when you’re not and all that. And having a life that is full and interesting and that you’re happy to go back to makes it not such a big deal if you can’t get work or you can’t find something that interests you for a while. Its actually just as fun to go back home for a while and be around the people you love”~Natalie Portman

I like Natalie Portman well enough as an actress, but I LOVE her as a person. Or at least, I love the content of her interviews, as I do not actually know her personally. The quote above is from the web series “Screen Test” produced by the NY times. You can check out this episode and more here

I’ve been really lucky in the last year to have steady acting work. Moving from Provision Theatre to Glass Onion to Red Barn and now I’ve been cast as Kristin in Vintage Theatre Collective’s upcoming production of Miss Julie. (I am so stoked about that project I can barely see straight) I know how fortunate I am, but in the midst of all this productivity, I must continue to build a life that is worth living even outside of acting. In every actors career, there are ups and downs. Even gorgeous oscar winning actress have slow years. So if your career is the only thing you invest your heart into, what do you have to fulfill your life during periods of inactivity?

I had an Aha moment last year while talking to my sister on the phone. I was complaining about how exhausted and frustrated I was and she asked me “Do you do anything that isn’t about paying bills or furthering your acting career?” I thought about it for a moment, I had no boyfriend, no real hobbies I was pursuing at the time, my life was literally all about my day job and my acting career. I had no creative outlet.

It’s so important to cultivate the qualities of character that sustain you through slow periods. I’ve invested time into new hobbies that challenge me creatively, but they are just for my own personal pleasure. In the last few months I’ve spent a little time everyday playing ukulele and I’ve just started learning guitar. I’ve also become a poetry junkie… I can’t get enough. I don’t have to perform anywhere other than a campfire sing along if I feel like it. My poems may never leave the inside of my journal, but it allows me to explore my own creativity in a way I had never done before. (On my 2012-2013 bucket list I also want to start learning French, to play the fiddle, and to paint)

It’s not just about pursuing new hobbies, it’s also about investing in personal relationships. How can I be a better sister? Daughter? Friend? Most importantly, how can I grow in my relationship with my Self, so that I can bring more of myself to these relationships? The combination of all of these things create a life that is worth going back to.

Yes I am blessed and fortunate to have gainful employment in the field of my choice, but that shouldn’t mean that I get so absorbed in my career that I stop investing in the other things that enrich life and give it meaning. So I’ll leave you with another quote that sums up what I mean much more articulately than I ever could. Peace and blessings ya’ll.

“You must learn day by day, year by year to broaden your horizon. The more things you love, the more you are interested in, the more you enjoy, the more you are indignant about, the more you have left when anything happens.”
Ethel Barrymore

Overcoming the “Grass is Greener” Blues

“Keep in mind, everything you have right now, was at one time everything you ever wanted.”

A friend of mine said that to me this morning and it really had an impact on me. Recently I’ve been wondering why getting exactly what you want is so gosh darn scary? That quote is a great reminder that as your life and career move forward, it is vitally important to keep things in perspective.

8 months ago when I was working at my sales job, all I wanted was to be a working actor. I had a secure job with a steady paycheck and a little spending money, but I traded it all in to pursue theatre. Money didn’t seem very important, relationships didn’t seem very important, what did any of that matter if I wasn’t being true to my dreams? I set a goal for myself: I was going to take whatever job I needed to support myself while I pursued theatre. The grass on the other side was definitely greener.

So I spent the next several months scooping kitty litter and running someone else’s errands in order to scrap together the money for rent, headshots and voice lessons. I got myself into some shows and classes and started auditioning all the time. I made new friends and spent my days immersing myself in Shakespeare and Larry Shue. I had achieved my goal and the grass was certainly green. But look over there! Those equity actors support themselves entirely with their art! New goal: get an acting gig where all I do is act all day!

Now I am a few weeks away from my Summer Stock gig. My housing is taken care of, I’ll make enough to save a little for when I return to the city after 11 weeks. I am going to be paid to spend ALL DAY working as an actor! I have everything I set out for earlier this year, so why am I so scared?

All kinds of new questions are popping up in my head. What if I don’t make any friends during this project? What if I am not talented/good enough?
Then there are the long-term questions: How will I ever afford health insurance/a house/to educate my children/to even HAVE children? Who will ever want to marry a broke actress like me?

It’s enough to make your head spin right? I am reminded of the old cliché about life being a race where the finish line keeps moving further back. It would be easy to let these fears and questions suffocate and paralyze me, but I have found my own way to overcome the Grass is Greener Blues.

My Cure
One of the most effective ways I deal with anxiety is to journal about my fears. I write down exactly what I’m worried about and address the issues one by one, like this: “What if I don’t make any friends during this project?” Well I usually don’t have trouble making friends, especially with theatre folks. But if this summer turns out to be the exception to the rule, then I will still treat everyone kindly, spend my time reading, practicing my ukulele and know that there are plenty of people who love me back home.

As for those big questions, I try to remember that in life there are NO guarantees. Even people with “safe” jobs are not impervious to a bad economy, or flash flood, or zombie apocalypse. So why not spend my days doing something that fuels my soul AND get paid for it? And the marriage question? Whoever I marry will want to marry me because I am Erin O’Connor, not because I am an actress. Broke or otherwise.

When I find a quiet moment during my day, I always try to list the things I am grateful for. Mine and my family’s health of course, my flexible job, my independence, my ability to support myself AND pursue theatre, my wonderful friends, my apartment, my memory foam mattress pad, ice cream, trees, beer gardens, books…the list goes on and on.

I also use positive affirmations to change my negative thoughts. Some of the affirmations I use every day are:
• Everything I need comes to me at exactly the right time.
• I choose love, joy and freedom, open my heart and allow wonderful things to flow into my life.
• In the infinity of where I am, all is perfect, whole and complete. I support my life and my life supports me.
One thing I will try to keep in mind when I get the Grass is Greener blues is that life has to move forward. It’s ok to want more, strive for more, as long as we never forget how far we’ve come and how lucky we are.