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.


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