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.

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Live-Blogging a Rejection

“Having a dream, Erin, is awesome.

Having a dream and showing up every day, even when nothing seems to be happening, is priceless.

But having a dream and showing up every day, while sauntering, winking, and hugging everyone, is when the floodgates begin to tremble.

Hugs,
The Universe” –Notes from the Universe

Whoop. You’ve caught me at a bad time.

There was a role that I desperately wanted to play, and it doesn’t look like it’s coming my way. Usually you just don’t hear back, or you get a rejection email. But as fate would have it, I was privy to the knowledge that the calls were being made. I’m feeling nauseous and still staring at my phone willing it to ring. With every minute that passes I can feel the cloud descending. Troubling thoughts are racing through my head. “If I can’t get a part I thought I was perfect for, how the hell am I going to get any roles at all?/I should just give up and try to marry a rich dude/I am mad at myself for getting my hopes up so high.” Luckily, I have the power to change the story I am telling myself.

I learned a few years ago that it is within my power to assign meaning to the events of my life. My happenings don’t have to affect my happiness. When I am feeling anxious or upset I can choose to channel negative energy into positive creation. This applies to a wide range  of events, from a simple rejection letter to a national crisis. For instance, when I learned about the shooting in Colorado last summer, I was heartbroken. I was working at a small summer stock theatre, and I felt like the safe little bubble I had been living in was popped. A cloud of sadness consumed me, making it almost impossible to concentrate during work. How did I make the cloud go away?

I wrote letters. I wrote little cards to people I missed from home. My best friends, my sisters, my parents, even some acquaintances I just admire.  I thought about all the things I loved about them, wrote it in a card, and let them know how much I missed them and I couldn’t wait to see them again. Thinking about all those people I love lifted the cloud. I am not sharing this to say “look how nice I am because I wrote cards”. It was a completely selfish act. I did it because it made me feel better.

So here I am staring at this phone, willing it to ring but feeling in my gut it’s not going to happen. I choose to focus my energy on something positive. I’ve writing a gratitude list. A list of all the things I am happy for RIGHT NOW. Obviously I am grateful for my family, friends, and their health. But talking about specifics can be a cathartic exercise that brings you down from a ledge.

  • I don’t have to move in the near future.
  • I am a healthy young woman with the freedom to express myself in whatever way I choose.
  • The Hawks are in the finals.
  • I am learning a valuable lesson about humility, optimism, and faith.
  • Right now its just me. No husband, no children, no one to answer to but my own conscience, and I like it that way. For now.
  • Its summer and I can wear sundresses.
  • I get to spend most days caring for wonderful children I love, and introducing them to the world.
  • I can play my ukulele ANY TIME I WANT.
  • I am going to a dance party on Saturday night, and I plan on wearing a fabulous dress, and dancing my face off.
  • In myself, I have the agency to create my own destiny. Perhaps this setback is a catalyst into something better. A push that will help me create my own opportunity rather than waiting to be chosen by someone else.
  • There is chocolate ice cream in the freezer.
  • Someone invented sunscreen, and therefore I can enjoy being outside as much as I like.
  • I live in ‘Merica!
  • As soon as Will wakes up from his nap, we are going to bring the bubble-gun down to the lake and go crazy.
  • There are always more shows. More auditions. More opportunities. Not getting this role doesn’t mean I can never do theatre again. The next show could be just around the corner.
  • I am lucky enough to have a wide circle of friends; College friends, high school friends, theatre friends, random people I’ve met in the last two years who I have become amazingly close to. There is never a shortage of entertainment or love, so who am I to feel bad for myself ever?
In every great setback in my life, I’ve always looked back later and thought “Thank goodness. If things had worked out the way I originally wanted, I would have missed out on so much.” So I choose to be miracle minded. I choose to believe that there is something else I am supposed to be doing, and its my job to find it/create it.

How to Close a Show

The healing process begins with the last curtain call. Cry. Hug your other actors. Get out of your costume for the last time, but be so attached to it that you buy it from the company. You’re sure you’ll find some reason to wear a tutu.

Strike the set. If you are handy, grab a power tool and go to town on those screws. Don’t think about the fact that you are dismantling two months of hard work, sweat and planning in a matter of minutes. Just get those screws outta there. If you are less handy (ahem, me) do whatever menial tasks help strike to move along but still make you feel kind of useless. Pick up screws. Fold curtains. Clean the dressing room. Steal someone else’s power tool for a few minutes and go to town on those screws yourself. Feel important for two minutes.

Hug everyone. Tell them how much you’ve enjoyed working with them. Mean it.

Go to a cast party. Take a shot of whiskey with your favorite cast members. Sing with them. Light up a bonfire and watch the night go up in smoke. Soak up the last moments that this entire group of people will be together for a common purpose. Sure, you may have made some new friends who you will stay in touch with. Maybe you’ll work with some of these people again, or run into them at auditions. It will always be congenial, it will always be a pleasant surprise, but it will never be like this. Never again. This is the last time, so enjoy it. Finally get to kiss your showmance-crush, but know that nothing will come of it. Its not the beginning of a relationship, but rather the closing of one. A release of tension building up from quiet moments in the dark backstage.

Keep drinking beer. Don’t go home yet. Yes you have work in the morning but you’ve been hung over before right? Tell yourself you’ll drink coffee. Sing more songs. Talk shit about that one person you thought was annoying. As a group, analyze every moment of the show and how it could have been different, but be glad it wasn’t.

Wake up the next morning hung over and reeking of smoke. Shower. Go to work and pretend you aren’t hung over. Be so tired you can’t think straight. Be so tired that you don’t think about what you’ve lost.

Let a couple of days go by, enjoy you’re new freedom. Go grocery shopping for the first time in 3 weeks. Do a proper work out because you actually have the time. Call your non-theatre friends and catch up over dinner. When someone asks about your plans for Friday evening, start to say you have a performance, then remember you don’t.

Realize for the first time that it is truly over. That the thing you created together will never be seen ever again. Not in the same way. Not with the same people. Miss your castmates. Miss that person you talked shit about, and feel bad because you really did like them. Wish you were putting on your make up and laughing backstage. Run your lines in your head out of habit. That night have a dream that you are running late for your call time, or that you are out on stage and forgot your lines, or are wearing the wrong costume. Wake up and remind yourself it’s over, and you can go back to sleep.

Dedicated to the cast and crew of Red Hamlet.

Like Show Business…

“Theatre remains the only thing I understand. It is in the community of the theatre that I have my being. In spite of jealousies and fears, emotional conflicts and human tensions; in spite of the penalty of success and the dread of failure; in spite of tears and feverish gaiety — this is the only life I know. It is the life I love.” ― Robert Helpmann

A couple of months ago someone asked me why I do theatre. I gave him a brief explanation of my educational background and how I came to be in Chicago. He said “But you still didn’t answer-why theatre?”.

Honestly, I was completely stumped.

I can’t remember a time when theatre was not a part of my life. When I was little and I used to wish on stars every night, my request was always the same “Please make me an actress”. (For a brief period of time my request was “Please make me a witch and let me go to Hogwarts”, but once my 11th birthday passed and no owls appeared, I gave up).  As a child I was only interested in putting on plays, going to dance class, learning to sing. Like most theatre kids, I felt that I didn’t fit in at school. Though I am no longer a misfit kid going to theatre camp, the sense of homecoming when I am part of a show remains. Every time I strayed away from theatre I never stayed away long. For me, having theatre in my life is as essential as family or faith. Theatre is the love of my life.

I love the lightbulbs around the mirror and the fine powder coating the inside of my make up bag. I love the years of dust collected in prop rooms and the smell of fresh paint drying on wooden flats. I love the stillness of the theatre when only the ghost light illuminates the stage. I love the frantic, kinetic energy of an opening night. I love the zipper hastily stitched into a broken costume. Shoes that are a bit too small but match so perfectly you have to wear them. Mock ups, designs, paintbrushes, light gels, safety pins, sitzprobes, catwalks, duck tape, heavy red curtains.

I love living on top of my cast mates for the length of the show. The camaraderie that forms during a particularly exhausting tech run, when everything becomes hilarious. The passing of folklore and etiquette from one generation of actors to another. I love that all theaters smell the same. I love the sense of peace and purpose that washes over me every time I enter a theatre- the feeling I think I am supposed to get when I enter a church.

I love the instant gratification of a laugh from the audience, and the slow burning electricity of a suspenseful scene. The poetry of Shakespeare, the social challenges of Ibsen. Standing backstage as an overture plays.

I love the sense of kinship I automatically feel with other actors. The private jokes and had-to-be-there moments that exist only within your cast. The community that forms around a common idea and purpose: to tell a story, to affect an audience.

I think of theatre as a reflection of our relationship with the Uni-verse. We are not solitary people, but the Uni-verse expressing itself as a human for a while. I am not actually the character, just Erin expressing myself as Rosencrantz for a while. Living in the world of Red Hamlet for a while.  We choose to share an illusion in the hopes that we will be entertained or learn. Theatre reminds us we are all connected.

So there is my artsy-farsty foo-foo answer for why I do theatre. I guess the simple answer is “It makes me happy.”

That works too.

That Time I Fell on my Face in an Audition…

It was about a year ago. I was the second to last person to audition for the whole day. As the proctor ushered me in, I made eye contact with the two ladies sitting in the audience. I smiled my best, sunny audition smile as I made my way to the stage.

Then I fell on my face. Flat on my face.

To be honest, I wasn’t doing great even before I fell. I had recently quit my full time sales job so I could pursue acting. I had ended a long term relationship. And in an effort to overcome my debilitating fear of auditions, I was forcing myself to go on every single audition possible. I did all of these things because I knew they would serve me well in the long run, but at the time, I was struggling. I was anxious. I felt surrounded by loneliness and self doubt.

Back to my face plant.

My foot got caught in between the lip of the stage and a block of wood that was used as a set piece. I mistakenly thought the block was a step, and caught my foot between the two. For the few seconds I lay sprawled out on the stage, the reality of my situation came crashing down on me. The uncertainty of the life I had chosen. I had no money, no boyfriend, and I was living in a crappy apartment. I couldn’t even enter an audition room without landing on my face, never mind landing a job.

Adreneline kicked in, and I popped back up. As I fell the horrified directors gave a shout, rushed to help me up and make sure I was OK. I laughed and said “Well at least now you’ll remember me!”

I went on to give a mediocre audition, the adrenaline kick did nothing to help my nerves, and my material wasn’t great. My ankle was pounding the whole time, and I wasn’t sure if I had twisted it or not. When I left that night I was both laughing at myself and wanting to die of embarrassment.

Flash forward to this past Tuesday. I was auditioning for Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre once more. As I got ready, I made sure to wear flat shoes, and silently said a thank you prayer that the audition was to take place in the Equity office, where there are few obstacles to trip over. When I entered the room this time, there was no face planting. I introduced myself to the directors. The artistic director looked at me and said

“Hi Erin, I remember you from last year.”

“Oh right, because I was the one who fell!”

We all had a laugh and she retold the story to her colleague. I smiled and said “I told you you’d remember me after that.” We chatted a little about my Irish name and St. Patrick (really, we did) and then I gave my audition. I felt confident, I made them laugh a couple times. My singing wasn’t perfect as I’m still getting over a cold, but I got through it and I had fun. Even if I don’t get hired, I feel proud of the audition I gave.

Afterwards I went through my normal post-audition routine, and I treated myself to a lovely meal at the French Market. As I ate my sushi I reflected on how far I’ve come this year. Last year I felt lonely, poor and unworthy of the life I dreamt about. This year I feel the opposite. Auditions used to terrify me, and now I quite look forward to them. I’ve gotten better about choosing material, and seeking out the help of coaches and friends to prepare it. I no longer feel intimidated by other actors in the waiting room. Many of them are friends or familiar faces, and the ones I don’t know are just friends I haven’t met yet. Auditions are opportunities and they don’t come around every day. So you’ve got to enjoy it when they do.

I have a great support system. A family who loves me, friends from childhood who are proud of me, and actor friends who encourage and inspire me. Most importantly, I am kind to myself, take care of myself and get out of my own way. This audition threw into focus how much progress I’ve made. Its not the kind of progress that is measured by how many jobs I book or how much money I made. I guess there is no way to measure it really.

But the point I was trying to make is, its pretty liberating to fall on your face. There is no where to go but up.

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.