If you’ve read my work previously, I thank you graciously; unknowingly, you’re helping me pay my bills and finance a career that I may never fully advance in. You see, I’m not just a freelance writer; as much as I enjoy meeting amazing emerging artists and getting to know them on a personal level, this was never the intention. But you know the old adage: life happens when you’re busy making plans.
When I entered college, a young eighteen year old with great grades and high test scores, I had every intention of pursuing a career that would earn me a fortune someday. I made the mistake of making friends that encouraged my creativity, fed my artistic passions, and spurred me towards leadership; before I knew it, I was studying classical theatre performance and leading a women’s theatre troupe within my university. I graduated, packed up my bags, and headed for a city. I moved to Chicago with no job and few connections, hoping to make a mark.
That was about a year ago. Over the course of the past year, I’ve achieved many successes as an actress, but also become a writer, a model, and a freelance artist. Things have not been easy, but I’ve grown much and accumulated a wealth of wisdom and life skills, skills I’d like to share with you. Of course, my story will not be your story and my advice may not help your situation- but some of it might, and it’s all that I can do to try to help someone like me, trying to do what they love for their life.
1. Be Honest
It’s kind of a blanket rule, but let me elucidate further. Be honest on your resume; you will be asked about it. Be honest to your bosses and superiors; they will know if you are lying, no matter how good an actor you are. Be honest to your coworkers/scene partners; it’ll bite you in the ass if you aren’t. And most importantly, be honest to yourself- you can waste years, nay, decades if you aren’t.
Let me give you an example: a longtime friend of mine has now been working in theatre and film for about twelve years. He’s spent a fortune on a master’s degree; he’s achieved SAG status through hard work; and he’s invested time and money into living in cities like L.A. and New York. Recently, he admitted to me that he couldn’t stand living in cities anymore and that joining SAG limited his career to the point that he couldn’t make a living acting anymore. After all that time, he realized that acting was not a feasible career option. He had to give it up, and he didn’t know how to or what he would do after.
“To thine own self, be true.” Shakespeare’s words ring true for actors and models everywhere. If this lifestyle does not suit you, or if it no longer does though it once did, be honest. Don’t waste your years in a career that makes you miserable or in a city that drives you crazy. No career is worth sacrificing your health, safety, or happiness.
2. Set Goals; and Don’t Crucify Yourself if You Don’t Meet Them
I came to Chicago, starry eyed and sanguine, with clear goals in mind. I’d decided to give myself two years in the city before reevaluating if I wanted to stay: I had to achieve SAG eligibility, and I had to have semi-steady employment in acting gigs if I wanted to deem myself “successful.” I wanted to ensure that I was constantly feeding my creativity, not just living paycheck to paycheck and trying to scrape by.
Fortunately (and yes, I do attribute a portion of my success to good fortune and great timing), I’ve already met my goals. After one year, I’ve achieved SAG eligibility and have had fairly steady acting gigs. I’ve been blown away by the amount of opportunity in Chicago and by how much I can accomplish. However, even though the race is halfway over, I’ve still got a year left in this city and constantly wonder: “what if I can’t do any better?” Even though I exceeded my expectations dramatically, I live in fear that someday I’ll reach my pinnacle and not know it.
We need to stop condemning ourselves for not being Jennifer Lawrence. We can’t all tap into deep wells of fame on our first indie film. Especially if you hold a strong moral code and want only to succeed in acting/modeling on your own merit and skill, never reproach yourself for not exploding into fame. It takes time and sweat and tears and tiring persistence. We cannot give up because we did not reach the bar we set for ourselves; we can only try again.
3. Your Career Is Not Worth Sacrificing Your Self
I mentioned this earlier, but it’s something I frequently have to remind myself of. Modeling and acting are wonderful careers that allow you to express yourself for a living; we become living works of art. Nothing is more flattering, fulfilling, and fantastic than feeling like you’ve made a difference by sharing your art. But consider the sacrifices you make, for they will never leave you.
These sacrifices refer to more than your sleep, your stress, your weight; while all these things matter an incredible amount, they are not the only sacrifices people make for their art. Recently, I was called to model at a club and, while working, someone drugged my drink. Though I got home safely, I was hospitalized the entire next day for the effects of the drug in my system. As horrible as the event was, I told my sister as she took me to the hospital, “I was modeling… I’m not surprised. Something like this was bound to happen eventually.” Suddenly, I realized what a terrible sacrifice I’d made for modeling. No modeling gig, no matter who it helped me meet or how much it earned me, was worth being a victim of assault.
I am not in the business of selling my body, no matter what makeup or costume my directors ask me to wear. Being a model does not make me a sexy object in a room; being an actor does not make me immune to true feeling. Allowing your audience and the people around you to treat you like a novelty is sacrificing your dignity and your self. Do not allow people to treat you like less than a human because you feel that is part of the job description; it isn’t.
4. Work Smarter and Harder
I’ve got a lot of friends in these industries, I constantly hear complaints of how and why it’s hard. “There just aren’t enough jobs;” “it doesn’t pay enough;” “maybe I’m not good enough;” “maybe I’m not pretty enough;” “maybe maybe maybe…” STOP IT. Look, there are a million good reasons and excuses to bail on this industry. If you’re just scared and are looking for an easy exit, don’t fall for it. Here are your quick answers…
You’re right, there aren’t enough jobs. But for every paying job in the arts, there are at least five unpaid/volunteer positions (I totally made that statistic up, but it’s gotta be near truth). Yes, unpaid positions suck but they lead to paid positions. Apprenticeships and internships may lead to ensemble positions. Being in an unpaid show may lead to being discovered for paid gigs (that sounds like a long-shot, I know, but it’s happened to me several times). If nothing else, unpaid gigs at least keep your creativity flowing for other auditions and calls. Work is work.
And shit yeah, it doesn’t pay enough. I’m sitting here writing this article and hoping you’ll read it because my income from the commercial I was in this month plus the Shakespearean play won’t cover even half of my rent check (that said, please like and share us on Facebook and Twitter). You’ve got to have another job on the side, maybe a few, but take solace in the fact that most artists live that way. There are bands performing at South By Southwest that still need to support themselves by waiting tables. Finding a day job you like, whether that’s writing or bartending, makes it all a bit more bearable.
Finally, you are talented and you are pretty. And even if you’re not, so what? You know how many untalented and unattractive actors are out there? Sooooooo many. Embrace who you are. If you’re a terrible actor, maybe invest in a few classes, but also don’t berate yourself and damn yourself to failure. If you’re unattractive, stop telling yourself so, find your strengths, and play to them! I do not consider myself to be a classic beauty, but there are still people willing to pay me to play ingénues and stand in front of a camera for money. You are what you make yourself.
5. Don’t Forget Why You Started
It’s easy to feel discouraged, as an artist. No, discouraged isn’t the word, it’s more like… beaten down by a tsunami of existential dread and crushed under a myriad of rejections? Is there a word for that? There ought to be…
We all knew going in to this that there would be years of Ramen noodles, painful rejection, and lonely nights. Take a deep breath and remember that there’s a reason you decided this was worth it in the first place. The moment I truly decided I would follow performance, theatre, and film for the rest of my life was when a young woman in the college theatre troupe I ran approached me and her director and told us that we’d changed her life; she wanted to pursue social justice and help inspire progress in our world because of the work we’d done together. Knowing art I made actually changed a life and could lead to a domino effect of so many lives changed made me feel stronger and more fulfilled than I’d ever felt in my life. Anyone that says a career in the arts isn’t worthwhile is wrong. We are making differences and changing the world, both independently and together. Though this path is fraught with obstacles and difficulties, it is a worthy cause we fight for. Do not let yourself succumb to the tsunami of dread.
With enough persistence and perseverance, anyone can succeed in these industries. It helps to have the raw talent and bold experience of Meryl Streep or to have the sexy look and sleek physique of Charlize Theron, but you don’t need it to rise in this industry. Work hard; know that you won’t get a vast majority of the work you submit for; keep yourself fresh and working, even if work is hard to find; and don’t give up on yourself. The persistent artists are the ones who make it; I intend to make it.
Carmen R. Lawrence is a freelance writer currently located in Chicago, IL. Though she writes about topics as varied as craft beer, theatre, and video games, writing about music is a passion and a pleasure. Follow her on Twitter at @carmenrlawrence or find her on Facebook at carmen.lawrence1