One day on the subway ride home from an audition, I was scrolling through my New York Times iPhone app to pass the time. After a few swipes of the screen, I landed upon the article, "That Hobby Looks Like A Lot Of Work."
(Ha! Tell me about it.)
Written by Alex Williams, it’s a fascinating look at folks who have given up their day jobs to follow their dream of being a professional artist. The article, featuring artisans from Etsy, looks at the sacrifices and rewards experienced by those who give everything they have to do what they love. What an easy parallel to what we deal with as actors!
For me, this article conjures up one of the more popular motivational concepts for anyone pursuing a dream—people who are successful in their chosen field can only be so after becoming an expert, which is commonly reached after 10,000 hours of work (as described in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success." Similarly, this article talks about the amount of hours that artists put into their businesses, and the strain it often puts on their lives. Consider this blurb about artist Yokoo Gibraan:
She would seem to be living the Etsy dream: running a one-woman knitwear operation, Yokoo, from her home and earning more than $140,000 a year, more than many law associates. Jealous? How could you not be? Her hobby is her job. But consider this before you quit your day job: at the pace she's working, she might as well be a law associate.
“I have to wake up around 8, get coffee or tea, and knit for hours and hours and hours and hours... like an old lady in a chair, catching up on podcasts, watching old Hitchcock shows. I will do it for 13 hours a day.” And even after all those hours knitting, she is constantly sketching new designs or trading e-mail messages with 50 or more customers a day.
And this, about artist Caroline Colom Vasquez:
Working from home, people think it's so easy and great [but] there's nobody there to tell you to take a break, or take a vacation. This year, she expects her business to have $250,000 in sales, but she will have to divide that with the three employees she just hired because Ms. Vasquez, who has a young daughter, could no longer handle the strain.
“I physically could just not do it in 24 hours,” she said. “My husband and I used to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning before the baby, then stay up till 1 or 2, stamping boxes, making shipping labels.”
As you read these quotes, calculate for yourself: How many hours per day do each of these artists spend on their businesses? Eight hours? 12 hours? More? Let's be conservative and suggest that these folks average about eight hours per day focusing on their business. Now, take a moment and count up how many concentrated hours YOU spend on your acting career daily.
Wow, that was fast. My guess? Far less than eight.
Why do we, as actors, think that anything less than full commitment will somehow be enough? And why do we often stuff the hours we do dedicate in between all of the other things in our lives (rather than putting acting first and bending all others to fit)? Perhaps it's because we were told somewhere along the line that we needed to "think more seriously about our future." Perhaps we get too frustrated with the lack of tangible results in our career. Perhaps we just don't believe in our talent, or we are too scared of success? Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.
As we move forward into 2014, let's recommit ourselves to addressing this issue. To get started, consider three things:
1. How do you define success? (Meaning, what needs to happen in your career that will lead you to say, "NOW I am successful.")
2. To achieve this success, how many hours per day/week/month will you need to work?
3. (And this is the hard part.): Make it happen.
If there is anything standing in your way, work through it. Remember that people make this career happen every day, even those with children, student loans, unsupportive parents, temporary housing, etc. Don't let your circumstances define who you are or where you'll end up.
What kind of successes or difficulties have you found in committing fully to your career? To get support or lend a hand to others, share your story in the comments area below.
Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!
Erin Cronican is a professional actor (SAG-AFTRA/AEA) with over 20 years of experience performing in film, TV, plays and musicals (NYC, LA, regionally.) She also produces and directs with The Seeing Place Theater, a critically acclaimed non-profit, indie company in NYC. Passionate about sharing her knowledge with other actors, Erin is the lead coach and founder of The Actors' Enterprise, one-on-one coaching service that provides affordable career coaching to actors who want to feel more fulfilled and in control of their careers. She helps actors set goals, design their materials, organize their business, and create a plan of action with easy tools that can take them to the next level -- with an emphasis on feeling empowered and working smarter, not harder. First consultation is always free. Follow her on Twitter @ErinCronican and like her on Facebook.
By Erin Cronican
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson