“You haven’t been on television yet?”
“So, sure, you’re an actor, but what’s your REAL job?”
“How much money do you make doing that?”
“What do your parents think about you being an actor?
Every actor, no matter what career phase he/she is in, knows the pain of these questions – and others like them – all too well. Otherwise well-meaning family members, friends, or strangers at parties all want to know the business of being an actor. Would any of them ever ask questions like these of someone in another profession? Can you see someone asking a teacher what their “real” job is? Or telling a lawyer where he/she could find work? Well, certain people might, but overall, actors and artists seem to be the only profession that people are simultaneously mesmerized by and feel unconsciously compelled to undermine.
Thanks to a great many factors that are too complicated to discuss here, the modern world often equates success with money. Those uncomfortable questions above, and the majority of difficult questions actors face, all come back to earning power. We’ve decided that people are only worth as much as they can financially make. In an artistic industry, where the paychecks are often few and far between, what’s an actor to do when they can’t even get an audition, let alone be paid to act? The answer is that we have to find other ways of measuring success rather than just whether we can afford to pick up the check for everybody on Saturday night.
A few years ago, when Kristen Shaw was still teaching regular, in-studio classes, she discussed what to do with questions like these, and how actors can generate a measure of “success” that isn’t tied to money. She began the class with a demonstration, and I was lucky enough to be a participant, along with John Paul, and a couple of our other classmates. Kristen had me stand off to the side at the front of the room, and gave the other members of the group some pre-planned questions, similar to the ones listed above. She placed a small, decorative box at the other side of the room and told me that my objective was to get to that box. I’d take a step and as soon as I did, one of my classmates would step in front of me and ask the question they’d been given – “Do you have an agent?” “How are you going to make any money?” “Don’t you know that most actors are out of work?” I attempted to answer each question, but got hung up trying to explain myself to each person, and never made it to the box.
Kristen stopped the exercise, pulled me aside, and gave me a slip of paper. On it, was written one simple line:
“It doesn’t matter; I’m on my way to…”
Everything was reset, and this time, when I ventured across the room, I felt ready. I made it very quickly, after politely, but firmly, telling each of my classmates the magic phrase, filling in the ending appropriately. “It doesn’t matter! I’m on my way to my goal!” “It doesn’t matter; I’m on my way and I’ll figure that out as I go.” “It doesn’t matter; I’m on my way to what I really want to do with my life.” When I got to the box, I felt as excited as if I’d just completed a treasure hunt. Inside the box were a few dollar bills and some chocolate (because, if you know Kristen, chocolate is always part of a celebration.)
What can we actors learn from this exercise? That the more we get caught up in explaining ourselves to others, the more we allow self-doubt to creep in. Doubt is a serious danger zone for any artist, and we don’t want to encourage it. The more we let in the voices of naysayers, the harder it is to stay focused, to stay positive, to actually accomplish what we’re setting out to do. Acting and being an actor is hard enough even under the best circumstances – let’s not make it more difficult.
The next time you’re in a situation where someone asks one of those tough questions, try using “It doesn’t matter, I’m on my way to…” You don’t have to be rude or dismissive, but you do need to stand up for yourself. You’re an artist, and that means you’ve chosen a life filled with creation. Money isn’t a bad thing, and we certainly should get paid for our work, but it is not the end-all, be-all, no matter what your parents tell you! Our measures of success don’t have to be only tied to money. Did you make it to class last month? Great! Did you and a group of your friends shoot some fun scenes you wrote together? Amazing! Did you audition for that play that doesn’t pay, but that you’re really right for and excited about? Fantastic! We have to take and acknowledge our wins where we find them. The fact is, anyone who truly cares about us will be excited about anything we’re excited about. The opinions of anyone who doesn’t care for us don’t really matter anyway.
At the end of the day, we’ve got to take care of ourselves and treat ourselves with the kindness we don’t always receive. Sometimes, that might mean shutting down others’ distracting and doubt-inducing questions. Just use your new magic words and you’ll be well on your way to finding your own chocolate and dollar bills.