I had the pleasure of talking to the graduating undergrads at my alma mater, the University of Washington School of Drama. There were a few things that I wrote down before the panel, but my responses were mainly inspired by the young actors themselves. As I was talking, I realized that everything that I was saying is common knowledge to me now, but when I was a student it definitely was not!
Thus, I would like to share with you the highlights of that conversation. Hopefully they can help you out, especially if you are just starting out on your acting career.
Unions: There was a question about whether to join the unions or not. The students had gotten mixed reviews. Now, I’m a little biased because I joined Actors Equity (the stage union) before I even graduated college. It has paid off well for me, but I know others that struggle. So here is my advice: if you want to pursue acting on a more casual basis and do community theater, or a play at a smaller houses and not depend on your acting income to pay your rent- don’t join the unions. If you want to make acting your career and/or work in a big market (LA/NYC) you will need to join the unions at some point.
Pasta: There was a lot of the “what do I do?” energy coming my way. Well, here is my advice: do as much as you can! Don’t be afraid of messing up. Throw as much pasta against the wall and see what sticks. A lot won’t, some will. But the biggest mistake is not making mistakes. You don’t know what will work and what won’t, but do it anyway. That’s the only way you will find out. Don’t be led by your fear.
$$$: As I told the students: HAVE A SAVINGS ACCOUNT. If you want a life in the arts, and especially as an actor, you will be living off your savings at some point or another. So when you book that show or commercial and your paycheck looks pretty sweet, save half of it. Or 20%. As much as you can, because you don’t know when your next gig will be. And remember, the Feds are going to take back a huge chunk at tax time if you aren’t a union member and have withholding taxes taken out already. Also find a survival job that will pay your rent and put food in your fridge. You can’t perform if you don’t eat. *Side note: find a job that can serve your goals. Like teaching and working with kids? be a nanny. Want to produce? Get an office job. Love interacting with people? Bartend. Find a job that fits with your personality. Then it isn’t just about collecting a paycheck.
Work/Life Balance: I’m pretty bad with this one. I am notorious for pushing myself as hard as I can and then wearing myself out. You have no control over when you book work, so sometimes, you are doing four jobs at once. It’s not pretty, but there it is. Sometimes you are unemployed for stretches at a time. What is important is to find things that make you happy outside of your work. Love gardening? Start an indoor garden. Love biking? Allow time for a ride every week. And make sure you surround yourself with people who support your dreams and understand your crazy life. But that doesn’t mean you can just call people when you’re bored- be a good friend and stay in touch. Same goes with relationships!
Getting your own work: I’ve been in this for a while so I can rely on my agent to get me most of my work, but I never stop looking for work either. To start out, look at community callboards for student films or fringe plays. These are your training grounds. They will build your resume and get you experience. DO NOT accept projects that require any kind of nudity. Unless you are a life model or have and agent to negotiate a contract, you should not be taking off your clothes. This can lead to some scary situations especially for young women. After scouring the callboards, think about making your own work! Get some friends together to read a play in your living room. Make a short film. Start a youtube channel. In the internet age, the possibilities are endless. Then when you’re ready, you can start looking for representation.
Training: You may be so happy to get that diploma and think you are done with your education. WRONG. As an actor, you will be training for the rest of your life. Sorry to burst your bubble. As I told one young woman, “You have built your foundation. Now you have to build your house. It is up to you what it looks like.” Now you can expand your repertoire with improv, commercial classes, dance, camera classes, scene study, the list goes on and on. And like a professional athlete, you have to work out regularly to be able to compete.
Bigger Markets: Live where makes you happy. Some people love New York, some LA, some Austin. I happen to be stupidly in love with Seattle. Remember, you are living 24/7 in a place, not just when you audition or perform. So if another city makes you happy- move! But if you want to stay in your hometown, explore all avenues there and get yourself in a fighting position to move into a bigger market. Yes, now I am spending more time in LA, because that is the work I have graduated to. Just remember, life comes first. Pick your zip code accordingly.
I hope all of this is helpful. If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to post below!