Actors are optimists, but stay in the game long enough and all of us are in danger of the bitterness we sometimes see creeping into the faces of our adored acting friends. These looks are usually accompanied by questions such as; Will I ever make it? How can I train without any income? Have I passed my prime? Have I missed my window of opportunity?
Of course, these voices only come when we are not working. They come for me when I am disappointed, feeling like I am in a state of inertia, or, when I am depending on someone else to make my dreams come true. Below is the continuation of my list of six industry truths that will help you direct that doubting energy into some more productive places, and really take advantage of all of the opportunities that lay before you.
4. GET FOCUSED YOUR BRAND
Brand has become somewhat of a dirty word in the arts as of late, but there is no question Andy Warhol was onto something when he said “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.” The two are entwined; unless the artist is of independent means they don’t exist without the ability to make a living off their work. Even those lucky enough to receive grants and funding for their art still have to make a case for their work in those grant applications. Don’t panic. Your brand is not something you have to know straight out of the gate, and you don’t have to be right about it when you do make the choice. It can and will change over time, the key is that you choose something to focus on to help you get better at selling yourself and get those bits of work that will help you to define your career so you can get to the point where you can and will play any role that excites you.
I have had teachers whom I greatly respect who dispute the idea of worrying about your business and your brand and simply say you need to focus on being great as an actor and the rest will come. I do believe that craft should come first, but I don’t believe that you should just let the rest of it go. Even if you aren’t good at marketing yourself.
You have to have the basic materials: reel, headshot, resume, website etc. and those materials should be consistent, concise, and in line with the type of career you are looking to put out there.
The following list of questions will help you begin the process of creating your brand.
- What is your area of expertise? Make a choice, for now. Do you want to focus on improv? Sketch? Stage? Dark Indie Film? Genre? Commercial work? The choices are endless, and yes, you will audition for many things and try them all at first, but at some point your heart will tell you the direction you must take, and you must listen. Even if it doesn’t look like that is where the work is, you must first direct your attention to it in order to be able to discover where the opportunities lie in that particular segment of the market. Want to be in theatre? Go to the theatre. Hang out at the theatre bars, read the theatre trades, know who won what grant for which project. Be in the know and the opportunities will present themselves to you.
- Who are you? Within your area of expertise, – what is your expertise? As an actress, – I believe mine is walking the line between comedy and drama, or “‘grounded comedy’” as it is currently being captioned. Are you known for playing the comedic relief in romantic comedy plays? The wise Grannie? The Rogue? Pay attention to what you are being cast as, and play to that. It doesn’t have to go on like that forever (this is a thing we tell ourselves to sabotage our progress), just long enough to get your foot in the door.
- Where do people who care about those two things (your area of expertise and the medium in which you choose to operate) live online? To use the example of theatre, they are on the theatre blogs, reading Backstage articles if they live in NY, or, in person, they are attending the community theatre awards ceremonies and holiday parties. This is where you present your work — post links to your work in Facebook groups dedicated to that space, tweet at the organizations you admire, and tell them why you admire them, go to the events and hand out business cards with your headshot on the back in your most rogue-looking pose with your name on the other side: “Danny Zuco, brooding leading man”. It may seem cheesy and obvious, but people don’t have time to process a lot of clever marketing; they want to know immediately what you are good at so they can file it for future reference. If you are lucky enough to have roles written for you by your screenwriter friends that play to your unique combination of skills then fantastic, otherwise, you are going to have to fit into the character stereotypes until you make a name for yourself.
5. MAKE A PLAN
My dad always gave me great advice, and his particular advice about planning my day is part of the reason I am so productive. Keep it short and simple. He advised me to keep my to do list to six items per day. This is a realistic amount to get done in a day and it creates a great sense of accomplishment when you get through it. I still have a running to do list of all of the projects and items that need to be competed, but, by isolating the six things I need to do today, it forces me to do the un-fun things on my list that just otherwise would not get done. When I choose six things per day, I can balance it out with the good and the bad: that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
You don’t always have to have a grand, detailed, long-term vision to achieve success; you can simply focus on the thing you want to do for the rest of your life and do more of it. The problem is often not that you don’t know what you want to do or be, it’s just that you are so busy doing so many things out of fear, that your day becomes cluttered, and then so does your week, and your year, and you look back unsure as to what your direction was to begin with.
So the first question I ask myself is: if I were going to plan how I wanted to spend my year doing things that bring me JOY in my work as an actor, what would I do with my days? This is where I start, and I work backward from there.
Q: What brings me JOY as an actor?
A: All of it! The preparation, the auditions, the time on set, in rehearsals, training, all of it!
Q: What keeps me from doing this all the time?
A: Not having unlimited funds to support myself when I am not doing paid acting work, and the belief that I can only act when I have permission.
Q: How much time do I spend worrying about that thing in question 2 that I could spend actually doing the things in question 1?
A: Too much.
Q: What can I do to make the things in question 1 a part of my everyday working hours?
A: I can produce self tapes for shows currently casting with friends to stay sharp; I can start an informal actor’s scene study or meet up group; I can write an easy-to-shoot webseries; if I can afford it, I can take a class, I can read scripts or plays; all of those things create momentum and put me in a good space for when I do get called in to audition for paid work.
Q: What can I do to accomplish work as an actor that will be seen and help me on the road to getting a better agent, having a more diverse reel, and support the type of roles in which I want to be cast in the future?
A: I can write and create my own content with that group of actors I am meeting up with on a regular basis, go to networking events to find people who are starting out, and fill the positions that we need filled (director, DP, etc).
Q: I have a project I am really passionate about that I have written; how do I get it off the ground?
A: Start a crowdfunding campaign. As much as I hate to say it, it is the groundswell that attracts people to you and to your work and the best form of self promotion you can do. It feels dirty, but it really works to expand your network! Keep your financial goals low to help with your sanity and recognize it as an exercise in marketing and momentum, not in getting rich.
So now we have a broad goal of working at the thing that brings us joy and we have created a giant to do list from there. I urge you to keep your goal broad…which is the opposite of what most goal-making lists tell you to do. I think when we get specific as actors we try to make goals around things that we have little control over. Yes, you can try to increase your booking ratio, or get on a specific show, but then January comes along and nothing is casting and the show gets moved to Istanbul and you are SOL. This method encourages you to think globally and act locally…and stay away from making a to do list that is full of fear based ideas, like looking for a new agent. Yes, sometimes it is time to move up, or for fresh energy, but usually I encourage actors to do all they can to get themselves out there into the community before they jump ship.
6. FIND INSPIRATION FROM YOUR LIFE OUTSIDE OF WORK
Read things. Go to art shows. Watch the news. Recognize that there is no such thing as an overnight success, so you’d better buckle up and enjoy the ride. Life has a lot to offer and a career in acting can feel like a prison: keeping you in one place going in circles while the world rotates without you. Take a road trip, have cell phone-free Sundays, visit your non-industry friends and talk about home renovations: LIVE YOUR LIFE, and that richness will come back into your work tenfold.
Now go kick some 2016 ass.