Is it time to follow my dream of becoming an actor?

I began to study acting and got sidetracked 12 years ago.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 28, 2009 11:21AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Does the current state of the economy make it a better or worse time to chase after my long-neglected dreams?

I was one of those high school kids who left a small town in the West to go to theater school in NYC. Back then I dreamed of making a living doing the one thing I felt I was good doing, and also happened to enjoy -- inhabiting the head space of a character and performing that in front of an audience of people. Then I had a bit of a run-in with reality when I ran out of money after the first semester and couldn't afford to finish what I had started. So I took a couple of jobs and told myself I was biding my time. Eventually, the girl I was seeing at the time got a job offer back West so I decided I'd leave, with the thought that maybe one day I'd return. Fast forward 12 years (!) and I've worked for a couple of Fortune 500 companies and supported my now wife in her decision to open her own small business. During this time I did some local theater, played a part in a student film, nothing too serious, but it kept me wanting and dreaming. Still, I kept telling myself, "Now is not the time." How could I give up a full-time job with benefits to pursue a job with no guarantees, and a spectacularly high failure rate for those who go after it? Especially now that we have a house, loans to pay, and are starting to have the "should we have children" talk.

Then, along came a crappy economy, and I was just laid off. I've been looking for work, interviewing as much as possible, but the siren song has been turned up a couple of notches. I keep thinking that now I have no excuses. There's no job to give up, I have severance to last for a few months, and in that time I could take a short acting intensive in NYC, get that bug out of my system and maybe, just maybe get a job afterward. Did I say no excuses? None except that the severance doesn't last forever, and what happens when it runs out? Do I come back and go to work? Would I be satisfied then because I would have at least somewhat accomplished my original goal? Or would the goal posts just be moved and I'd find myself sighing over thoughts of having gone to just a couple of more auditions, etc.? One might ask why I feel I need instruction, and why NYC. Well, because I never finished what I started, I often go to auditions feeling like a carpentry-school dropout asked to create a long, winding staircase. And the local acting scene isn't totally dead, but if I wanted to work in lumber, I'd move near a forest. I want to work in the arts, so NYC seems like the place to go. Or is that just an excuse for me to relive my younger carefree days before I had a mortgage, car payment, etc., to think about?

What do you think?

Head In the Clouds

Dear Head in the Clouds,

You have to act. You have to make a living. Those two things are both true. But they are not mutually exclusive. Nor do they define each other. You do not have to make a living at acting. Nor do you have to stop acting to make a living. You just have to find room for both in your life.

Where can you most likely achieve both? New York. New York offers the most possibilities, but it may also offer the most hardships. If the preponderance of factors indicates that you must stay where you are, then you can stay where you are and continue acting and also make a living. That is for you to sort out.

If you continue acting, you may eventually make a living at it. Even if you do not make a living a it, you will have a creative life. The bottom line is that you must make a living and you must be an actor. Where you do them is secondary.

It may be a mistake to think of acting as a dream, rather than as a necessary daily activity. Our souls require us to engage in certain activities that give voice to the soul's yearnings. It is the ego that fills us with fantasies of grandeur and fears of failure. The soul does not much care. What if you were to commit to being an ordinary actor pursuing your craft?

It may sound like I am suggesting that you lower your expectations. This may be true, in a sense -- the way you lower a ladder so a child may reach its rungs. But I would say rather than lowering our expectations, we are putting possibilities within reach. It is possible for you to have a fulfilling avocation as an actor. It takes discipline and time management and focus but it can be done. By pursuing this avocation, you may find that you bring a great gift to the world, and that you become a famous, successful, wealthy actor. Or you may find that you bring a great gift to your community, to your family and those who know you and live in your world. Either way, if you continue acting, your soul will be satisfied, and those around you will appreciate what you do.

Now to the practical considerations.

I personally think that moving to New York permanently would not be such a bad idea. You could work and audition and study and keep your options open. You wife could also work and keep her business going, presumably. Or maybe not? If not, then you are asking her to do a huge thing, to give up her business. If you and she move to New York and you struggle to make your way as an actor and she struggles to either restart her business there or gives up her business, you cannot very well decide in a year that you've changed your mind and want to go back West.

Since you cannot continue to move from place to place, you need options within reach. New York offers you the most options. If you move to New York, you maximize your acting opportunities while preserving your fallback position as a corporate worker.

The non-negotiable thing is that you find a way to stay active as an actor, learning, playing parts, auditioning, growing.

As far as the direct influence of the current economy on your decision, I have a couple of thoughts. When everyone is paralyzed with fear is an excellent time to go outside and pick berries. When everyone else is panicked, it's a great time to sit down and make a plan. You not only influence others well, showing them that life has not come to an end and that we can go on doing what we do, but you take advantage of the moment.

Is this phenomenon at work in the arts?

I think some creative people will react with fear and put aside dreams of careers in the arts. Others will think as you are thinking: With everything going to hell, why not pursue my art now? Of those who do enter the arts, most will not last. They will not have a backup plan, and they will burn out. So those who stay in it for the long haul will probably do well, no? They will steadily improve their craft, make connections, keep a steady income and live in the community of actors.

So if you make the long-term commitment now to both do your art and make a living, whether in New York or where you are now, I think you will do well.

That's my crystal-ball gazing.

Dreaming of a life in the theater? Read p. 223

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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