Every year around this time, hundreds of college graduates move to the City to pursue their dream of "making it" as an actor. This is the culmination of a lifetime of dreaming, studying, and (hopefully) saving. These debt-ridden grads should be applauded for their grit and determination. They are our next generation of theatre artists.
That being said...
You haven't experienced it yet, but this business is awful.
You may have all the training and talent you need to carve out a career in the arts, but statistically, most of you won't. And even if you do, here's the thing: you will spend even the most enviable moments of your career frustrated and plagued with doubt. And none of it will have anything to do with you.
I tell you this not to persuade you from pursuing your dreams, but to give you the warning that most of us, especially those who graduated from top conservatories, never had.
What follows is a sampling of the reasons the entertainment industry is batshit crazy. None of these are subjective, all are facts.
1. Supply vs. demand.
There simply aren't enough acting jobs to go around, relative to the number of people who want to be actors. This means that even your hottest, most talented friends-- and you!-- will be unemployed for various amounts of time. And yes, there are a lot of untalented people clogging the system, making it harder for the truly good ones (you) to be seen. Unfortunately, the numbers are what they are, and you're going to have a time of it, especially at first.
2. The industry is non-linear.
Did everyone see Chuck Cooper giving "oohs" and "aahs" under Justin Guarini during the In Memoriam section of the Tonys? Chuck Cooper is a Tony winner. I don't blame Cooper for singing backup-- it was a beautiful segment, and I like to think he was happy to be a part of it. But it just goes to show the capricious nature of this business. In other industries, you work your way up, gaining promotions, respect, and pay raises along the way. This industry, due in part to the scarcity of work (see #1), does not progress in a linear fashion. Each level not only has mountains and plateaus, it has setbacks. Don't get discouraged, but don't expect it to be something it's not. And yes, you will always be auditioning.
3. It's not a meritocracy.
As Americans we are taught that if we are willing to work very hard, we can do anything we want. I honestly believe that to be true in every other industry except this one. You can work your ass off in class, network like a motherfucker, earn stellar reviews and the respect of your peers... and still be told you're "not right" for the job. But in order to even be competitive, you have to do all of that anyway. There may never be a payoff, or it may be very meager. Consider it the price of your passion.
4. You probably won't know why you aren't working.
Believe it or not, but in other fields, once you get past a certain point in the interview process, you are told whether you got the job or not. (It's considered "polite.") Often, you're even told why! Every talent-based reality show offers feedback from the judges as to what each competitor can do to improve his or her chances. You simply won't get that in the real entertainment industry. And, since you're constantly auditioning, even when you're working, the self-doubt and frustration inevitably creep in.
My agents have told me things like, "You're on a very short list for replacements," "it was between you and somebody else, and they just chose the other person," "it wasn't your turn," and the aforementioned, "they just don't think you're right for it." Sometimes the specifics casting coughs up turn out to be even more confusing: "They need a stronger pop singer." (But they didn't ask me for a pop song!) "Everyone has to be a strong tapper." (But there's no tap for this track!) And so on and so forth. Learn to let go of things, such as, for example, your childhood dream roles, and you'll be fine.
5. The pay scale is bats.
The strangest aspect of this industry is that the pay scale is beyond comprehension. Sometimes it will be despairingly low ("I can't quit my day job for $345/week!"), sometimes it will be mind-bogglingly high ("They're offering me $20,000 per episode, and I haven't even read for the producers yet?!!"). The financial extremes that actors endure would blow the minds of economists, Vegas high rollers, your parents, and, most frequently, the IRS. Don't forget to take taxes or your agent/manager's commission into account when negotiating a contract. And for God's sake, save your money.
6. This industry is filled with bonafide crazy people.
Trust me. Learn to love 'em.
7. Nobody really knows how to get a job.
There's no magic formula. If there were, everyone would use it. In the wise words of Michael Kostroff, "Every audition is like they're tossing you a ticking time bomb and saying, 'Defuse it.'" No one really knows how to do it, but somebody always lucks out.
My advice to the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed who are subletting their first apartments this summer is to:
1. Remind yourself that you love to do what you do.
2. Know who your friends are, and keep them close by.
3. Do your best at every opportunity... and then learn how to let go.