This is a question we get a lot here at StageMilk and I get a lot as a scene coach – do I have to quit my job to fully focus on being an actor, to be successful? The answer largely comes down to a couple of key points, can you afford to have an intermittent income or series of casual gigs? Does your full-time employer give you the time off to audition and the like? And most importantly does your day job serve your creative life and not the other way round. It’s difficult to give a hard and fast yes or no on these questions as each individual case is going to be different. We do know for sure that the more time you spend on your acting the better you are going to get. It’s the “Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hours to master a craft” situation, however Malcom Gladwell doesn’t matter for crap if you don’t have money to eat. It is very difficult to pursue acting unless you are in a stable financial situation. Nearly everything we do costs money: headshots, showreels, casting websites and so on. So here are some tips and thoughts about how to manage that creative/work life balance.
Casual vs Full-Time
As Shakespeare famously said in Hamlet:
“Whether tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of full-time employment, or take arms against a sea of casual jobs, and by opposing find financial security as a creative.’
Or something to that effect. This question has plagued actors going right back to Shakespeare’s time and it’s one that I think can be answered fairly easily. Firstly let’s look at the pros and cons here. The benefits of full-time work are you know your hours, you get sick-pay and other entitlements and if you know you have an audition coming up you can arrange time in lieu or take a sickie without taking a hit to the pay packet. The cons are that it takes a heap of the time you could use to work on your acting, and if your employer is for lack of a better term, a bit of a dick, arranging that time away can be a challenge. Plus for things like night shoots and evening theatre it can be a massive struggle to work all day then do a show that night. In addition you will probably have to turn down some short notice auditions or risk getting into hot water.
Casual gigs have a few upsides. Firstly you can determine whether you work or not, if you are good at time table management and highly detail oriented you can make time for all the things in your life. They pay pretty well in most cases, however the work is highly likely to be serviced based – retail, cafe’s, bars and restaurants. Let me tell you, there comes a finite point where this is no longer tenable for most people. Also you can find that you end up getting treated relatively poorly at these gigs. However, the benefit is the flexibility, you show up, grab some cash, and go home and get back to some acting. I would caution every actor about working in bars or clubs for too long. Late nights and the entrenched party culture that comes along with it can be really detrimental to your ability to do a morning voice warm up, or even feel like being creative till the next thing you know, you’re back at work.
So which is the right choice for you? Well that is really going to depend on your circumstances. If you’re living in a major metropolitan centre (New York, LA, Sydney, London etc) it is going to be expensive. So you’re going to either work full time or the equivalent of full time with multiple other jobs. The ideal situation is that you have a full time gig that lets you come and go as you please, work whatever hours suit you, potentially even some days from home, that pays sensationally well. Failing that having a job that supports you financially, that doesn’t occupy too much of your mental capacity so you still have space in your life to work on your acting is ideal. Whether that is as a full time employee or a casual is up to you.
Can I work for myself?
Hell to the yeah you can! This is the best decision I ever made. I quit my full time job last year and I approached a bunch of places I wanted to work for including StageMilk! Now I work as a writer and coach here, I teach acting to students around Sydney and I shoot self-tapes out of my home studio for actors. So yes you can create a business built around your strengths to support you if you have the skills to offer. Which I am sure you do! Working for yourself is great, tax time however is a headache with a capital H! While this has been great for me, it may not be ideal for you. Each individual situation is different so please keep that in mind.
Should I quit my job to do acting full time?
Maybe? But by and large the answer to that question is an emphatic no. The people who will tell you you need to quit everything else and just sit at home and read Stanislavski are coming from either a place of extreme privilege or have no knowledge of how hard it is to make a living as an artist. I have met numerous actors who work as teachers or health care workers or even lawyers who have said they want to quit their jobs to act full-time! Now listen, I love the idea, I love the passion but in the immortal words of Ice Cube ‘Check yourself before you wreck yourself’. Especially if you have a family situation that requires support or if you have minimal savings. It is fine to live off your savings for a while in between gigs, but giving up your main source of revenue and putting all your eggs in the one basket is a dangerous thing. It also places huge financial pressure on every audition you do – if you need it to live, it’s not necessarily going to be good for your performance on the day. So look, make sure your ducks are all in a row before you go throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you get my vibe.
Be careful who you talk too…
I have heard of casting directors and some agents who have said something along the lines of ‘You have a full time job? Come back when you’re serious about acting!’ Now my first response here is, if an agent ever spoke to you like that – as Snoop Dog would say ‘Drop them like their hot.’ The level of privilege there is insane, some people have bills or family requirements that mean that they have to work full-time. That’s just how it is. It doesn’t make them less passionate about acting, it just means they cannot afford to not have revenue. If you can afford to not have revenue, then big whoop for you. Long story short, unless your agent asks you directly they probably do not need to know. If they give you a reaction like the above after understanding your circumstances, they don’t sound like a positive force in your life.
Additionally, family members can be less than supportive about your choices if you are following a career as an actor. I would encourage you to be honest with your family, and after that be careful about what advice you take from them or anyone who sees themselves to be an expert in the field. Remember that everyone has individual circumstances that dictate how much job security they need in this life. Allow yourself to be guided by sound industry advice from people who know what they are talking about, and trust your gut. Finally, remember the wise words of Ice Cube from above and you will be fine!
To answer the question, yes you can have a full-time job and pursue an acting career. It’s going to depend on each individual’s personal circumstances as to whether they are better off going for full-time or casual employment or working for yourself. It is most important that you can afford where you live, to eat and to pay for the stuff actors need. Self-taping set-ups, headshots, classes, casting website subscriptions, editing software, the list goes on. All of these things are expensive and you have to be able to support yourself as you graduate through the ranks of acting.
If you are ever in doubt apply this maxim ‘Have I checked myself? Am I about to wreck myself?’ if the answer is yes, take a moment to find the option which is the best path for you, and don’t let yourself be distracted by well meaning voices who may not be completely informed by your circumstances, say – blog writers on acting websites for example…