The short answer to this is simple: quit your day job when you can afford to do so and still live comfortably. Wouldn’t it be nice if the issue were that simple? At some point in your career, you will likely feel pressure to quit your day job and treat acting as your primary means of employment. This pressure can come from a number of directions; you might worry that your time and efforts aren’t being fully devoted to your craft, or that your career would be in better shape if you were readily available for all commitments. Some actors feel the need to quit their day job because their friends/peers are doing so, or hope that the act of letting go of a nine-to-five routine will legitimise them as an artist. This is an extremely difficult topic to navigate, as much of it relates to toxic ‘values’ in our industry about overwork and self-sacrifice that are seldom acknowledged, let alone addressed. Whatever your decision, make sure you do so for healthy, sustainable reasons. In the end, the only person significantly affected will be yourself.
Don’t quit your day job if it means you can’t eat or pay your rent. Living a financially precarious life as an artist will always do you more harm than good—even if you think it’s a means of clawing back all the hours you’ve spent behind a counter or waiting tables. If you are starting to make some good money from stage shows, the occasional TV gig or commercials, it’s best to start out thinking of that income as supplementary to your base wage; there is simply no way to know whether or not your hot streak of acting work is going to last. If you are feeling confident in your slate of projects for the foreseeable future, consider a reduction in hours of your day job before you quit it completely. See how it feels to live on more sporadic income with at least some kind of financial safety net.
And if you do book that once-in-a-lifetime gig? Think of it this way: “Should I quit my day job?” is never a question we ask ourselves when it is clearly the right course of action. If you book an eight month touring gig on a musical that pays you more a week than you earned in a month of washing dishes, you don’t tend to sit up at night making pro/con lists about whether or not to throw in the (tea) towel. Of course you’ll quit your day job! But that’s only because you’ve secured another, which just happens to be as an actor. An offer, or interest, or a callback, or really good feeling are worth literally nothing compared to a contract signed and money in your bank. Until then, keep yourself clothed and fed.
For many actors, quitting their day job is desirable simply as a means of adding time to the day in which they can act. Or audition. Or do classes, or get those new headshots done, or head to the gym. If you find yourself getting busy enough to start considering this, try sitting down with your diary first and planning time each day or week for development of your artistic career. Most of the time, you will find that your acting work and day job can fit comfortably around one another—sometimes they just need some scheduling attention to ensure that they’re able to co-exist.
If you do a lot of stage acting, consider a larger timetabling effort to manage which of your jobs are paid or unpaid/profit share. Performing in a play is usually a larger time commitment given the rehearsals required; talk with the production staff to ensure that your work schedule is taken into account, and an unpaid opportunity doesn’t actually end up costing you money. While we’ve talked about this at length in our article on When Should You Work for Free, it is worth recapping, here, that very few low-to-no paid opportunities are worth completely quitting your job for. If a producer won’t budge on their schedule and expect you to put yourself at financial risk, take that as a red flag and politely decline. Odds are, they’ll burn through the actors they can pull that on quickly, and their career will be a flash in the pan.
Another important consideration: while you may find yourself making enough money as an actor to pay for the basic living necessities, you will probably learn that your finances necessitate a very Spartan existence. For some, this is enough—they may be comforted by the knowledge that their art, and their art alone, is the thing that sustains them (barely). However, there is nothing wrong with earning money at a ‘civilian’ job if it affords you some extra comforts and a more enjoyable life. Knowing how hard most actors work to support a lifestyle of ‘double-toil to single-pay’, you have probably more than earned a bit of self-care and pampering in your routine. Never listen to anyone who says different.
In society, we reserve a lot of reverence for the concept of the ‘struggling artist’: a penniless, brilliant figure who goes without the basics because art is the acme of their existence. Think of beat poets in cafes, the characters of La bohème, downtrodden writers at typewriters, actors—clad in long coats and scarves—drinking wine in the park. If you pictured all of these people as white men, that’s because this is the group who have done their utmost to preserve this sanctified image for the past few hundred years. Art should not be a sacrifice; in most cases, it is a sign of privilege more than it is one of poverty. Don’t ever feel pressured to live a pained existence because you believe that that is what being a ‘genuine’ actor should be. Many of us perpetrate this stereotype without even realising its true toxicity.
Of course, there are genuine sacrifices to be made in the life of an actor—just as there are white men out there legitimately struggling and sacrificing to create artistic work. But while ‘struggle cred’ remains part of the popular image of being an artist, it is worth acknowledging as a potentially problematic aspect of one’s practice and identity. Award yourself no points for this kind of thinking, and beware of collaborators who ask you to work for free or sacrifice paid work to fulfill their own artistic vision.
A Better Day Job
All philosophising aside, one of the most legitimate reasons you may consider quitting your day job is that it makes you miserable. ‘But that’s fair, though’, you might say to yourself. ‘It’s just a gig, it doesn’t need to complete me…’ Again, just the same as sacrificing comfort, you don’t gain any points for punishing yourself in a job you loathe. If you are unhappy, or it’s becoming too hard to manage alongside your acting career, consider making a switch before you quit the workforce completely. Look for other opportunities—something less soul-crushing, or with better pay or different/flexible hours—while keeping your current job. Seek advice from other actors you know and ask them where they work, or what they do to earn money.
In fact, the more you talk to other actors, the more you will start to realise that there are multiple ways of supplementing your income as a performer that aren’t necessarily sitting in an office cubicle or selling insurance over the phone. Many actors teach drama, or tutor students privately; some might write articles, or work another job in the industry such as front-of-house at a theatre. Consider looking for work closer to your chosen industry—what skills do you have that make you an asset in a role you wouldn’t have thought to pursue? Ideally, aim for a day job you’d be reluctant to quit because you genuinely enjoy it. Some actors think they should only take positions they could drop in a hat when that big Netflix role comes in. Life’s too short.
Conclusion: Define “Career”
Ultimately, it’s up to you to define your career: not your friends, family, colleagues, teachers or role models. Whether you work a regular day job, ‘go without’ and skip meals, put in weekends as a drama teacher, run your own business online or abstain from the money-grabbing exercise of TV commercials, your happiness and well-being should be the only defining factors in whether or not you earn money on-or-off camera, on-or-off stage.
A day job can be a drain on your energies. It can be a hassle and, yes, at times, it can even feel as though it de-legitimises your creative work. That said, there are positive, exciting things you can do for work that are not only related to your craft, but actually help to enrich it further. Learn to look for the degrees between ‘day job’ and ‘no day job’; test each and every one and pick what works best for you. And, no matter your final decision, be sustainable and comfortable. You’ll thank yourself.
What do you do to supplement your income and support your career as an actor? Let us know in the comments.