The Professional Student

Q: What do you think about people in your classes who have been studying for years but never make any money acting? Do you tell them not to give up?

Thanks so much for your question. I have come across numerous variations of this problem over the years and I think that it is important to make some distinctions. There are actors who get work off and on. There are actors who book low-paying, equity waiver theatre projects and non-paying student films. There are actors who never book anything at all, and lastly, there are actors who call themselves actors but do nothing to pursue their careers, except take class. This group is the saddest, and – I’m sorry to say – quite delusional.

I remember being present for a conversation between a singer who had never been hired for a paying gig and a friend of mine. This singer was talking about the music industry as he if were an insider. Giving advice to my friend, he added, “I’ve been in the music business for 15 years.”

I wanted to interject, “No, you’ve been trying to break into the music business for 15 years.”

Years ago, an actress auditioned to take a scene study class at my studio. She was older, and had been at it for many years. I looked at her resume and saw that she had studied with every major acting teacher. I was the only name not on there, and she was clearly wanting to complete the circuit. She had first rate training – but that was all. I asked her about her work experience, and she answered that she didn’t have any. I found this very depressing.

I told her that she needed to go out and get work and that she didn’t need more training at this moment. She responded by telling me how difficult it was to get work. She had spent a good deal of money on classes and had never booked anything at all. Not a play, not a student film. Nothing! She had given up on the pursuit of her career and was identifying herself as an actress only on the basis of training. While this is alright for someone just starting, you can’t go for 20 years without a single credit and think that you are an actor.

Now, let’s look at the actors who occasionally book work. Psychologists have proven that intermittent reinforcement is a very powerful force. Not unlike Pavlov’s Dogs who end up doing the trick in the hopes of receiving the reward which only sometimes comes, actors trudge on because they are periodically successful. I feel for this group because they are clearly in the right profession, they do get hired, but haven’t yet gotten a big break. These are the actors who can reasonably expect that things could change quickly. I have seen it happen many times. Sometimes the actor is literally ready to give up and they suddenly land the lead in a series or a feature film. Many of these actors stay in class for many years. Class saves their sanity. It is the place where things are fair. They stand or fall based solely on their work, not on the quality of agent they have or who they know. For this group, ongoing acting class is essential, important and appropriate.

There are actors who keep their careers going in theatre. Mark Rufallo did this for years until he got his break. In Los Angeles, Equity Waiver Theatre is popular. Actors Equity is the union that governs theatre. In the case of small theatres (under 99 seats) the union waives the customary salary. This was created to give actors the opportunity to work and to encourage the production of plays. There are also numerous student film projects given the popularity of college and professional film training programs. Actors who get hired to do either equity waiver or student films are still technically booking work. They have had to audition and have been selected. Often the competition for these roles is quite stiff. It is also wise for this group to continue training.

And now for the last group. The actors who never book work and those who don’t even make an attempt to compete in the professional world. I would say that this group is guilty of what I call “Magical Thinking.” They think that they are going to get from here to there with no idea of how to accomplish their goals. I am not talking about actors who are just starting, who spend a few years trying to figure the industry out. It does take time to get things in order. It is, after all, called “Show Business” not “Show Art.” There are some who have outstanding artistic skills but lack business sense.

No, I am talking about those who have been at it for five years or more with nothing to show for it. Five years is a good checkpoint. If you have 0 credits on your resume after five years of trying, it is logical to question whether this profession is for you. Class must not be used to indulge a fantasy! Class cannot be your only connection to the profession. If you are not getting up every day and taking steps to pursue your career, something is seriously wrong.

I have had these students at my studio and I eventually wind up needing to have painful conversations with them. This is difficult because often these are dear people who love my studio. Unfortunately, the acting studio has become the center of their lives. Class is everything to them. They have become “Professional Students” as opposed to “Professional Actors.” Professional actors who continue to hone their craft are a delight. Well known actors often continue to study. Professional students, however, are racked with fear. They never think that they are ready or good enough. They are hiding from reality. The decision to quit is personal and difficult. At some point, though, you have to look at your track record. No one can or should tell you to give up. You, however, have to be honest with yourself.