September 3, 2007

I received an email several days ago from a young artist I have never met. Here is her email and my reply…

Dear Kerry,

I am a senior in High School and my passion is theater. I read your biography on Theatre Vertigo. I am going to go somewhere for college (not sure yet), and get a degree in theater. Now, my father says: that is too risky, you will go nowhere, you will be a penniless waitress, the aspiring actress, etc. But I know that it is risky, yet it is the only thing I ever want to do. I am quite serious about how I feel about acting, and the way it effects me is like...magic. I have one question for you. You have graduated from Brown, you do many things here and there, and...are you happy? Please reply back.

Thank you for listening,

Dear Shadee,

While I chose to study theatre in college, and currently choose to live as a freelancing artist, I did not choose to love performance. At the risk of waxing poetic, it chose me. No matter how difficult it can be to find paying work and make ends meet, to deny my heart's desire would have been a disservice to myself. To answer the main question of your email ("Are you happy?"), the answer is a resounding YES. I love the way I feel onstage, I love that rare moment when I access something far deeper than play-acting, when I connect with an audience, when I give them something to think about. I love to constantly be in other people's shoes. I love collaborating with other artists. I love introducing kids to theatre, I love integrating art and education. I love analyzing roles and studying other people and singing and dancing and making people laugh. I love living by my bootstraps, finding creative ways to make things work. I love the people with whom I spend my time. I love getting to say something through art, to put my beliefs out into the world in a creative way. I love my work.

A person's favorite way to spend time is incredibly diverse: the receptionist at my chiropractor's office has told me that she finds challenge and a sense of family with her job, and that she wouldn't trade professions with anyone in the world; my husband could spend hours reading instruction manuals on theatrical sound mixers; my cousin feels most at home when he is painting miniaturized figures of Civil War soldiers; one of my best friends chose to get her doctorate in aqueous geochemistry. What you want is a question only you can answer. As the poet Rumi said, "Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart."

Notice that Rumi said "work" and not "hobby." Many people do their job to make money to support what they really want to be doing. But isn't it better to combine the two? Play while working? Do your hobby as a job? The secret there is that then you won't really be working, at least not under the negative connotation of the word. As Henry MacKay wrote, "Find something you love to do and you'll never have to work a day in your life." What a great secret!

The trick, of course, is how to combine your work and your play and still make enough money to support your lifestyle. There are, in my mind at least, three ways to manage this trick. The first is that you identify another love (or two or three) and find additional paying "work." Who says you only have to love one thing?! And why does the other career choice for a performer always seem to be as a waiter or waitress?! I, for one, am also a dog trainer. Other members of Theatre Vertigo spend the day working at the science museum, at a hair salon, at a high school. None of these places are restaurants! I encourage you to only work in the food service industry if that is genuinely something you want to do. Otherwise, chose another one of your interests and make money doing that. Have two jobs. Have three or four. As long as you love how you are spending your time on this planet, how can you go wrong?

The second way to make money as an artist is to diversify the outlets for your theatrical energy. If you not only do theatre, but also teach it, market it, administrate it, produce it, etc, you will always be in a theatrical environment, even if you are not always in the spotlight.

The last way to make money as an artist sounds simple, but is really quite difficult: Work Hard. As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Basically, try very, very hard to get what you want. In fact, don't accept anything less. Learn how to market your skills. Learn how to nail an audition. Study your art. Live in a city where, if you have the skills, you will be cast (as opposed to an oversaturated city where you could be the most talented person ever born and still get lost in the throng… New York is an excellent example of this). Do not always rely on others to cast you — write your own show, produce it, market it, get accepted into Fringe Festivals, push for bigger and bigger venues until you are making a living wage — in other words, create your own work. If you are smart about how to get what you want, you will be virtually unstoppable.

I hope this answers some of your questions, Shadee. Feel free to ask more, any time.

Love and light,