The Stress Of The Working Actor

August 20, 2010

Let me make one thing clear: I know stress. I have a son who just started kindergarten, until recently I worked as a department head in a five-star hotel, and I frequently need to find parking in downtown San Francisco. I know stress, I’ve felt stress, and I have a handful of gray hairs to prove it.

Okay, more like five or six gray hairs, but they’re there.

I’ve lately discovered a new kind of stress, something exciting and exhilarating; as well as annoying, crippling, and gut-wrenching. The stress of trying to make a living as an actor.

Now I’ve been calling myself an “actor” since I moved to San Francisco over 15 years ago. I put that in quotes because until recently I didn’t realize that you can’t truly know what it’s like to be an actor when you work a day job. That may sound like harsh judgment to some of you, but quite frankly it’s the truth.

I may allow exceptions for people with extremely low-paying shitty jobs, and/or restaurant servers.

Okay, fine, let’s revise the original sentence to read like this: you can’t truly know what it’s like to be an actor when you work a decent day job.

Seriously, if you hold a job which you can’t just dump with zero notice when you book decent acting work, then you’re not an actor. You’re someone with a day job who acts.

If you hold a job that you hesitate to quit because you’ve built up “seniority”, or because you would not be able to find another similar job again after the acting job is done, then you’re not really an actor.

And here’s the real clincher: if you feel more stressed out by your day job than by whether or not you’re going to book your most recent audition, then you’re just not an actor.

You act, certainly. You may take classes, you may book work quite often, you may even be exceptionally talented. But you’re not an actor.¬†What’s the difference? I would have asked the same question six months ago. The difference is one of priorities, dedication, and yes, stress.

My stress while working at the hotel was generally money related, but since my income was fixed it was less about “where’s the money coming from?”, and more “Oh shit, we just don’t have enough money!” You dig the difference? It’s sort of a general overall stress rather than a specific stressful situation, like the difference between an aching muscle and a stab in the arm with a butcher knife.

Today I can proudly say that I have no real idea where the money is coming from! It’s that specific stressor, the kidney stone, the migraine headache; rather than a stomach ache or a throbbing temple. I can honestly say it gives me an edge in my auditions, something I know most of the people in my tiny little market of SF just don’t have.

I’m hungry… sometimes literally! I’m desperate for work, and any decent actor knows that no matter how mundane or retarded the script for the shitty non-union industrial that you’re reading for, having an edge like that gives the dialogue purpose and focus.

Quitting that day job may not be the answer for everyone, but it was for me. Maybe even just understanding the difference can help a person reset their priorities and focus on their passion, while still keeping a foot in the door of a steady income. Maybe not, I don’t know. And I hope I never again have to try and find out.

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