I remember lying on my back, staring up into the fly space offstage left.
I had completely soaked through the patchwork, motley costume I was wearing, and I could feel rivers of sweat pulling the poorly applied makeup off my face in little pellets. My exhaustion slowly gave way to a kind of terrified relief—relief that the Molière one-act had gone so well, terror at the realization that followed.
For it was lying on my back in the wings of my college theatre that I realized I’d never be satisfied with less than a career as a professional actor, or at least my best efforts as such. It was, I now recognize, the moment when my love affair with performing went from being a serious hobby to being what I aspired to make my livelihood.
That aha! moment was nearly 10 years ago, and I now find myself indeed making a kind of living as an actor in New York City. I am now nearly five years removed from an MFA graduate program where I spent countless hours and thousands of dollars training to be an actor for life. What I didn’t realize, lying on my back offstage left, and choosing in that moment to give it a go as a pro, was that whether I liked it or not, I was choosing an inevitably rocky path that I wasn’t being schooled in: in a word, entrepreneurship.
If you’re anything like me, you probably found yourself down at the theatre in college in large part because you wanted nothing to do with the business school. You felt drawn to expressing yourself creatively in an environment that allowed for, even praised, your uniqueness, your eccentricities and your lack of desire to do high-level math. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t fully comprehend business terms like “overhead” and “distribution outlet.”
If you’re anything like me, you went to graduate school because you wanted to be able to do anything onstage, you wanted to stretch and challenge yourself not only as a performer but as an artist. If you’re anything like me, you probably left graduate school feeling like you could do anything and that “the business” didn’t know what was about to hit it.
If you’re a professional actor and you’re anything like me, you’re probably figuring out how to pay your rent, your loans and remain connected to the joy you once felt offstage left.
Two weeks after closing a big Broadway musical (much earlier than expected), I find myself in line at the local unemployment office at an hour of the morning I had forgotten existed. Humbling doesn’t begin to describe this experience. I have been randomly selected to attend a mandatory session with a Labor Services Representative to prove I am making every effort to find a job and therefore eligible to continue collecting my benefits. When I finally sit down with an advisor, he smiles when he finds out I’m an actor. “You’ve probably been in this position before.” I fake a chuckle and reply, “Yes, it seems it’s where I’m most comfortable.” He proceeds to ask me a number of required questions about the efforts I am undertaking to pursue work. I show him my résumé, my headshot and my calendar of upcoming auditions, business meetings and shows. He reveals that he is mostly impressed with actors, and people in the entertainment industry in general; he finds, he says, that they “usually have their shit together.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the nearly five years I’ve spent in New York, it’s that most successful actors have some semblance of their shit together. The reason we make labor service representatives smile is because they know they won’t have to worry about us sitting on our butts. If you’ve worked consistently as an actor, chances are you have employed some level of business strategy in your daily operations, whether you know it or not. It’s not all luck—there just isn’t enough of that to go around. As fellow actor Noah Brody, a Brown/Trinity Repertory Company alumnus and founding member of Fiasco Theater, told me: “Hoping to win the lottery is not a business plan.”
He’s right. We’re in a profession that requires an entrepreneurial spirit, and the more I look around me in the professional world, the more I see actors who have managed to gain some level of business savvy to balance, complement and most often further their artistic goals.
What does it mean for an actor to be an entrepreneur? I posed this question to J. Michael Miller, co-founder of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and founder of the Actor’s Center. Michael’s response is quick: “Bryce. You’re an actor. What does it mean to you?” Knowing something like this might be in the cards, I whip out my definition like the good acting student I once was: “Wikipedia defines an ‘entrepreneur’ as a person with a high need for achievement. He is energetic and a moderate risk-taker.” Michael laughs. “A moderate risk-taker?” Okay—so perhaps Wikipedia didn’t take actors into account when it accepted David McClelland’s definition from 1961.
Michael, ever the educator, is insistent: “What does it mean to you?”
I take a stab at self-revelation: “I view my acting career as my own start-up business. It’s something I ‘go to work’ to do. Every day, I attempt to promote, expand and grow Bryce Pinkham, Inc.”
In theory, and aside from the terribly uninventive name, it sounds smart: I am building my own business and that business is “me.” I know I’m not the first actor to attempt to use this model; in fact, I’m sure I stole it from somebody else. And yet, as I’m describing this approach out loud, it seems somewhat absurd: How can I claim to run a business when I don’t know the first thing about business? I’ve never even taken a business class. While college roommates were throwing around words like “capitalization” and “accrued interest,” I was geeking out about iambic pentameter and Uta Hagen.
Perhaps sensing my impending spiral towards self-flagellation, Michael points out that while actors aren’t necessarily businesspeople, they have nevertheless always survived on being naturally entrepreneurial. He cites the Craftsmen of Dionysus, one of the first guilds ever recorded, which came about, in Michael’s recounting, because a group of about 20 actors got together in 454 B.C. and basically said: “No one will show up if we don’t perform, so this is what we have to be paid, this is when we have to be paid, and these are the conditions under which we will perform.”
For the moment, the whip has been taken out of my hands. However, what has been revealed to me in the first five minutes of discussing this topic is that, while having a mind for survival may be a part of my actor DNA, the training specific to my type of entrepreneurship is something I lack.
So what does it take to run a small business? Kevin Urban and Jodie Bentley are actors who have started a business to help other actors…with business. Urban and Bentley’s company, the Savvy Actor, advertises that it does “Branding and Business Fundamentals for Artists.” I decide to attend one of their free seminars.
Not surprisingly, I discover, I am missing a lot of these fundamentals. To start off, I don’t have a clear business plan. My plan was to move to New York and “see how it goes” for five years and then “decide if I want to keep going”—not exactly specific. Jodie makes the point early on: “If you were going to invest thousands to start a business, would you open your doors without a plan for turning a profit? Of course not! Then why risk the investment you’ve made in your acting career?” Point taken. After guaranteeing Sallie Mae will be a regular pain in my ass for the next 30 to 40 years, why would I not have a sound financial plan to eliminate her from my life (no offense, Sallie) as soon as possible?
Urban is quick to point out to the room of 20 or so actors assembled (in all stages of their careers, by the way) that the key to creating a healthy and honest budget is factoring into that budget the lifestyle you want. I had never thought of this. Why should I just cross my fingers, hoping that my career will eventually afford me the future to which I aspire? Why not be realistic, and assess: How much money do I have to make in my profession to have the life I want? What jobs are (and are not) getting me closer to my financial goals? The stepwise results of these investigations may be alarming, but hey, that’s business.
Jodie wisely recognizes: “As artists we have a visceral reaction to finances; our belief systems start to get in the way.” It’s silly when you think about it. We’re only able to enjoy all the artistic pleasures of being an actor if we can keep a roof over our heads. Even the Craftsmen of Dionysus understood that no matter how important they were to the spiritual needs of ancient Greece, they weren’t going to survive on catharsis alone. Aside from a business manual for actors that includes chapters like “Finances,” “Organization” and “Marketing,” the Savvy Actor offers an MBA crash-course weekend that Kevin and Jodie claim “teaches business principles, why they work, how to practice them and what to do to implement them in your career.”
I wish I could tell you what some of those principles are, but the Savvy Actor doesn’t give away its product for free. After all, it’s business.
Part of selling a product is knowing which shelves to put it on. So what can we do as actors to know our “product” better? One actress I know with a unique vantage point from which to shed light on this issue is Marcia DeBonis. When she is not busy furthering her own acting career, Marcia, like many other actors, keeps a regular survival job. Hers is interesting, though: She’s a major casting director for one of the biggest television networks in the country. Never one for mincing words, Marcia tells me that being in the business of finding actors for high-profile television and film jobs is “incredibly difficult and soul-killing.” She goes on to explain that her position as a casting director has allowed her firsthand evidence that, as she puts it, “This business is the furthest thing away from a meritocracy there is! It’s not about talent most of the time, especially in television and film; it’s about money.”
And yet, speaking as one actor to another, Marcia believes there is comfort to be found in knowing this: “The sooner you just get comfortable with knowing that it’s not about whether you’re good enough, the less you’ll be banging your head against the wall; you’ll be able to avoid some of the pain.” In other words, the sooner we realize that it is a business, we can focus our efforts away from feeling hurt and more on how to get a foot in the door. Marcia adds, “I would say that half the young actors I know have an unrealistic vision of what they are right for, particularly in TV and film.” A self-described “character actress,” She knows there are certain parts she will never play. “I can play a nurse, an assistant, a therapist and the non-sexual helper, but [the story] is never going to be about me.”
This reality, while perhaps harsh from a human perspective, is entrepreneurial gold. It’s an entrepreneur’s job to know the market well enough to find the best place to attempt to break into it and where to leave well enough alone. Marcia breaks part of an actor’s job down to simple research: “If you’re going to audition for TV and film, you need to watch some TV and movies. You need to know the difference between a single-camera and a multi-camera show. You need to know what’s out there and what’s being watched if you want to have any chance of joining that market.” I nod, and hastily scribble this note to self: “Renew Netflix, dummy.”
Marcia’s point reminds me of a basic truth: One of the handicaps actors who train in the theatre face is that we enter “the market” believing we can do anything. It’s not our fault; it’s part of our training. But from a business standpoint, “I do everything” might not be the wisest approach. Imagine an entrepreneur who goes to school to be a computer programmer and then shows up at his first tech fair selling iPhone apps (software), a new smartphone (hardware) and cases (accessories). Not only is this entrepreneur going to lose valuable time and energy running back and forth among three different booths at the fair, he is going to confuse potential costumers as to what his brand actually sells.
Imagine a different programmer showing up with just his best product: an iPhone app to compete with Apple Maps. He happens to program apps particularly well and he’s found a demand in the market (I mean, have you tried using the new Apple Maps?). His app sells like hotcakes. After selling apps for five years, he goes on to sell things no one would necessarily expect from him: phones, accessories, games, a whole search engine—he’s the Marlon Brando of the geek elite, but only because he started small.
I know comparing actors to computer programmers is more than a stretch, but the point that Marcia DeBonis has helped me realize is that an entrepreneur does not try to conquer the market all at once by saying he can do everything. Initially, he seeks to enter the market in any way possible. Marcia believes it’s the same for young actors: It may be true that we do many things really well, but at first, maybe we should just focus on what we have that will sell, and conversely, what we have that won’t.
“Don’t give them any more reasons to say no to you,” Marcia beseeches. “If you have bad legs, don’t come into an audition wearing a miniskirt just because miniskirts are in style.” She explains that many actors, in their desire to say “yes” to everything, end up misrepresenting themselves: “If you’re a character actress, don’t describe yourself as a young Meg Ryan. Don’t say, ‘Yes, I’m funny,’ unless you mean it; it’s really easy to find out that you’re not.” These warnings may be tough to swallow after three or more years of teachers encouraging a young actor to stretch himself, to say “yes” to every opportunity and challenge, but they are business lessons that may be crucial for survival. By the end of my interview with Marcia, one thing is abundantly clear: Too many young actors are entering our field without sufficient focus.
So what are training programs doing to prepare actors to be entrepreneurs? I spoke to Joan MacIntosh, professional actress and professor at the Yale School of Drama, where I earned my own graduate degree; Joan teaches a class in the third year of Yale’s conservatory training that demands actors create their own work.
“The goal is to give the actors space and time to look inside and to see what it is they are thinking and feeling and might want to create.” MacIntosh continues, “One of the things I see the class doing is giving the actors, who didn’t have the notion that they could be self-creators of anything, a sense of their own potential, their unique voice.”
NYU’s Tisch Graduate Acting program also demands its actors create and produce an entire evening of their own original work. Titled “Freeplay,” this staple of the third-year curriculum at NYU provides not only a platform for self-generated work, but a chance for actors to take on a different responsibility—that of a director or producer, for example. All actors at the Brown/Trinity MFA program even take classes in directing and playwriting. Ultimately the goal of many schools’ programs is the same: to help actors develop a strong sense of self-ownership and prepare them with the confidence and self-determination to succeed as CEOs of their own careers
Still, this investigation of entrepreneurship has revealed that something is missing in the way we train young actors. Whose job is it to prepare theatre actors to be businessmen and women? I don’t know that I would willingly have sacrificed any of my time at Yale to take a business class, so maybe it should have been mandatory. At the very least, I wish I had learned things like how to make a budget in Excel, or how to approach a business meeting with a potential agent or manager, or how to begin to understand the p’s and q’s of a LORT contract. Knowing what I know now, I might have taken a “business of acting” seminar during the summer before my third year with someone like Jodie and Kevin at the Savvy Actor. I might even have asked my school to bring in some casting directors like Marcia to give me the cold, hard truth about what roles I would immediately be right for, and what roles I should just as soon forget.
I understand why conservatories around the country might be reluctant to adapt their training curriculum to make room for such classes; their mission is to provide a safe environment for actors to grow their artistic talent, expand their instrument and hone their craft. They don’t see themselves as a launch pad for commercial careers, and I agree that they shouldn’t be. Moreover, such artistic training is of the utmost importance, since even the shrewdest of business plans can’t sell a stinky product. If you’re thinking of going to graduate school just because you want an agent, don’t. That’s not what it’s for.
On the other hand, conservatories like Yale and NYU were created to train actors to succeed in the professional theatre, and to succeed in the theatre today, any actor would be much better off with some level of industry-specific business training. Let’s be blunt: The number of theatre acting jobs that pay a living wage in New York, or in American resident theatres in general, is abysmally small. If you want to make theatre acting your livelihood, you will most likely need to subsidize it with income from work in television, film or academia. Perhaps these same theatre conservatories would do well to consider further altering their curriculum to reflect that reality. It’s nothing personal; it’s just business.
But there’s the rub: Maybe one reason business is so hard for actors is because we do take everything personally. We’re supposed to: We train our brains to take imaginary circumstances personally. So how can we be expected not to take the same approach to every interaction in our real lives? In fact, our “business” is so closely tied to who we are and what we look like, it’s almost impossible not to have our feelings hurt when someone doesn’t want to buy our product. We’re artists because we didn’t want to be salesmen.
It’s hard to improvise with strangers at commercial auditions when we trained in ensembles to perform the words of Shakespeare and Chekhov for hundreds of live audience members. It’s hard to pick up the phone and complain to an agent we worked so hard to get, or to turn down an acting job because it doesn’t pay more than unemployment. It’s hard to shamelessly promote ourselves on Twitter and Facebook when our acting idols are monuments to humility. It’s easier for us to dream about the future than it is for us to get down to the nitty-gritty of the present.
But at the end of the day, we are the only ones responsible for the success of our business. It’s not up to a casting director or an agent or a director. It’s not all luck—it’s business, and whether it feels good or not, it’s how entrepreneurs survive.
Remember, if you’ve made it far enough that you consider acting your profession, you probably have a natural sense of purpose and the backbone to shoulder more than the average José. If your skin crawls at the idea of trying to sell anything, let alone yourself, try approaching the challenge as you would approach a role. As former talent agent Phil Carlson suggested to me, think about it as “the acting you have to do in order to get to do any acting.”
It may seem unnatural at first, but after some practice, you’ll make people believe it’s real. After all, though you probably weren’t calling it “entrepreneurship” back then, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been hustling your product ever since you stumbled onto that first homemade stage—you know, the one with the raggedy old sheets you pinned up for curtains and the priority seating for stuffed animals—and bellowed with the confidence of a seasoned veteran, “Hey, guys! Look at me!”
New York–based actor and writer Bryce Pinkham was most recently seen on Broadway in ‘Ghost: The Musical’ and at Joe’s Pub in performance with Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a 2012–13 Annenberg Fellow.
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