Every year I give a talk about the entertainment business to graduating seniors in the BFA Theater program at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Inevitably young people, in particular performers who face a most uncertain future, want to know how to increase their chances of being one of the chosen few who make a life in the arts.
First, my response depends on the answer to this simple question: do you want to be famous, or do you want to work? If you want to be famous, you go to LA, work out like crazy, and you throw yourself into the show business maw of classes and auditions and hope the business finds you tasty enough to eat. Or you become Vine famous. Or, is it more important to you to simply work, regardless of who pays, or who supports, or even who knows about what you do. You’re an artist, you are going to do it because that’s who you are. You have to know yourself. This determines where and how you choose to live.
Second, you go into the arts with eyes open, knowing you need a day job to survive, so don’t make the mistake of fighting the world because you’re an artist and someone, somewhere, some fantasy producer or other daddy figure, owes you a living. That’s the way to defeat yourself before getting started. This is the life you are choosing, and all of the benefits and all of the sacrifices are fully disclosed up front. Theater gives you a life, it does not give you a living. You can unchoose it at any time. Theater does not care. Theater is so much bigger than we as individuals can ever be. It was here before us, and it will be here after we’re gone, struggling to explain the human condition.
Third, you have to be working. If you are an artist you will work in someone’s living room or on the sidewalk. You must find a way. Always be working. Things come to those who work, not to those who wait. This is why so many young actors start companies.
Fourth, find great material. If you are not good at finding great material, find someone who is. Great material attracts great people. Great people lead you to more opportunities. Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
Fifth, go the extra mile for people, especially your colleagues in theater, and in the arts generally. You are not competing with them, you are living the life with them. Love, and be loved. Even if you are a genius, people have to like you, people have to want to be with you, people have to think of you. This is how careers are made. This is how showbiz works. You compete with yourself, not your colleagues. You need them to succeed and bring you along. If you go the extra mile, they will. Most of the time. And most of the time is more than enough.
Finally, producers, theater companies, artistic directors, agents, and managers arrive after you do, and not before. We are all, in a sense, order takers, not career makers. We want to bask in your glow, but we are not going to make you glow, or discover you until you show yourself through great work. You have to set yourself on fire.