"The label you give yourself cannot impact external forces that are not motivated by your own psychology or influenced by a third party's pre-existing consciousness of you. We are all presented with reasons to struggle which come from completely external forces; to pretend that one is not struggling is either arrogance or an admission of defeat. To admit that one is struggling is a sign and a source of strength." - Evan A. Baker

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dear Struggling Actress

16 year old Katy writes,
First, great blog! I’m a new reader, so I’ve barely made a dent, but I’ve learned so much already. Thank you!

So, I’m a junior in high school and I love acting. I’m heavily involved with my school’s theatre department, trying to get all the experience I can not only as an actress but also as a director or producer or part of backstage crew. In an ideal world, I’d love to pursue acting as a career. I’ve been told that I’m a very good actress, particularly with comedic material (obviously I can’t be objective here, so I won’t tell you what I think). I’ve done well in a statewide competition, although I haven’t won any awards yet. I have the opportunity to compete a few more times while I’m still in high school, so hopefully that will change (this year??).  

Problem is, my parents aren’t exactly what you’d call “artsy.” They aren’t very enthusiastic about me potentially majoring in Theatre (or even Communications!) and would really rather I didn’t move to California after college graduation. They don’t really understand the appeal of the entertainment industry. They tend to push me more toward medicine (which is so interesting, but not what I want to do with my life) or engineering (ew). They want a guarantee that I’ll be rich and successful in my field. I can’t give them that. I’d rather be happy instead.

I’m feeling kind of stuck. Obviously I can’t ask you to tell me whether or not I should pursue acting the way we’d all like to (the way you are!), but I really want the decision to be completely out of my hands. So I’ll give you a theoretical situation. Just assume that I’m extremely talented and that I have incredible potential if I applied myself entirely to acting. I’d still be going against my parents’ wishes and I’d still be moving across the country, but I have some indirect connections and (theoretically) enough talent to give me a fighting chance. And passion for what I’m doing. What then? Should theoretical me go for it, or go the "safer" route?

You just seem to have it all together, so I’d love to hear your opinion on this.
- Katy

Hey Katy,

You hit the nail on the head: I can't tell you whether or not you should pursue acting, but I CAN  share with you what I would tell myself if I could go back in time and advise 16 year old me.

First off, I understand you wanting to not make the decision yourself; I had the same problem (Should I go to school for creative writing or theatre performance?) and I dealt with it by only applying to one theatre school. If I got the theatre scholarship that would pay a lot of my way, I'd go there. If I didn't, I'd stay home, go to community college, transfer to Santa Cruz and major in creative writing. I knew no matter what, I'd be happy either way, and also forever carry in my heart, what if the other one happened instead? and be wistful. I made peace with that.

But the Universe spoke. I got the scholarship. Off to get a degree in pretend I went!

We seem to have a similar background too. I was also heavily involved with my high school's theatre department. I won awards for acting. I landed lead roles in both the fall play and spring musical (the only female to do so that year) and I also created my high school's first creative journal, as well as my own monthly magazine. I had been acting since I was 12 in community theatre. I loved it. I was good at it. At 13, I was the youngest staff member of my city's Teen newspaper. I had my own column. I loved it. I was good at it.

So here I am, several years later, trying to book enough acting gigs to make rent, and the editor-in-chief of my very own blog. I have the best of both worlds!

Or do I?

Here's the thing, Katy,

I also didn't think it would take me this long to become successful enough to make a decent living acting. I have it all - I'm cute, I'm personable, I'm a decent actress. And yet, all those things are not enough. I have friends who are freaking amazing and wonderful and even more talented than I, and they too, are not where they thought they would be.

If I could take a time machine so I could impart some wisdom to my 16 year old self, I would say this: "Major in psychology. Minor in creative writing."

I LOVE psychology. I feel like I'm good at figuring out motives for people's behavior. It fascinates me. I love helping people. I love helping people feel

And if I majored in the above, I would also have marketable skills.

AND every major metropolis has fun performance things. There are community theaters, poetry slams, indie bands. I could have my own family counseling practice, and once I get home and take off my high heels, I can go grab my bongos and join my drum circle. I would love my job, loves my bank account with the commas, and still get to be creative and perform on my own time.

Your parents don't want you to pursue a career in acting because they know there are tens of thousands of struggling actresses like me who aren't making it, who can't make it, who will never make it. The last thing they want is to have their daughter have to move back home with them, defeated, broken hearted and thousands of dollars in credit card debt.

Let me give you another example:
My friend Gloria sang with her family in church since she was a little girl. She also sang in her choir group in high school. She was also doing as much tech work as possible. She could do it all.
Gloria went to USC on a full opera scholarship. But her freshman year at USC, she had a crisis; she hated the program. It wasn't what she wanted to do. So she quit school, moved out on her own to Seattle for a year to figure out what to do next, and then applied to Cal Arts for Scenic Design, because she also loved doing that and she was very good at it.

Now, she has worked on the Oscars for the last seven years, and she's won an Emmy certificate (they don't give out trophies to everyone- lame!) for her work on it. She works all the time. She is happy. She loves her job.

And she also found a way to still perform. She is the Assistant Shin in the LA Fire Brigade fire dancers conclave, and she spins hula hoop, staff, double staves, and double hoops, all on fire.

You can find work that makes you happy, and you can find pleasure that makes you thrive.
There is a healthy, happy balance.

Okay, here's another faster, shorter example of true life: Most of my fellow acting major peers don't pursue acting. Or at least, they did, for about two years, made no money, went back to school and got their teaching degree. A lot of teachers have theatre degrees. It's great - we have all the focus and attention on us, and we have a captive audience! 

So here's some advice. Find the thing that is NOT acting that you love to do, and study that for your first year in college. Buy a good laptop with all the bells and whistles with your graduation money, get a smart phone, and grab a bunch of your new college friends and make silly dorky videos. Make shorts. Or memorize monologues and go to open mics in the college town cafes and perform them there. You can still find ways to perform and fill your soul.

And if you think you'd be happier studying acting, knowing full well the majority of people who move to LA or NYC will never, ever make enough money to claim they're middle class, go ahead and add it as your minor.

I just want you to know that I had one of the best auditions of my life for a series regular of a new show, and the casting director told me, "That was really, really funny. You made some Great choices!" And I didn't get called back. That is my life right now. And I don't wish the what if's, the dissillusionment, the constant self-doubt and ego blows, and low self-worth on anyone.

Find something else, anything else, and have a happy and successful career. You can still perform without having to commit your entire life to it.

In fact, maybe YOU will be the one to make a time machine that works. Let me know. I have some things to tell my junior year self.



  1. This is some amazing, wonderful advice. I work in higher education, grew up performing, knew that I wanted to go to a college that offered theatre but didn't end up majoring in it - I took classes in the stuff that interested me, and majored in a liberal arts field. Of my friends who are successfully working in the industry, only three were theatre majors. Most of them majored in something else, and still pursued their "fun" dream while working a "real" job. Learn to write & learn to think for yourself while in college. If acting still means something to you, you can study it a million places at a variety of stages in your life.

    1. Excellent point, KCheb. And if one does study theatre performance, you learn a lot of "bad habits" for on camera that can take a few years to train out of you once you're in LA.

      And there are a ton of great classes in LA. Starting from nothing, or very little, is probably way better than having to relearn everything you thought you knew.

  2. Hey Lira,

    This is honestly the first (and probably only time) I don't agree wholeheartedly with your blog...but you still offer some really great and very valid points.

    My only thought would be - and of course it is different for everyone - if you were talking to your 16 year old self, perhaps you'd say to them, just do it! Just try what your heart says to try. Don't worry about not having the career lined up. You have the rest of your life to worry about that. But how different might things turn out if you followed the thing that made your heart melt with reckless abandon. What could we achieve if we only thought we could do ANYTHING we wanted, rather than worrying about what we 'think we should' do.

    As always, loving your inspiring posts!

    1. Hey Angela, Thanks for commenting.

      Yeah, this one is a toughie. She doesn't have the support of her parents, and she's not one of those who lives and breathes the theatre and HAS to be onstage. She's at a crossroads and I don't want to lie to her and say she has what it takes to make it, because it really seems like the only people who have what it takes, are those with family already in the industry.

      She doesn't want it badly enough. If she did, she never would have asked me my opinion; she'd go ahead and forge her own way, no matter the consequences.

      What I gave her was real life, real solid advice. Do something else, ANYTHING else, and find the balance.

      Or you could be like me. A struggling actress, with no balance, and only getting by on the possibility that if I stick it out long enough, something has to give.


  3. Absolutely - right! I do agree.

    It's funny as I get this question from actors sometimes too, and not always from young actors. Sometimes it is from really experienced actors who have been in the business for years and are just having a moment where they just don't trust their own judgement. Sometimes it is because they've had a tough week, month, or perhaps even year. (Our economy has done us no favours).

    I guess at some point we do have to say 'either I'm in or I'm out' and know we have given it our best.

    But for the crazy ones like you and I, we never even ask the question as we already know the answer! And that no balance thing, sometimes I do think it's one of the reasons I love this business. The uncertainty is a killer yes, but the buzz when things are going well, the kick when I am getting lots of castings, and working a lot, makes it all worthwhile. And perhaps that just means we do want it badly enough to persist.

    Thanks Lara. Great debate! I will be referring other actors to this at some point I'm sure.

    1. Hi There,

      This is indeed a fascinating debate; something I had wondered about myself. I considered running off to LA when I was 17 and living in small town Alberta (Canada). I didn't though because I didn't see any Asians on TV at the time and figured it would've been extremely tough to make it. Soooo...my parents were like Katie's and encouraged me to make some "safe choices". I sorta went against them a little and graduated at age 21 with Distinction from the Uinversity of Alberta with a degree in Comparative Literature...Best four years of my life but after leaving school I COULD NOT FIND A JOB as anything! Even companies hiring receptionists didn't hire me! Maybe it was me not marketing myself right, I don't know. I went back to school, this time for law. I learned my lesson and wanted marketable skills. I got a job after graduation and will be celebrating my 5th year at the firm and also my 31st b-day. I was wondering this year if I made the right choice...

      I spent the last decade (really I did) doing everything I felt I should and very little of what I wanted. My parents are immigrants and my family was poor. I grew up worrying about if rent would be paid on time, waitressed during my teens, and worked two jobs plus took out 75K in loans to get through post secondary.

      Today, I am (on paper) successful and lucky. I have a nice husband, a nice house, a car and my loan has been repaid. Sometimes I think about the other side of the coin...what if..could I have been what Lucy Liu is today? Realistically, brutally honestly...no. I am scared of poverty and don't have nearly as much talent as Lucy Liu. Even if I did, I wouldn't have lasted the "thin years" that seem inevitable. I would've thrown in the towel and went to college anyway.

      Now, I've scaled back at my job, enrolled in theatre school in my little city, and am starting to audition for everything I can get my hands on in my local community. I'm fairly happy.

      There's a part of me that yearns for the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of LA, but recently when a Director told me that it's extremely difficult to cast ethnicity in a period piece unless specifically called for (ooh...it was crushing), it reminded me that it's not an easy life and I was glad to go back to my comfy home and drink my bottled water on my comfy couch.

      I applaud the advice you gave Katie. I think it struck the best notes of both sides of the argument and was very practical and sage advice to give a 16 year old girl.

      Thank you for your great blog. I look forward to seeing you on the big screen! (I have no doubt that soon, some doors will open. Maybe the director who was impressed will call back with a different role just for you : ) My fingers are crossed for you anyway!


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