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A few years ago, I started teaching a couple of acting classes. It’s been fun to be surrounded by so many talented young people; all with a real desire to learn and get better at their craft. Recently, one of my students took me aside and nervously asked me if I thought she had the talent to “make it.” The question took me by surprise. Mostly because she's quite good. I was happy to reassure her that it was certainly possible that she could “make it” provided the gods of show business smiled in her direction.
The conversation flashed me back to when I was a 20-year-old wannabe actor living in Austin, Texas and desperately wondering if I had the goods to “make it” in New York. I was terrified of the idea, but also feared the possibility of going to my grave wishing I'd at least tried. I had, at the time, a truly horrible job. I don’t even think this job exists today. I was a “file clerk.” Five days a week, I worked in the basement of a large insurance company where I literally "filed" all day long. Lit by florescent tubes, "the tomb" (as those of us who worked there called it) was a long, windowless room, lined floor-to-ceiling with tall racks of insurance files. From 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, I climbed up and down a rolling ladder, pulling the lists of “requested” files and then re-filing the files I had pulled the day before. It was grim, mind-numbing, soulless work. And it was the perfect job for me.
The utter boredom allowed me to daydream pretty much non-stop. I knew I wanted to an artist. I knew I wanted to make something of myself. Yet I also knew I could be totally comfortable staying in Austin. The city was (and still is) a virtual Eden for regional artists. There was always plenty to do and see and hear. Yet part of me desperately wanted to measure myself against the big-timers in New York. Austin could never offer stardom. They didn’t give Oscars, Emmys or Tonys for “Best File Clerk.”
At the time, I was also appearing in a play at one of the local community theatres. It was a British drawing room comedy; one of those old chestnuts you could bring your grandmother to without being worried that someone would say the “f” word or take off their clothes. One night, I arrived at the theatre completely exhausted after eight hours of non-stop filing. I was cranky and depressed and felt (at age 20) that my life was already over. Who was I? Just another penniless college dropout with no game plan.
I pulled on my costume and trudged out to the wings. As I listened to the audience filing in, I started thinking about the glamorous Westgate Dinner Theatre on the opposite side of town. It was an Equity house that booked professional touring shows. I knew that at this very moment, those actors were also standing in the wings waiting for their performance to start, but the difference was they were getting paid! Were they more talented? Were they more driven? Did they have “connections?” I knew that dinner theatre wasn’t exactly the big time, but it looked pretty damn good from where I was standing at the moment. As the houselights went down, I tugged at my uncomfortable collar. Who was I kidding? Our little amateur production now seemed shabby and embarrassing. My back hurt from climbing a ladder all day. I had paper cuts on nine of my fingers. All I wanted was to get this over with and go home. Hearing my cue, I sighed and marched dutifully out on stage. And that’s when it happened.
The play was being staged in the round with audience on all four sides. Unlike a normal proscenium stage where the lights are in your eyes, when you walked out onto this stage, you were keenly aware of the audience. I don’t know why, but on this particular night, I noticed them in a way I hadn’t before. As I hit the edge of the playing area, the whole audience turned their faces toward me…and smiled! This group of total strangers seemed oddly happy to see me; and I hadn’t even done anything yet! The very fact that I was even willing to put on this funny costume and at least try to entertain them had won me a totally unearned place in their hearts. It was like a tsunami of goodwill had just washed over me. All of a sudden, I wasn’t tired anymore. A bolt of energy shot through my body and I dove into delivering the best comic performance I could muster.
The rest of the evening seemed magical. The cast landed every joke; every sight gag. The applause went on longer than usual and we managed to steal an extra bow in our goofy, period costumes. A few people even waited in the lobby to shake our hands. That night as I steered my dented Buick out of the parking lot, I knew that if there was even a ghost of a chance I might be able to do this for a living, I had to pursue it. I was going to New York to be an actor. Seven months later (on a song and a prayer) I did.
Of course, my hope was that my talent and charm would be recognized quickly and rewarded in short order with major stardom. That’s not exactly how it worked out. In fact, I’m still waiting for that to happen. The transition from “amateur” to “professional” was neither as easy nor as hard as I’d expected. It began with a healthy dose of humility, followed by a few years of extreme poverty, interlaced with quite a bit of incredibly hard work. I’m not sure exactly how I fueled my ambition during that stretch, but I do know that I steadfastly harbored an unshakable faith that this dream I was chasing was the most wonderful destiny a young man could ever wish for. I guess it worked. I’m still here.
If you are contemplating taking the plunge, don’t expect your family and friends to cheer when you announce that you’re dropping out of college or giving up a perfectly good career in accounting to chase after some impossible dream. Given the odds, your loved ones would be remiss if they didn’t ask “Why attempt this?”
The answer is surprisingly simple: When it works, it’s Heaven.
When the pieces come together, and you experience that rush of artist, material and audience all meeting in some sort of harmonic convergence, the feeling is indescribable. It’s like having an orgasm; while eating a hot fudge Sundae, while lying on a huge pile of cash that you just won in the lottery; that just happens to be heaped on the grave of that kid who beat you up in elementary school. It’s Heaven. Heaven on earth.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary the word “amateur” comes to us from the Latin word “amator” meaning “lover” or “amare” which means “to love.” To “love,” when you are young and relatively innocent is, of course, quite easy. You are filled with nothing but great expectations and very little real experience to temper those dreams. Grown-up love (the kind that lasts, anyway) involves loving not just the dream, but also the reality. I try to instill in my students that most careers are a wonderful mash-up of the good, the bad and the ugly. Glorious victories. Crappy disappointments. Rapturous praise. Rotten tomatoes. Enduring friendships. Freaks and Fiends. Lavish attention followed by stretches of complete and utter invisibility. So how does a sane person justify this? They don’t. Sane people don’t enter this business. They wouldn’t be happy here. They don’t understand.
To be an artist, you have to be a dreamer. But when I say dreamer, I don’t mean couch potato. Show business is a competitive sport that attracts some very skilled and intimidating players. It takes a certain kind of person to willingly suit up in your best gear and take to the field, knowing full well that you are going to get clobbered a few times before you ever get anywhere near the goal line. If that doesn’t scare you too much, this might be the job for you – which brings us back to our original question.
Should you do this with your life? You tell me. Chances are if you have purchased this book, the affair has already begun. And who am I to stand in the way of love? Congratulations. Welcome to show business.
7 THINGS YOU MIGHT WANT TO CONSIDER
1. If you can be happy doing anything else with your life, do it. I’m not saying show business isn’t fun, rewarding and sometimes very profitable, but it is a huge gamble. And you will be gambling with some of the most important years of your life. If you’re not the gambling type, don’t do it. Live in the real world instead. It’s actually a terrific place once you get used to it.
2. Show business is conducted in major cities. That means you’ll have to move to one of them. If you’re looking to play in the big leagues, that means New York or Los Angeles. Both cities are expensive. There are also other smaller but equally viable markets as well, so look before you leap. Moving to a new place is expensive, so bring as much money as you can scrape together. I’m not kidding.
3. If you are young and want to be a creative artist, don’t go to “regular” college to study your craft. If you want to go to college, that’s great! . But unless it’s one of the really hot ones (Yale, NYU, Julliard, USC or UCLA, etc.), you’ll probably just have to start over once you’re out of school. My suggestion, if you want to go to college far from the major capitals of entertainment, then don’t study acting there. Study something practical that might help you earn a living or that will enrich you as a person. If you want to study your craft, do it in the city where you intend to pursue it. And do it in the best school or studio that city has to offer (which might not be an accredited university). If you really want to learn how to swim, get in the deep end of the pool with the other ambitious kids and start splashing.
4. You’ll need to support yourself. That means you’ll need to go out and find a crappy job. You’ll also need a cheap place to live and at least one reasonably sane roommate. This period of your life can actually be a lot fun (especially when you are young). You will have some adventures and will probably make some wonderful, hilarious lifelong friends.
5. A very small percentage of people make money right out of the gate in show business. Most people’s careers don’t come together until they are in their 30s (or later). If you already know that you’ll need a large and steady supply of money in order to be happy, you might want to consider another profession like bank robbery.
6. Have fun but keep focused. You’re here to do something. So, do it. Don’t fart around. Time is valuable. Start testing yourself. Find out if you like doing this.
7. Enjoy yourself! More on that later.
THE BIG QUESTION
Should I do this with my life?
This is me (in red leggings!) playing "Sir Andrew Aguecheek" in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" at the Zilker Park Amphitheater in Austin, TX. It was basically just a large concrete slap at the bottom of a hillside, but it became a truly magical place when the lights came on at night. So much fun!