Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.Ovid
There is no plan.Daniel Pink – The Adventures of Johnny Bunko
Ounce by ounce, putting it together
Small amounts, adding up to make a work of art
First of all you need a good foundation
Otherwise it’s risky from the start
Takes a lot of earnest conversation
But without the proper preparation
Having just a vision’s no solution
Everything depends on execution
The art of making art is putting it together
Bit by bitStephen Sondheim – Sunday in the Park With George
I’m often asked by about-to-graduate performing arts students (mostly actors) for advice on how to go about developing a career. It’s a big question.
What do you tell them? “Have a 1, or 5, or 10 year plan?” Beginners are often urged to put a plan together by asking something like, “Where do I see myself in (fill in the blank) years’ time?”
It’s a whimsical idea that has little relevance or practical value in the ever-changing, fickle world of the performing arts. It can’t hurt to dream, of course; visions of stardom dance in most actor’s heads. They’re passionate and talented beings but, when it comes to the down-to-earth business of working at making a living from a passion, things get complicated. Talent is simply not enough to get by whereas having the talent to manage that talent is crucial.
“There is no plan,” as Daniel Pink puts it in The Adventures of Johnny Bunko just the opportunity to “think strengths not weaknesses; exercise persistence which will trump talent; get the chance to make excellent mistakes, and to leave an imprint. It’s actually not about you at all.”
So, no plan ever provided a sure-fire road to a successful career in the performing arts; there are too many elements in the success equation including, but not limited to the artist’s loss of career-control. Of more use is long-term thinking – a setting in motion of an intensely-adaptive process that increases options as time goes by.
This idea of long-term thinking is from Stewart Brand (one of The Long Now‘s founders). It’s a solid strategic mindset for someone getting started and not just in the performing arts. It can provide the keystone for working in a satisfying, life-long career. Thinking long-term demands persistence, practice, and faith in self (elements over which the individual has control) all of which can support a flexible career pathway that makes allowances for divergence as opportunity and serendipity swing by and the individual grows in the role.
So, this is what I would say …
Dear Young Colleague,
As the Roman poet Ovid says about going fishing – make sure your hook is always cast in every pond you can find. He notes chance being powerful, and it is. When it comes to fishing, you never know when there will be a strike; opportunity can arise in the least auspicious pool. Ovid is really talking about life and its many opportunities, which is a neat way for me to segue to some advice for you at the beginning of your career as a performing artist.
Most people want a job that does more than just pay the bills. I’m willing to bet you feel the same way. You’re hoping for a satisfying, fulfilling career and one that helps you to lead a happy life. Our career may be what we define as a mission or a calling, a profession in the sense of professing yourself to a way of life – or not. Whichever way you think of it, a deep sense of satisfaction should be what you aim for.
I’m going to pick up Ovid’s advice and talk about some ways of thinking about your career but, before I get started, congratulations and welcome to the profession.
In many ways your career – what you do for “a living” – will steer your life’s course. It will define who you are to others. You are what you do every day (so the saying goes) but remember that a career or a job is only a part of a life. You are not your job. You are an artist and, as a performer, an “acrobat of the heart,” a quote I love from theatre artist Stephen Wangh. But enough of romance … let’s get down to business.
The Nature of the Industry
Kickstarting and steering a professional career in the performing arts is going to be a tough gig. “Art isn’t easy …” as George the painter sings in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park With George. For starters, actors don’t have much control over their careers; they are dependent upon the requirements of the hugely-competitive and already over-saturated job market – part of what is called the gig economy and the part of the market that crashed spectacularly for so many during the many lock-downs of 2020-21.
If you want a satisfying career as a performer in a market over which you have little control, you are going to have to work hard and apply your job-seeking efforts proactively and strategically. Like the persistent and always-hopeful angler, you will also need to stay active and alert to other opportunities. You’ll need the right gear and a set of hooks that are always sharp. Metaphors aside, how do you do that?
Focus at the Outset – becoming a professional
If you believe that you are what you do every day then you should begin the task of self-definition as much to commit yourself to your career as to announce your presence to others in the field. These others matter; this art-form involves team effort. Getting to know who else is fishing the ponds and where the ponds are located is important. Go to industry events and get to know who’s who. Make yourself known; you are now part of the artistic community.
One of the best ways to get started is to join your union; if you are in Australia it is MEAA (Equity). When you need help with anything to do with employment as a performing artist you can turn to the union. They exist to advise and assist and, as they put it, to “empower Australia’s creative professionals.”
You want to focus on situating yourself in the best possible way to get the first job and to continue the momentum. At the outset a lot of your energy will be involved in getting an agent who will represent your professional interests, advise you, and send you to auditions. If you already have representation you have taken the first step towards definition and acknowledgement as a professional performing artist. If you don’t yet have representation you should be involved in finding out where the jobs are and in looking for advice and opportunities from within the artistic community.
If you are not yet represented, then getting to know the lie of the land you’re working in is especially important. Start by asking others already working, those who are reasonably new to the business but who already have experience in negotiating the first act of their careers. They are close enough to the actual operating procedures and to the best ponds to fish.
Get a mentor. This is a move that not enough young artists consider. A mentor will advise, encourage, provide an introduction to the culture of the profession, and know about the networking opportunities that arise. A mentor’s guidance and mastery helps the beginner to choose and bait the right hooks. They know the ponds worth spending time on and the ones to avoid.
When you find a mentor do as Polonius advised Laertes, “Grapple them to your soul with hooks of steel.” Add mentor to your most valuable assets. A good one will undoubtedly be a friend and colleague for life.
Working the Audition
The way to your first job is, almost certainly, going to be via audition. In rare cases you may be cast without one. If this happens, the theatre gods are really smiling on you but these gods tend to be flaky. For most of the time, this is a competitive market where the best for a particular job will get the gig. The odds are terrible.
The “winner take all” mentality in a saturated labor market is the big issue in the performing arts where there is a 90%+ unemployment rate at any one time. You have trained to be the best you can be when you front up for the job interview – the audition or casting call, and so is everybody else. It’s the same for a dancer or a singer.
Operating in this winner-take-all market needs your close attention. Focus on the local – what’s happening, who’s who, and any other useful or valuable information you can find. Scoping the territory will give you at least a sense of where to head and where you fit in. This is where your agent is a great first filter. A good one will not send you to an audition or casting call for which you are unsuitable or not ready.
Get used to operating in this market, to being a professional auditionee for most of your career unless you achieve the rare status called “star” aka a bankable product for someone else called “producer.” Stars rarely have to audition; you do. So, the first hurdle as you set off will be the audition.
The audition process is competitive and this can be brutal and demoralising for many. Every performer will tell you it’s the least fair thing about the business. Rejection is a constant. It doesn’t mean you’re not good enough; you’re just not right for this job. Know this; accept this, and move on.
How to audition well and deal with the inevitable and ongoing rejection is also a skill or set of skills that needs your attention. You will need to seek out advice and assistance in learning how to handle this. Your mentor, agent, and coaches or former teachers are great assets at times like this. Don’t hesitate to call on them; they understand.
Adopting a Craftsman Mindset
As graduates of a professional training course you already know the importance of continuing the development of your skills-base. You have spent years in daily intensive practice to craft the tools in your tool-kit. You know you can’t ease off. Dancers tell you that if they don’t train for a day, they know; two days and the company knows; three days and the public knows.
Disciplined deliberate practice is the best way to increase your skills base. The test of just how disciplined you are comes when no one is watching. To an outsider what looks like innate skill or talent is more often consistent and persistent revision through deliberate practice. Hopefully you have already integrated work on voice, body, and the imagination into daily practice. You are an artist, sure, but adopt what author Cal Newport calls the craftsman mindset.
“I’m a professional; when I need it, I got it.”Anon
In the winner-take-all market, you need to work constantly at your skill-set and push yourself past the point of comfort to be the best you can be. You may need to skill up in a workplace that has changed radically in the past few years. Here’s just one example of a skill you may not have learned in training: how to audition via recorded self-tape or live Zoom sessions. This is a skill that has only recently become the go-to way to audition. It’s one which constant practice can develop especially now digital recording devices are readily available and inexpensive.
Find a singing teacher, go to dance class, take acting workshop classes. You are what you do every day, remember? Australia’s Equity Foundation is also proactive in providing live and online classes and training opportunities with national and international experts. As a member of MEAA, these will be free to you. Keep your hooks at the ready and sharp – and add to the collection.
Getting Creative – Small Bets
You will learn in time who’s who in the industry and get a sense of how you relate to them. Going to auditions and working with the competition will reveal how fit you are and how you fit in. You may already have a reputation for excellent work; it has been on show in student productions, films, and your showreel for all to see. Your work up to now has demonstrated your artistic potential and importantly that you know how to work. From this point onwards your strengths and shortcomings will be on display in auditions and public performance.
One of the best ways to try out your skills in the wild is to get involved in what are called small-bets. It’s the reverse of going to auditions and hoping to get the gig. Instead you take control by betting on your own ability to succeed by creating a self-contained project in which you put yourself to work. Small bets are another name for small creative projects: typically creative developments of a new work, play-readings, short films, dramatic podcasts, or even a full-production of a play. They’re small and short-lived for a reason.
Because these small projects are time-limited you won’t be tied down beyond their life – a month to 6 weeks is ideal. You will then have the opportunity to move on to another pond. You remain available, in control, and will know more than you did at the outset a month or so ago. In other words, you will have developed and even added assets to what Newport calls career capital in the process. These are the skills you have that are both rare and valuable and that can be used as leverage in defining your career.
Get involved in as many of these small projects as you need in order to get known, to learn more about yourself as an artist, to show the market what you can do. Remember to never give away your time or waste it on a project that you cannot commit to whole-heartedly – for the right reasons. You’ll know in your heart whether it’s worth it. And work with the best people you can. They say that If you’re the best in the room you’re in the wrong room – unless it’s an audition.
These projects may not be waged so, at this stage of your career, don’t expect to make any money on them. An artist will often do a gig for free because of the others involved, the idea, or the work itself where yours or someone else’s passion project gets up to be tested before an audience. Co-op or indie ventures share profits at the end of a project. These are often just enough to pay for bus fares and coffee breaks. Think of them as investments in your career or what professionals in other fields call pro bono projects. They provide the opportunity to develop while the serendipitous, the random, the thing we often call “luck” can also appear. If a gate swings open to the next pond then the bet paid off.
When you are starting out in a career you need to generate enough force, hustle, and energy for luck to find you and this happens when you’re running around creating opportunities. You’re generating a lot of energy, you’re doing a lot to stir things up. It’s almost like mixing a petri dish or mixing a bunch of reagents and seeing what combines. (Naval Ravikant) Take control.
In involving yourself in small bets you are developing your performance skills through experience. You are creating professional relationships with other artists and creatives in the field and developing career capital. You will also learn how the business side of things works and be in a position to spot and be spotted for other opportunities that arise. In many ways, the small project provides the best kind of showcase and career capital engine for your work – in the market place. You have signalled your arrival; you’re serious about making work. Perhaps the most important part of engaging in a small bet is that you and not someone else is in control of your career.
Employ Yourself – Gain Control over your Start-Up
The performing arts is a big house with many rooms and its inhabitants possess varied skills. During the small projects you engage in you’ll learn who the interesting others are and what they have to offer you. Do you want to work with them again? Why? Why not?
You can also find yourself drawn to an area you had not anticipated being particularly interesting or valuable. Co-operative projects by their very nature engage everyone in a team effort and that alone can result in some very useful outcomes. Temperament and tacit knowledge as well as serendipity and chance often appear during these small projects to keep things interesting and fluid.
Think of yourself as a small business on two legs, because that is what you are. Take ownership of this idea. Right now you are a start-up. If a business exists to make money through its services then do a stocktake of your own. What does you business have to offer? What are your most valuable assets – what’s in the career capital bank right now?
Your performance skills are probably at the top of the list; you’ve just spent the past 3 years in intensive training for a professional career and are (hopefully) continuing in classes – disciplined, deliberate practice, right? But think wider; do you have anything else to offer: energy, curiosity, leadership skills, community engagement in organisations and so on? Is your business – you – so good in possessing a unique set of skills that they can’t ignore you? Had you thought that you may have other valuable even unusual skills that make you different to other performers?
Think about all the unfamiliar ponds that have the potential to be fished. What skills would you like to improve or add to your career capital? What did you gain or learn from your small bets? Are there any open gates or opportunities for you to engage with others and develop more career capital? Who should you get to know better? Call them.
Consider this – performers have unique skills that can be rare currency in other fields unrelated to the arts. Performing artists can position themselves in a different kind of market to the winner-take-all-kind – what’s called an auction market where someone with valuable and unique skills is recognised for their versatility or the range of assets they possess. In this kind of market your business – you – is not unlike a consultancy that offers a portfolio of skills to its clients. What do you have to offer? What else do you need to know?
You may want to consider skilling-up to create an even more impressive portfolio. This is what leads many performing artists to undertake post-graduate studies to specialise or continue their development through short, intensive training courses. Over time as you learn more about yourself and the markets you work in, you will add assets to and develop your already-existing career capital. You will grow as an artist in your career as your assets accumulate. Sometimes those assets will take you in surprising directions.
A Long-Term Career and a Satisfying Life
You are now at the beginning of your career in the performing arts. While it’s fruitless to speculate on where you will be in however-many years’ time, hopefully you are giving consideration to long-term thinking on how you can devote a lifetime of dedication – day by day – to your career. Another philosophical viewpoint has it that nothing exists but the present, and maybe it’s that other saying (it’s the journey – what you do every day – not the destination) which will define your career and give meaning to your life. Look ahead, sure, but make each day as purposeful as you can.
I recall Bille Brown an actor friend of mine once saying on being asked by a young artist about the issue of employment as an actor. He responded, “I’m not always waged, but I’m always working.” He went on to list the projects he was working on, the little bets he was planning, the books he was reading, the classes he was taking or offering.
Your artistry is going to develop across your lifetime and in time reveal itself with more and more clarity as your experience grows and your career capital accumulates. Someone who, at 20, began as an actor can find themselves over time gravitating to another area of the performing arts like writing, direction or production, or even to coaching lawyers, politicians, and CEOs on how to present themselves with confidence and clarity in public. You’re already highly skilled in this, remember.
Often opportunities can emerge from other directions – as a result of your temperament, a growing feel for a field, or a sense that this is where you and your skills are most valuable to the market. All life is an experiment, and the random and the serendipitous are part of the great equation. Sometimes an opportunity to try something different will appear quickly and in unlikely circumstances. Stay agile and be ready to shift when the chance arises to cast your line in a new pond. Stay alert to where the fish are biting. As Derek Sivers puts it, find out what the market is willing to pay you for, and “follow the money” but don’t chase it.
Don’t hang about in ponds that are fished out. You don’t know where you are going, so don’t feel left behind; be willing to learn and adjust and even abandon as you go. Ditch what hasn’t worked. There’s no shame in quitting, although it’s probably hard to convince someone just starting out that this is so.
You might consider that what’s called quitting may also be seen as a sign that there are other ways to fulfil yourself in a career and to lead a happy life. Derek Sivers again, “Do what you love for free but find a way to support yourself.” This may well be the best advice you can receive as an artist.
And, of course, lots of luck!