Why Actors should have Backup Careers

Tess Nakaishi

During my second year studying undergraduate theatre, my class watched a documentary called Every Little Step. This film details the story of the musical Chorus Line and follows the casting process of the 2006 Broadway revival. Although it is a truly fascinating film I would recommend to all theatre fanatics, one moment stuck with me most of all. One of the actresses cast in the revival said of dancing and showbiz, “If you have something to fall back on, you’ll fall back.” My fellow classmates seemed to think this was wise advice to keep in mind as we began our careers as actors, but to me something seemed wrong with the picture.

Let me start by acknowledging the validity of her statement. Theatre is a tough business, so if you give yourself too many other options, chances are they will be easier and the lazy person in all of us will recommend giving up our dreams. It’s all about motivation. Deadlines exist for a reason. If we have the choice to not do something difficult, we probably won’t. If we feel pressured by poor grades, pay cuts, or a bad rap to get something done, we will have to find our own motivation to follow through. So, as an actor, if you also get your nursing degree, it will probably soon seem much simpler to skip all those pesky auditions and stick to the stable, predictable backup plan you arranged. If acting is the only real career option, and it’s that or waiting tables for the rest of your life, you will naturally feel more compelled to work hard at theatre.

But is all that really good for actors?

I made a commitment to acting and have been diligently pursuing the craft for years. Yet I also felt uneasy about the idea of majoring in only theatre. Considering actors are not even required to have theatre degrees, it somehow felt like a waste to attend college and not study anything else. I added another major, English, which is not going to instantly make me rich by any means but will provide me with more options. If I fail as a performer, I have my English skills as a plan B to fall back on. This is the choice I made, and though we have yet to see what the future brings, I still believe it to be the right decision.

Firstly, there is the practical issue of finances. Anyone who knows anything about the business of theatre realizes most actors are broke. It is a highly competitive business and even those who are constantly working don’t usually make much money. Add to this the cost of living in a major city such as New York or LA, workshops and classes, headshots, travel, union dues, and all other manner of actor payments, and the money might be pretty darn scarce. Pursuing another solid career while beginning as an actor may feel as if you are throwing yourself away and giving up already, but really it is just ensuring you can continue to nurture your skills as an artist. While the nurse in the example above may feel less motivated to make it to every audition, at least she can feel secure that her standard of living is sustainable.

Desperation is universally unflattering. Ideally you want to be fueled by passion and drive pushing you towards your acting goals without descending into a crawling beggar grabbing for any role. Having a day job decreases the financial burdens while also lessening the emotional strain of showbiz. The rejection and competition can easily sink any aspiring artist into despair. If you are also pursuing another career on the side, you at least have another area to channel your energy into when the going gets tough. Having this alternative outlet could very well decrease motivation to bring your best onstage, but on the other hand it could relieve the stress enough that not every audition feels like a life or death situation.

And ultimately, if you have to trick yourself to be motivated by removing all other options, how much can you really want the reward? Deadlines keep us on track, but the most effective employees still get their work done in a timely manner without them. If you fall back into your backup plan, if you are not able to summon the personal strength to keep pursuing your goal of acting, then frankly the harsh world of theatre may not be for you. Juggling multiple career paths is not at all easy. As I try to implement both my majors into my life after college, I often feel like I am being split in two directions. At the same time, I love them both and feel secure knowing there is more than one way I could achieve career success. Not only that, but if I do manage the dream of making a living off my acting, it will not because I had no other choice but because I worked twice as hard to make it there.

Sometimes I am tempted to give up theatre entirely for safer choices, but why do that when I could have both the security of a day job and the excitement of the stage? Fostering multiple interests and career paths is not a sign of failure or giving up; it’s a sign of wisdom, perspective, and respect for yourself.