This essay is the first in a three-part series on actors creating their own work that we will be publishing throughout the month of April. Check back on April 9th and 16th for the following two installments by solo-performer Ray McAnally and actor/playwright Lekethia Dalcoe.
The best advice I got out of my rigorous drama school training was, “Find something creative to occupy your time while you’re waiting for the phone to ring.” At the time, know-it-all, twenty-one-year-old me scoffed, “What? Me? But I am an actor. I will only be acting.” (My scoffing came complete with a Katharine Hepburn affect.) But as much as twenty-somethings hate to admit when people older and wiser actually know what they’re talking about, they do. They were right.
The life of an actor actively looking for her next gig is filled with hours in front of the computer scrolling through casting websites, endless open calls and countless workshops with Accomplished Director X or Big Casting Director Y. And what do you get at the end of the day? A lot of no’s, unanswered emails, and blank faces. If you’re one of the lucky ones, in the foggy blur of interchangeable days, you get a yes. If not, you feel defeated, deflated, and doubtful of your career and life choices.
What if, after coming home from a not-so-great audition, or a mind-numbing temp job, or a workshop where that big director kept forgetting your name, you were to sit down to your own creation? A project all your own, where you called all the shots? Something that made you feel that you were cultivating your own career?
When people told me I should start writing plays, I laughed in their faces. “Who would want to read, let alone produce, anything I write?” I wondered. “What do I have to say, anyway?” I wasn’t particularly confident in my ability to put any type of story onto paper. In order to get around all that self-loathing and doubt, I told myself that I would just practice writing dialogue— just attempt a little exercise I found utterly terrifying. “No one is going to read this, so chill,” I told myself as I grimaced at every click of the keyboard. I never finished any of those first attempts. They are all still sitting in some forgotten file on my hard drive.
When it finally came down to it, my first finished script was not something I did completely on my own. I made a friend in an acting class who jumped on the speeding freight train of self-discovery with me. We decided to take on the not-so-simple task of adapting Chekhov’s Three Sisters. “Out of love,” we told people, “out of a desire to get others to love him as much as we do,” even as we prayed that Uncle Anton would not smite us from above at every change we made to his masterpiece. We had an idea and we went for it. We wrote witty and smart parts for ourselves. We met in cafes around the city, scheduling writing sessions around our day jobs, and we just wrote. We wrote a lot. We worked extremely hard and eight months later we found ourselves getting produced by a festival. The play, Steel Birds, enjoyed a three-week run and went on to be nominated for two awards.
It was the most fun I ever had working in this complex world of being an actor. I accomplished something and words cannot explain how proud of it I am. I decided that I was tired of auditioning for female characters who existed solely to admire their male counterparts and of reading for scripts that, to be blunt, were crap. I knew that my crappy writing could be better than the crappy writing of those playwrights I was asking for a job. All those parts I longed to play, those stories I wanted to tell, those clever words I yearned to say? I was going to write them myself.
After that, the floodgates burst open. More of my plays have been produced. People have paid to hear me recite my words, complete strangers have spoken sentences I struggled over in my bedroom, and directors have analyzed my plots as if I were a renowned, published playwright who actually knew what she was doing. I’m still learning, I’m still auditioning, but for the most part, I am making headway with playwriting and acting on my own terms. Starting was the hardest part, but the fears I had about putting myself out there were instantly quelled by the laughs of the audience, and by people coming up to me and saying how much they related to my stories. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.
Do you know what has also been deliciously satisfying? Walking into an audition room and being able to say that I’ve written and produced a credit on my resume. And those people behind the table? They take notice. They notice that you’re pro-active, that you work hard, and that you have a skill-set beyond acting. A self-produced credit on your resume indicates that you’re reliable and capable of committing to and completing a task, and this the kind of actor people want to cast. (Never mind all the unfinished scripts on your hard drive!)
I know auditioning, doing workshops, and submitting for parts are important. They are all part of the whole hefty package of this crazy, whirlwind career we’ve decided to pursue. All these things— along with self-promotion, networking and holding down a job that can keep a roof over your head and supplement your Seamless addiction— should be on your schedule too. What I’m saying is don’t let searching for your next gig or contact become the entirety of your Acting Career Attack Plan. That gets daunting and utterly soul-crushing after a while.
“But I’m definitely not a writer,” you say. You can tell stories and make art in so many complex ways, my beautifully talented comrades. Do you have an iPhone and a couple of actor friends? Spend the weekend making a film. Can you see yourself reading through Equity contracts and rummaging Goodwill for props? Produce a piece of work you love or, even better, one that a friend wrote. Do you love auditions and scanning through resumes and headshots? Ask a director friend if you could act as casting director on her next project. Are you really good at crafting websites or marketing on social media? Paint, take photographs, try your hand at graphic design! You have many skills, put them to use. Or consider how impressive would it be to learn a completely new skill!
If you’re terrified to go at it alone, trust me, you’re going to meet dozens of people wanting to create things with you. Think of all the amazing artists out there itching to create who can collaborate with you and expand your network. How thrilling to think about all the beautiful art you’ll make! I’m so excited for you! Will it make you feel less like sticking a pencil through your eye to liven up your day job? Maybe not. But I’ll tell you what it will do: it will make you feel so much more productive and in control. You will have a creative outlet, something solid that you have made, and it will be something you didn’t have to ask for.
Don’t think for a second that this means you’re putting your acting career on the sidelines. You might have less time to audition, but it will be because you’re making a film, or starting your own production or theatre company, or sitting behind the table calling the shots. You’re going to be so much more of a multi-faceted actor that it can only help you. After all, you can never know too much. It is scary. I was a nervous, shaking wreck when I started. I spent one staged-reading at the back of the room, downing mimosas to keep me from chewing off all my finger nails. (I don’t recommend this.) There’s no one to hide behind. That precious thing you made is out there, with your name on it, and people will see it. As incredible as that it is, it can also be numbingly intimidating. But it’s all yours. You made a thing!
“Find something creative to occupy your time while you’re waiting for the phone to ring.” I never forgot that vital piece of advice. I would add: It’s your career, take ownership of it. Grasp it by the reins, pull tightly, and make your own opportunities. It will be a juggling act, it won’t be easy, but set time aside for your own projects. Don’t wait for the phone to ring at all. Start making calls yourself. And when the phone does ring, it will just be an added bonus.
Niki Hatzidis is an actor and award nominated playwright who lives in New York City. nikihatzidis.com