Niki Hatzidis, Features Columnist
We have survived the holidays with our families and have made it passed the first month of a new year! Go us! We have taken stock of the old year and are trying to plant solid roots for the new. As an artist, I find this time of year difficult, and not because I have already given up on some of my wishful thinking New Years resolutions. It’s difficult because I had to spend the last few months explaining my progress or apparent lack thereof to those in my circle that have no idea what its like to work in the performing arts.
They mean well, they try to understand, even offer “helpful’ advice, but there are just some things they can’t wrap their brains around. They want the best for us, they want us to be successful and happy but what they don’t realize is that they sometimes make us feel like crap. We have to defend ourselves and our choices constantly, reiterate the same mantras and tactics over and over, but the learning curve is low.
I had an extremely good 2018. I had four plays produced, a short play turned into a short film, I produced and wrote for two podcasts, I performed in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and joined a theater company. All in all, pretty productive, huh? But because it wasn’t something that my friends and family could see off social media, i.e., at the movie theaters or on their television, it didn’t seem to count. It mattered even less when they found out how much money I made from all these projects.
So I found myself going through the same tedious explanations and arguments even after a fulfilling and creative year. In starting to think about how I wanted to progress in the following year and set new goals, I couldn’t help but feel a little downtrodden and defeated. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t living for them and that I was proud of the paths I forged so far. Rather than dismiss their comments, I decided to compile instead a list of things I wished they realized about my life; all the things I do to reach these successes that they don’t see. Maybe in helping to educate them, we can move forward in our relationships and how we speak to each other.
1. This is my main hustle.
This is not my hobby; this is my real job. Just because you don’t see me ‘working’ on my creative career every day, just because I don’t fill out an hourly timesheet and receive a check each week doing it, doesn’t mean I am not constantly working at it. You might hear a lot about my survival job, my complaints, and struggles, and because it seems to take up a lot of my time and effort, it might appear to be my main career path. It is not. Guess what? Some Broadway actors go and work survival jobs between productions. Not every actor is working all the time. A lot of the time the work tends to be seasonal, so in between those seasons, we might work non-creative jobs. It’s very common among artists to have multiple jobs, creative or not, that they are pursuing at the same time.
Furthermore, don’t introduce me as a waitress, babysitter, receptionist, etc. My ‘passion project” is more important to me than my survival job. Also don’t call my play, film, or web series a passion project it somehow makes it sound like a stamp collection.
2. Sometimes I don’t get paid. No, I’m not okay with it, but it’s sometimes necessary.
Money isn’t always the goal, and when I get a paid gig, of any amount, it is a big deal. I know this hard to grasp. These unpaid jobs sometimes are worth more in the connections they forge than in the size of their paycheck. The most important part of this industry is expanding your network. In the end, “it’s who you know,” is a commonly known adage for a reason. At any professional level, you hire those you worked with before and trust. I’ve recommended people for projects because I liked working with them, knew they were excellent and reliable. Likewise, I’ve worked on friend’s projects for free because I believed in their work and wanted to be there for them professionally. Everyone in this profession is working hard, so meeting the next Stephen Spielberg while he’s making his first no-budget film could mean a step up in your own career later on.
A lot of the time, these projects are unpaid. We don’t like working for free, or for a credit or a meal on set. The issue of budgeting for actors in plays and film is a whole other conversation, but we take these roles often because more experience is always useful, credits are important, and we could meet future collaborators with more contacts than us. Paid vs. unpaid both have their merits and problems, but they are always a vital experience.
3. Performing on Broadway or in a Hollywood Blockbuster isn’t the only measure of success.
What you’re talking about is fame, not a successful performance career. Sometimes our goals don’t lie in Tony’s or Oscars wins, billboards with our faces ten feet high, or scanning the t.v. and having someone you know scream, “hey, I know them.” It might sound crazy, but what most of us want is to be able to support ourselves through our art. There are many different ways to make that happen, be it voiceover, touring, writing, non-profit theater companies, producing and so on. We want to be successful in our industry, and that doesn’t always mean widespread facial and name recognition at supermarket tabloid stands. While we’re on the subject, don’t ask me if you’ve seen me in anything. You haven’t, and the conversation is awkward for both parties involved.
4. I’m not just waiting by the phone.
A lot of the time we’re our own agent, manager, and PR person. Our day to day is so much more than just learning lines and remembering to hit our mark. It has taught us many more skills than just crying on cue. A typical week of an actor actively perusing their career goals consists of applying for roles on numerous casting platforms, emailing current contacts and trying to forge new connections by contacting casting agents and collaborators, updating our websites, making sure our social media is on brand and current (much to your chagrin), and going to networking events. We do all this while balancing survival jobs, attending acting and industry classes and making sure we have a social life and time to do laundry. We also have to fit in practice to that long list of tasks to because like any muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it. I might sound like a broken record here, but I can’t explain to you how much work we squeeze into a day. Example: writing this article on my commute to a rehearsal.
5. Yes, I am a brand. Yes, I have to promote myself. Yes, that much.
Unfortunately, I don’t have thousands of dollars at my disposal to hire a good Public Relations person, and so I have to do a lot of self-promotion. Believe it or not, even celebrities have to do this too. The industry has moved towards paying attention to followers and social media accounts. Some also require this information as part of their casting process. It’s more than just that. We have to formulate a brand and online presence of the kind of artist we are. We have to keep up with that perception every single day. We even know the times of day to post ignorer to get more likes and retweets. We have to network and promote our projects, all this with keeping our role type, lifestyle and personality in mind. To gain attention? Absolutely. The bigger presence you obtain online could mean future contacts and work opportunities. As much as I cringe at the #actorlife selfie, it is all part of the game.
6. No, I can’t call that producer, or walk into a theater and ask for a job.
You have no idea how undoable this is or how extremely unprofessional. There are different avenues and hoops on fire I have to jump through in order to get in contact with the gatekeeper for a major project. Then there is union status which is so complicated I don’t have the space to get into it here, but there are actor unions, and whether or not you’re in one that effects the jobs you can go out for. Yes, even if I’m perfect for the role, mom and no, I can’t just join a union.
7. Stability is not a part of the vocabulary, and I’m okay with it… for the most part.
No artist choosing to go into their respective profession, reasonably believes that they will have a steady flow of work and a big paycheck to match. If they do, that is a hard reality to crash down from. We fill our days with flexible work schedules or temporary work so that we can leave for a job on short notice. The short film you auditioned for? You got the part, and it shoots in three days, hope your boss understands. We can’t make plans way in advance because we’re waiting to hear back about a project our a tour schedule. We’re not flaky; we’re just constantly on call for our craft. I am sorry I missed your baby shower for that audition Susan. Also, what are weekends and how do I get them off? It’s not that we like this type of unpredictable life, it’s just that once we do get that part in that thing, it makes it all worth it. We hope you understand that it’s honestly a sacrifice for us.
8. I don’t have a deadline for when I “make it.”
We hate this question. It makes us feel like there is a rush to a specific goal; a moment where we become an actor. A doctor doesn’t make it as a doctor after he treats his first patient. He becomes a doctor when he gets hired as a doctor. The only reason people view this profession differently is that, unless we are a recurring character on a TV show, we are not on the same job for years at a time. It goes back to this notion of success. For every actor and creative professional it means something different, but for the most part, I think I can speak for a good deal of us when I say we just want to support ourselves from doing what we love. Whatever the level of lifestyle we aspire to, I think this is true for everyone, artist or not. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a linear growth profession and things will happen when they happen.
9. What I do is contributing to something bigger.
Sometimes what we do might sound frivolous to you. I can’t tell you the number of times someone, whether on purpose or not, has made me feel that what I’m doing doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I have to remind myself that these same people get into their car and switch on their favorite music station, or sit down to a book at the end of a hard day, or go to see the recent highly anticipated film. I remind people to think what their life would be like without these cultural contributions. Whether you frequent a museum or go to a play, art is a direct representation of society and those unrepresented who need their voices heard. Art has done that throughout our human history and if it weren’t for those courageous enough to pursue such an enormous undertaking, life would lack thrill, spice, joy and even beauty.
10. I need your emotional support, not your approval.
Sometimes it does get too much, and that’s when I need your encouragement the most. I didn’t get that part I wanted, my play wasn’t accepted for that award, or I’ve spent way too much time trying to survive and not enough time being creative. Here is where I need you to listen to my woes, hug me and tell me things will get better. Our day to day can be anything but dull, but its waves of success and failure take a toll. I want you to understand that I know that this it the name of the game, that there are always bad days just like there are good days, and that I don’t plan on giving into it. I want to wallow in the bad for a quick tick and then brush myself off and carry on.
I need you to be on my side. I need you to come to my shows, to read my writing and to see that indie film that was made with a phone camera. I know it might not be your comfort zone or something that interests you, but you being there, offering your time and attention means the world. It shows that you believe in me and that you support what makes me happy. I want you to be proud of me.
I want to wrap up with this. Pursuing something we’re passionate about isn’t always easy. The industry we’re in is often uncertain and unpredictable. I can understand why its hard for some of our loved ones, not inundated in the world we walk in every day, have trouble comprehending why we do it. What drives us is the need for creativity and self-expression in a world that sometimes lacks compassion and beauty. All we hope is that you allow us to be our true selves, ask questions about what inspired our work and be our cheerleaders along the way. Know we do it because we love it and that you are our anchor to a less chaotic life. And to the creatives, though it can be frustrating, be patient with them.
Though you’ve gone through it many times before, explain it again. Keep making things for you and for them. It will always matter, and it will always mean something of value.
Niki Hatzidis is an actor and award-nominated playwright based in New York City. She is a writer and producer on the newly launched The Beautiful Work Challenge Podcast by catalysta. NikiHatzidis.com.