I’ve always been academically gifted. I was a straight-A student in a school where the lowest A-grade score was 94 out of 100. I held myself to the same standard in high school, where I took and passed four Advanced Placement exams, and managed to maintain a 3.9 GPA all the way through college.
None of this is to brag. I’ve written before about why I don’t want recognition for these achievements. It’s just to say that by all accounts, it would be perfectly reasonable for my parents to assume that I was going to go into a STEM profession. They thought I would become a scientist or a doctor or a professor. I’m sure I would have been very good at all of these things; I might even have been happy teaching Literature at a college level.
Unfortunately, when I turned fourteen, I sat down with my parents, and told them one of the more terrifying things that a child can tell their parents:
“I want to be an actress.”
Understandably, they were…concerned. The arts are an uncertain, wildly fluctuating, and ultimately heartbreaking profession whether or not you succeed. No parent wants their child to be a starving artist, and although my mom and dad would never say that to me directly, I know that is what they feared I would become.
Fortunately for me, I have amazing parents who chose to support my career and encourage me to take opportunities when they arose. Despite their fears, my mom and dad did anything and everything they could to help me to succeed, and were front and center at every performance they could attend, ready to cheer me on no matter what. I couldn’t be more thankful for that, and for them. I love my parents dearly, and I know I’m extremely lucky to have that kind of unwavering support. A lot of kids don’t get that.
Of course, most of the time, it’s not a lack of care or love from the parents. Warning your child away from a career that you think will hurt them isn’t a cruel thing to do; it’s just trying to keep them safe. I completely understand and appreciate that; as a mother now myself, I want my son to have the entire world and I would do anything to protect him, including advising him against following a path that I think will end in disaster.
Careers in the arts often have that stigma attached to them. They’re seen as fulfilling, sure, but ultimately temporary careers at the absolute best. At worst, they’re looked on as a waste of potential STEM talent and an impractical job to pursue. This saddens me to no end. The arts deserve to be taken seriously, and I am a firm believer that we should be encouraging and supporting those that want to go into these careers. But we can’t do that without eliminating the stigma surrounding them first.
The Arts and Education
The problem begins in our education systems. There is an extreme lack of funding for the arts, as priority is usually given to STEM classes and career-building (as well as sports, but that’s a different problem). I can’t say that STEM careers are unimportant. Clearly, they matter, and they are extremely prevalent in our society and its development. In a study done for the Journal of Higher Education in 2006, researchers found that at least 70% of students are going into an academic field that promises a high monetary return.
My point is just that artistic careers are treated with little or no weight because of the lack of that monetary motivation. Counselors and teachers are instructed to focus on STEM careers because these are the money-makers, but this specialization of interest detracts from the humanities, which are proven to be integral to students’ development. In a 2005 study, researcher Steven Brint found that the arts were a vital part of a student’s worldview, encouraging them to broaden their horizons and develop a deeper sense of empathy for the world around them.
We should be directing more of a school’s budget into this essential developmental department. There should be a solid, practical budget built into the departments to cover equipment for bands, choirs, and dramatic arts departments, as well as an advertising allotment for their performances, taking into account teacher pay for these out-of-school-hours activities. We should be rewarding and recognizing the achievements of these departments to encourage their success. Who knows what level of talent could rise from a well-funded fine arts department?
This lacking focus brings up the issue of counselors who advise a student to follow the track of a “backup plan” rather than giving them any real guidance in what to do to progress in their career in the arts. In fact, many advisors actively tell students not to pursue these careers at all, which is not only disheartening but extremely unhelpful. We offer practical advice for every other career field, why not these?
I believe the issue comes from counselors not knowing how to advise for success in artistic fields. But what does it take to become a professional in an artistic field? What should counselors be telling students who want to pursue these careers in order to give them the best chance to succeed?
How to Advise for a Career in the Arts - Becoming an Actor
Let’s specify down to the world of theatrical or film acting, as that’s the one I’m most familiar with and have the most practical advice for.
Be Clear on Motivation
First, it’s important to be upfront and realistic with students: acting is hard. It’s a career that’s full of rejection, uncertainty, long hours, little pay, and even less recognition; very few actors become famous, and even fewer become rich. Students should be encouraged to look for intrinsic motivation. If they’re motivated to become actors because they love the creative process of putting together a show or because they get creative satisfaction from telling a good story, then they should be willing to put in the work to make acting their full-time career.
Build a Resume
Instead of chasing fame, they’ll need to begin as you would with any career: by building your resume. This means finding any and all acting work possible, both in school and outside of it. An actor can gain valuable experience by working in community theaters and volunteer projects. These settings help you to understand the process of putting on a show with lower stakes and more flexibility, allowing you to ask questions and make the mistakes you need to in order to grow. It’s also an excellent way to meet contacts and build a network; as with any career, knowing more people in the business means having more access to opportunities for advancement. In this case, that’s getting invited to auditions, showcases, and other theaters’ productions, where you can continue to put your name and face out there.
Find Paid Work
Another fantastic and underappreciated method of building experience is applying for background acting work. Background actors, or extras, are the unnamed crowds and people filling out scenes in television and movies so that the main characters aren’t operating in an empty world. These roles are surprisingly easy to apply for, as most major agencies have Facebook pages that provide direct links to their individual job applications. On top of that, most of these agencies don’t require you to sign any kind of long-term contract or have any prior experience. As long as you are willing to show up to set and do what you’re told, they’re happy to have you there. These jobs pay. It’s not a significant paycheck, but it does mean that these particular jobs count as professional credits that you can add to your resume.
Widen Your Network
Once you have two or more of these credits, you can audition at regional theater conferences. These conferences, such as the South Eastern Theater Conference, will put you in front of various theater, cruise line, and amusement park representatives including huge names such as Disney and Royal Caribbean. They’re also another fantastic networking opportunity, allowing you to chat with agents, directors, and other actors from far outside of your usual circle.
When it comes to screen work, you have the option of signing on with one of the major casting companies, and working with them on a more regular basis. This means having more contact with the casting agents, who, once they are familiar with you and know that you are reliable, may offer you featured background or even speaking parts.
From there, the path becomes more uncertain, but it’s far more viable and accessible than you would be led to believe by a counselor who never presents you with any of these options and pushes you to follow a “backup.” These are options that can be pursued while in school; your students don’t have to choose between their career and their education. If we present these opening options to kids, we give them an in, and actively acknowledge the value of the arts while promoting their growth and prosperity.
Why Do We Do It?
I’m not saying that artistic careers are easy or stable. I’m not saying that the fears surrounding them are unfounded. An actor will work twelve- to sixteen-hour days with very little pay. Dancers will work tirelessly to perfect routines that tear their bodies to pieces and cause severe medical issues. Artists will work on finely detailed, repetitive, and tedious work, for hours, days, and weeks at a time with very few breaks for food and sleep. I have come home countless times bone-tired, running on two hours of sleep, having rehearsed an eight-minute dance number (in which I am both singing and dancing) for more than twelve hours, crying in frustration and exhaustion.
The difference is that I would gladly do that again, over and over and over. The reason that artistic people put up with disgustingly bad pay, unimaginably long hours and incredible amounts of pain is always the same: because we absolutely adore what we do. We’re driven by the overwhelming need to create, to expand on the definition of humanity by exploring the most minute facets of it. We work hard because we truly believe in what we’re doing, and the payoff is in the applause at the end of a show, or the finished piece adorning the home or workplace or if we’re lucky, the halls of a museum. It’s an honest, enthusiastic appreciation for escapism and the movement away from the world. It’s the somber, harsh, motivating newsflash in a controversial piece that inspires positive change in the world. Artistic people leave an impact that’s invaluable. Where would you be without our contributions? Tell me one aspect of your life that’s completely and utterly untouched by the arts. I’m willing to bet that you can’t.
I was lucky. I’ve worked professionally in my chosen career with the full support of my family and friends. I can say that I was on set of Avengers: Endgame and I, Tonya, and that I’ve worked side by side with Broadway actors. But I don’t want to be an outlier. I want our schools and our society to recognize that artistic careers are necessary.
Somewhere out there is a fourteen-year-old kid who feels powerful and confident and needed for the first time because they’ve just landed their first role in a school show. They’ve just discovered that they love something more passionately than anything else they’ve ever known. I know that kid. I was that kid. I want that kid to know that they don’t need to shove their dreams aside and that they can hold on to that feeling and share it with the entire world.