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The Working Actor

Art vs. Commerce, Critical of Critics

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Art vs. Commerce, Critical of Critics
DEAR JACKIE:

My focus is weak these days. Making a living from acting is distracting me from the love of the art. I actually am starting to hate myself. But from trial and error, I know that acting is the only thing I enjoy.

I'm done with building my résumé. I want to feel like a "working actor," as I am working in the acting world now. But at the same time, the artist inside of me needs to act. It's a dichotomy.

—Out of Touch

New York City


DEAR OUT:

Hate yourself? No, no, no! I can certainly relate to getting all tied up when trying to pursue art as a business. It's a difficult balance to achieve, probably a bit like surfing: You never settle in but have to keep finding your balance again and again. Instead of blaming yourself, take comfort in the cold fact that artists of all kinds have struggled with this very issue.

Director Francis Ford Coppola addressed the divide between artistry and commerce in a recent interview. "You have to remember that it's only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money," he told writer Ariston Anderson. "Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the Duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at 5 in the morning and write your script."

Like Coppola's mention of "another job" suggests, most artists never make a living solely from their art.

In August 2009, National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" did a series called "How Artists Make Money." While it didn't profile actors in particular, the theme certainly translates. " 'Starving artist' may be a cliché," the report began, "but if most artists aren't literally starving, it's a fact that few make a real living with the work they love." The series profiled a choreographer who makes money teaching dance and applying for grants, a playwright who writes for television to pay the bills, and a poet working as a corporate executive, among others. Many of the people profiled do employ a version of their art, or at least the same skills, to earn a living (the choreographer–turned–dance teacher, for example), but they can't live just off the fruits of their artistry. Like you, they need to seek some commercial, aka monetary, success.

Although you want to identify
yourself as a professional—a "working actor"—you may need to come up with a system to keep your inner artist fed. You said you were done building your résumé, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy doing creative, nonpaying acting roles that give you a chance to grow. Your paid gigs aren't going to sustain you financially and artistically, at least not at this stage in your career. Give yourself opportunities to work without regard for money at least several times a year. Do a play, a low-budget film, a reading—take the time, without career or financial guilt, to do projects that excite you.

For now, you may need a break from the whole kit and caboodle while you emerge from your funk. It might do you good to focus on another art or on a discipline like yoga, karate, or, I don't know, cross-country skiing. Get your head out of acting for a while—even just a couple of weeks—so you can refresh your point of view.

Finally, if the self-hate you mentioned feels real, speak to someone about it right away. The Mental Health Association of New York City's LifeNet program has a phone and online referral service for people looking for mental health counselors. Call (800) LIFENET (543-3638) or go to www.800lifenet.org. Artists can be particularly susceptible to depression, so don't hesitate to reach out for help.



DEAR JACKIE:

I've gotten my first bad review. It stung a little, but the pain has subsided now because 1) I know I am a good actress, and 2) My director, my fellow actors, the playwright, and the audience were happy. Audience members even singled me out after the show to compliment me.

One of the comments from the critic was about the choices I made. Since this person was not specific, I could not counter this mentally. Critics often are not aware of the fact that what they see onstage (or on film, for that matter) is not 100 percent the actor's choice. Many, many, many people can and will change the actor's original instinct for the character.

—P.B.

New York City

DEAR P.B.:

I agree that many critics can't distinguish between an actor's choices and a director's choices. I have seen brilliant actors seem terrible and bad actors come off pretty damn good—all based on the quality of the direction. Of course, a director can't take all the blame or credit. There are actors who are virtually "director-proof," as they say, and the script greatly affects an actor's work. Nevertheless, you're correct that critics often don't seem to see the real situation.

Honestly, though, that's not their job. Sure, they're being unfair in chalking up problems to the wrong party. When I was a reviewer, I took great pains to try to write specifically about a director's work with his or her actors. But reviewers are being paid to write about their subjective reaction to a performance, not to correctly assign blame for every blemish.

Am I absolving critics of responsibility? Of course not, but because the root of their work is their personal opinion, it's hard to take any of what they say too seriously—raves or slams. If I have any advice for you or other actors reading reviews, it's this: Try not to give the negative reviews more power than the positive. You are probably only as terrible and stilted this week as you were luminous and brilliant the last. Or as basketball great Charles Barkley put it: "I know I'm never as good or bad as one single performance. I've never believed in my critics or my worshippers, and I've always been able to leave the game at the arena."

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