It's a decision that certainly isn't for everyone, and one that's particularly difficult for us, because for actors there's always the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick: We hear stories about those who, just when they'd lost hope, booked the acting job of their dreams. And there's always that next audition (maybe it will be the one?) and the occasional praise of respected colleagues. But at a certain point, some performers—even highly successful ones—find that these dangling carrots no longer offer enough incentive to continue the sometimes disheartening pursuit of an acting career. And that's when they face the next question: What now?
"I'd done the eight-show-a-week schedule for over 15 years and really wanted to see what the rest of the world was doing from 7 to 11 in the evenings," says Lily Wong, seasoned Broadway veteran, whose career included an 11-year run in "Cats." In her assessment, "There probably weren't a lot of jobs for me out there beyond what I was doing…and [my] biological clock was tick-tocking away!"
Because Wong had always planned to leave the business at 30, she'd been sidelining in real estate while doing "Cats" at night, until finally she was able to say goodbye to the junkyard and subsequently have kids. "Raising our daughters is my favorite life adventure so far," she says. And what's more, "I love my work. It is flexible, always interesting, and has been very good to me all these years." Wong is now a senior vice president at Halstead Property, one of the largest real estate firms in New York.
By any standard, Tami Tappan-Damiano was also enjoying a very successful career. A two-time Broadway veteran, well-known to L.A. audiences as one of the very best musical theater voices in town, she shocked fans and colleagues when she decided to make a change. But she'd gotten tired of the stress and unpredictability. "I didn't want to take performing jobs for the money anymore," she says, "and I found that I'd started to do just that. After performing for 25 years, it started to feel like a grind, and I wanted stability for my family and for myself."
She made a résumé of all her temp jobs. "Then I put my little résumé up on Monster.com with the title 'Broadway Actress Seeks Change of Career.' " Not long after, Tappan-Damiano found employment in the field of online media. "I just found I loved my new job, and I've been here ever since," she says. "It's a constantly changing field, so I never get bored."
New York actor Mary Barnes quit not once but twice. "I highly recommend it," she says, "even if you change your mind later. Truly committing to quitting and doing it is good for the soul." The second time, it took. "I don't know that I so much left the business as the business seemed to no longer find a place for me…. I'd been a recurring regular on a daytime TV show that released me after two years and a producer change. By that time I was 34, not famous, and female—not a great combo. Commercial work for me was not as plentiful as it had been…. Casting directors loved me, but I 'fell between the cracks,' as I was told. No one seemed to know what to do with me."
And post-showbiz? "There's life here," says Barnes. "Even if you don't know what it is you want to do beyond acting, the experience of living will take you to places you would not have imagined for yourself…. I've learned who humans are beyond the business and have met a lot of fascinating, creative people."
Rather than leave show business entirely, some, such as Michal Weir, move to other areas within the business. Weir transitioned from dancing ("I didn't want to be a 45-year-old chorus boy") to writing—first spec scripts, then children's videos, then film scripts. Then things took a surprising turn. "I needed a full-time job, since the writing was so sporadic," he says. An attorney friend got Weir a job with an entertainment lawyer, who offered to teach him all about negotiating his own writing deals. "From there I moved from assistant to paralegal to, now, manager of motion picture legal for Paramount Pictures," says Weir.
But some actors looking to get out don't even know where to start. For them, there's terrific support available through organizations like Career
Transition for Dancers (www.career
transition.org) and the Actors Fund (www.actorsfund.org). The fund's Actors Work Program can be a transitioning actor's best friend.
"Career decisions for actors are very personal, individual, and different," says AWP national director Kathy Schrier. To help, the AWP offers workshops like Job Search Over 40 and Job Seeking Skills and the Internet, a résumé workshop, and most apropos, a support group called Are You on the Fence With Life in the Industry? Best of all, they're free and available to members of all the entertainment unions. "Creative professionals can find success and satisfaction in anything from advertising to teaching to counseling or public relations," says Schrier. "The trick is to find a working environment where creative thinking is encouraged and valued."
She also stresses the importance of training and the value of counseling: "Today's labor market is increasingly demanding of higher education. Updating outdated skills or achieving new ones makes a person much more marketable. Community colleges, as well as public and private universities, all have career counselors on staff, and the counseling is always free. But be it with the fund or the state or a counselor at a college, taking time to talk through your skills and preferences is the best way to ensure you will find work you'll love."
And for much-needed levity along
the way, you might check out Ileana Douglas' award-winning Web series "Easy to Assemble" (on MyDamn
Channel.com), in which she plays an
actor who gets fed up with Hollywood and takes a job at Ikea.
Actors who change professions often miss performing. "I like my job very much but will always miss waking up every morning knowing I was going to rehearsal," says Weir. But as Barnes points out, "That door, though closed, is not locked.... I'm not currently choosing it, and may never have the full desire to again, but I may. I'm an actor-dancer-singer. That doesn't change because the curtain goes down."
Funny thing about acting: It often comes back into your life. Some people, in fact, claim that quitting the business is the only surefire way to get a job. At least that's the mythology. I myself used to quit the business twice a year, just for the hell of it. It always worked for me.
For Tappan-Damiano, the stage came calling again only recently. She was cast as Abigail Adams in Musical Theatre West's upcoming production of "1776." Because the role is a smaller one, they were able to work around her "civilian" schedule. Indeed, they're thrilled to have her. She's thrilled too: "I'm very excited to once again perform for the sheer love of performing and diving into a role."
Weir says he never really stopped: "We all 'perform' every day when we go to work, no matter where we work or what we do. Right now, I am playing the role of 'manager of motion picture legal.' I just don't wear a dance belt all day anymore."
Any questions or comments for The Working Actor? Please email Jackie and Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.