I just read (as I do faithfully) your column in the April 29 issue of Back Stage, in which you replied to "23 and Unemployed." You mentioned that you didn't know a single acting program—bachelor's or master's—that spends any real time on the business of acting. Well, here I am! My name is Jane Alderman, and that is exactly what I teach at the Theatre Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University in Chicago. It is a course I devised for both the graduating bachelor's and master's students. It is a required yearlong course that I teach as an adjunct. They truly are prepared and know what to do and what is expected of them as they graduate. I feel they have a full year's leg up on most of the country's graduates of theater arts programs.
They are immersed in pictures and résumés and cover letters, taxes, agents, unions, contracts—anything and everything they should know to get started. My course also includes auditioning for theatrical film and television shows. This course is finalized with a showcase here in Chicago. I have just finished my seventh year with Roosevelt. Prior to that, I taught this course and developed a showcase at the Theatre School of DePaul University, also here in Chicago. I started that in 1980 and taught there for 18 years.
Until recently I was a casting director. I retired from that last July after putting in 30 years! I have recently returned to acting ("Superior Donuts" on Broadway). So I do feel that our program is indeed up to date on every industry trend and issue. Yes, we concentrate on the art, but it is my job to jolt them into reality.
—Jane Alderman, via email
It's wonderful to hear from you and about your course. As far as I'm concerned, several rigorous courses such as the one you describe should be mandatory in all college and university acting training programs. It's great to know that some programs take this part of the training seriously. Bravo!
I'm an actor who has made a bit of a career for myself working behind the camera. It gets me on set, and I get a real education watching talent work in front of the camera. My problem is that I want to act full time, not just work as a camera operator.
I'm supporting a family and doing well for myself right now. My job also allows for good chunks of time off. I try to find acting gigs and hope I don't get interrupted with work and can do the jobs I book. Lately it's been a problem. If I get an audition, I get called in to work. If I get a gig (most of these are nonpaying, by the way), I get seven days of work, and I can't miss one for a no-pay gig.
Before I was fully set up working behind the camera, I was submitting and had been called in to a few interviews with agents, but I never got signed to anything. I take classes and join groups when I can but still want to do more. I'd love to make the switch, but I'm nervous about the financial hell it might put me in. I love acting, and I love being able to do it, but I'd love to know if there's a good way to be able to act more.
—Wanting to Switch, Los Angeles
There's no easy answer here, especially as you're supporting a family. You said you work as a camera operator, and it sounds like you freelance. Any freelance gig—with its uncertainty and erratic hours—is hard on a family, but wanting to act puts you in an excruciating dilemma.
While some might suggest you have to follow your dreams come what may, I—with two small kids of my own—am all too familiar with the practical side of your problem. Either choice has big ups and downs. Making the decision to pursue your heart's desire risks putting your family in financial jeopardy, but choosing to stifle your dreams puts you in an unsustainable personal position. You either show your children that sacrifice is sometimes demanded in a family, or you show them that dreams sacrificed can come back to haunt you.
Or maybe there's another way. Here's something to consider: Would you really enjoy maintaining an acting career—running an acting business and embracing those practical challenges—or are you simply fond of acting itself? If it's the latter, try to seize the challenge to act as much as you can in addition to working your pretty cool day job. Forget worrying over where you make your money and try to enjoy acting as a nonprofessional—with all the freedom that brings. Don't let yourself feel ashamed that acting, for you, is something of a hobby. Many artists don't make money from their art, and that doesn't denigrate the quality of their work. You can do lots of acting in class, with a theater group, in student and indie films, and with like-minded pals. Heck, with your skills and contacts you can probably make your own film. Sure, occasionally you'll have to miss out on a gig because of a work commitment, but with more time in both fields you'll be better and better able to make the juggling work to your advantage. You might even want to consider taking an annual break from freelance production to focus solely on acting. The longer you are at it, the longer this "break" might become.
If, however, you feel you'd be well-suited to an acting career and decide you want to give it a go, you might want to begin with a long-term experiment of sorts. Could you save up the money to take an extended break from your work, making acting your only focus for a set period of time? You and your family could discuss the details of such a situation, but anything short of several months wouldn't be long enough. If you have some real time just to audition, submit, work nonpaying jobs, and look for a representative—without worrying about getting a "real" work call—you'll begin to see not only whether you are getting the response you'd like but how you feel about living the actors' life. No, three or four months is not long enough to build a career, but it's long enough to get a taste of what building a career would be like. At the end of your experiment, reassess your situation and, with your spouse, make a decision about the next phase of your life.
Remember too that nothing is permanent. You can—and probably will—change your mind about what you want to do several times throughout your life. Try not to spend too much time looking over the fence and salivating over the illusion of the greener grass.