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The Working Actor

Should You Set a Time Limit on Acting Success?

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Should You Set a Time Limit on Acting Success?
Photo Source: Thomas Pitilli

I hope you’re all taking advantage of Backstage.com’s Working Actor message board. It’s a truly valuable tool, connecting actors at various career levels in a format that facilitates sharing not only questions and answers but also advice, opinions, information, interesting stories, and even some philosophy. As the board’s moderator I’m there frequently, and I’ve been surprised again and again by both the variety of topics and the spectrum of responses. And while things occasionally deteriorate into the kind of snipefest that, sadly, seems to breed with troubling frequency in the swamps of online anonymity, it is nevertheless a place where you can also find very worthwhile discussion.

A recent thread titled “When do you decide to let go of the ‘dream’ of acting?” has really got our posters talking. The originator wanted to know, “Have any of you given yourself a set amount of time to start earning decent money off acting?... I am struggling now, and paying my dues. I do not want to pay my dues for the rest of my life. How about you guys?”

The problem with setting a time limit on the pursuit of acting is that damned, ever-present carrot. No matter how badly things are going, it always seems like something could break at any moment. And that sense—real or imagined—keeps a lot of us chasing a dream we might be better served by abandoning.

There’s a traditional piece of advice on the subject, and its frequent repetition does nothing to dull its wisdom. It goes like this: If you can be happy doing something else, do it. We say that because the odds of success in professional acting are so mind-bogglingly low, and the indignities so plentiful, that an actor who doesn’t feel an absolute need should never put him- or herself through such an ordeal, especially when there are perfectly pleasant nonprofessional alternatives available.

But the flip side is also true. If this is the only profession for you, it’s unlikely you’ll feel fulfilled in another. As one message board contributor said (somewhat ominously), “It’s part of who you are. If you quit acting, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.”

Still, at a certain point, if one has failed to progress, maybe it makes sense to do something else, regardless of the disappointment. We each have but one life, and it seems tragic to squander one’s years on the unlikely hope of being among the minuscule number who make a living as actors. My favorite post in this particular thread theorizes that the real answer to this question of when to give up lies in the actor’s motives for entering the profession in the first place. The fame-and-fortuners leave. The artists stay.

Giving up can be hard—perhaps even harder than an unsuccessful career. But I think the decision is best made while standing at the crossroads rather than based on a pre-designed schedule.

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