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You return from an industry party pretty pleased with yourself. Not only did you work up the courage to go but, once there, you also managed to avoid wallflower status by introducing yourself to several people who sounded almost sincere when they gave you their business cards and told you to keep in touch. As you get ready for bed, you fish the cards from your pockets, open your desk drawer, and toss them on top of the dusty mound of similar cards and contact info you have been collecting since you hit town. What now?

Life as an actor is all about people: the people you've met, the people you want to meet, and even the people you will eventually portray onstage and onscreen. Unfortunately people don't come with little signs that say, "Hold on to this gal's number, because in six months she'll be someone helpful to know." Therefore, having a system to organize all the bits and pieces of information you accumulate while networking is vital.

Using a desk drawer as your "database" is pretty bad. However, spending hours inputting information into a fancy computer program that you then ignore is worse. Besides suspecting that they should have one, many people have only a vague notion about what a database is supposed to do. Clarifying that point is the first step toward selecting and using this valuable organizing tool.

Don't let the bells and whistles of a sophisticated program lure you in or scare you off. You are not required to take advantage of every little trick the software can do; begin by fulfilling your basic needs. Simple works just fine. For several years I successfully kept all of my contact information in Microsoft Excel. That's right: The combo of Excel and Microsoft Word, preinstalled on nearly every PC, meets the four basic requirements of any actor's database:

• Seeing your info: First and foremost, a database should provide speedy retrieval of information. Scrolling down a screen or clicking a mouse to view a contact moves you along in your day; sifting through piles of business cards or flipping through old address books halts your momentum.

• Manipulating your info: A database should allow you to sort your contacts by categories. That way you can easily see a list of all the casting directors you've read for or a list of all the actors in your improv class. A well-maintained database can relieve you of keeping track of and cross-referencing multiple contact lists.

• Tracking your info: Especially helpful for the actor is a facility to store statistics related to your contacts. This allows you to quickly find answers to questions such as, "When was the last month I sent a postcard to him?" or "How many times have I auditioned for her?"

• Repurposing your info: A last, basic element of a quality database is the ability to print out mailing labels and mail-merge letters from the database (see Tech Tools, at left). Being able to send emails to groups of people is another desirable function, although not one available via Excel and Word.

Most likely, a program that does all of the above is already installed on the computer you own. If you are concerned about the time required to learn a new program, get a tech tutor to speed the process.

Databases demand consistent feeding (adding new info) and weeding (updating and deleting). Schedule a regular block of time every other week or so devoted to data entry. Hiring someone to do this task for you may be money well spent—especially for the initial chunk during setup. Remember to choose a specific bin or drawer to hold the business cards and scraps of paper waiting to be entered into your program.

For contact info to be of any value to you, it must be gathered, processed, and used. Don't get stuck just gathering, never inputting the info into any helpful system. Don't get stuck processing either, diligently entering names and numbers into the computer with no plan in place about how to use what you have. Plow through the work to get to the stage in which you are using the information to make calls, send mailings, and connect people with one another.

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