For our spotlight on temporary employment services, Back Stage elicits words of wisdom and war stories from a dozen veterans of the temping trenches. Temp jobs can provide the flexibility a performer needs to pursue a budding career, but the wrong situation can also hamstring your efforts, and the actors canvassed have some good advice on how to tell what's right for you. And what should the actor's mindset be in approaching the right temp job? Al Lawrence, president of The Employment Line in Manhattan, offers a unique perspective. He suggests actors approach it as any role for a play: Follow Stanislavski in preparing and building a character, whether it's a computer operator or a salesperson. Consider the job site your stage, the workers as your fellow actors, the supervisor as your director, the company as your producer. Just as with a theatre, consider yourself a collaborative member of the company. And, just as when a play's temporary run is over, leave the job with good wishes to your fellows, and let the "director" and "producer" know you'd like to work with them again.
Robin Bloodworth—Keeping Flexible
Robin Bloodworth has used his striking baritone speaking voice to play everything from classic roles like Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" and Oberon in "A Midsummer's Night Dream" to Richard in "The Lion in Winter." The list of his part-time jobs between roles has been equally diverse: furniture mover, sign painter, set construction, etc., as well as the typical waiter/bartender gigs. "I had some friends who temped and I thought an office job might be a change of pace, as well as a break from the vampire-like bartending schedule. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of high-end skills. My basic computer skills have improved, but I lack the knowledge of graphics or animation programs, for example, that lead to more lucrative temp jobs."
Bloodworth's singular motive for temping is a simple one. "Far and away the biggest advantage to temping, in my case, is flexibility. I've kept the one relatively low-paying temp job, off and on, for one reason: I can come and go at a moment's notice. I can move my lunch hour to squeeze in an audition, work a partial day, or have an out-of-town job for two or three months and start back to work the day after I return. I've only missed out on one audition I can recall, and that was while working a freelance job where I was committed to deliver a project at the end of the week and couldn't leave. I've been offered staff positions, and while the pay hike is tempting (I have insurance through Equity so benefits aren't quite as much of an issue), I don't think the loss of flexibility is worth it.
"I've worked some high-end freelance temp gigs as a 'facilitator' to consultants. The pay is much better, but the hours are much longer, the stress is higher, and your time is committed until the end of that project. More often, I've worked the low-end jobs: assistant, reception, phones, etc. This is less grueling; there is often time to read scripts, learn lines, etc. This gig, however, works much better as a supplement to income than as the income. In my experience, the high-end jobs have dried up since Sept. 11. As a result, employers can chose between those with the very best skill sets. It is starting to pick up a little lately and the availability of lower-level work has been steady."
Bloodworth feels the strength actors bring to temping is their ability to "act friendly and helpful when you may not feel that way. My regular boss is very supportive and never annoyed with my audition schedule. Needless to say, I give her as much notice as I can." Bloodworth's temp service offers a week's paid vacation per 1,400 hours worked. He finds the only financial problem caused by temping is "dry cleaning. It takes a bite out of your wallet when you temp, and often you get stuck auditioning in a button-down and blazer." The advice this actor would give to anyone new to temping is simple and sensible: "Be nice, be on time, and just apply common sense to tasks and office problems."
Jennifer Darling—Darling of the Day Job
Audiences at the Lion Theatre may find the story of Baby Degginhart, the character essayed by Jennifer Darling in James Carter's "Baby Steps," to be tumultuous. In real life, however, the actress thrives on stability—a rare commodity for someone who has been temping on and off since 1993, including the last seven years at American Express.
"I'm lucky to have a boss who has been extremely flexible with me and is supportive," Darling confides. "Lots of co-workers have come to the show; some have even donated money to it."
Perhaps the reason for that is because she's found a special niche for herself, having worked for at least 60 different people in the marketing end of the firm. For Darling, the experience pays off in other ways: A producer as well, she has a birds-eye view on "how the big guys sell a product. I've learned a lot."
Of course, finding herself in such an advantageous situation didn't happen overnight. "I took one semester of typing in high school and ended up being able to type 80 words a minute; that was one of the skills I brought with me when I moved to New York. To temp, though, you need more—you need lots of computer skills, and to be able to handle multiple priorities."
For example, she currently assists a "fairly high-up" executive. "I basically run her life because she's booked solid all day. I have to go through her email, assess what's urgent, and delegate anything I can to her team of 170 people." Intensity is Darling's watch-word: Beside all the usual activities that come along with executive assisting, she generates at least three PowerPoint presentations weekly and maintains the team's internal databases.
So intense is her job that one naturally wonders how she continues to act and produce. Does she, say, find it difficult to audition? No, she says, and if she did, she'd leave. "Those are the jobs that don't work out—when you start skipping auditions, you defeat the purpose of the temp job. In the beginning, I took shorter-term assignments because they offer more flexibility. In my case, I fell in with the right agency that kept hooking me up—they would say [to the client], 'She needs flexibility,' and fortunately I had the competence to back it all up."
Not all temps are so confident, she adds, and yet that's at least half the battle. "I think, as an actor, you're trained to let go of any value judgment and to sort of neutralize yourself and not take anything quite so personally. You've got to be able to separate the personal from the professional. In executive situations—and especially because you deal with so much rejection as an actor—you learn to let it go when your boss screams at you."
There's a big difference, of course, between blowing off steam and crossing a line, but Darling keeps it all in perspective. After all, she has the best of both worlds—steady work with no commitment and the underlying evidence that at the end of the day, the people she works with deeply want her to succeed.
Marc Diraison—Avoiding Complacency
Although, ironically enough, actor-producer Marc Diraison is currently producing a play, "Eat Your Heart Out" (at the Trilogy Theatre), about a comically frustrated actor who makes his living waiting tables, Marc Diraison does not wait tables. Instead, he has chosen to take the office temp route to supplement his income as an actor.
For the past four years, he has worked temp at an array of institutions—banks, real estate, dotcoms—utilizing his considerable computer skills, which are in demand. "That's one of the reasons I decided to do it," he recalls. "I enjoy computers—I'm a computer hobbyist—and didn't have to take any classes, although all of the temp agencies I freelance with offer them."
His pleasure on the computer notwithstanding, Diraison stresses he does not much like the corporate world and, for that reason alone, he does not want to take a steady part-time gig. Indeed, he refuses to commit himself to more than several weeks (at most) for any given job. He actually prefers three- or four-day gigs, even if that means having to hustle all over again the following week: contacting all the temp agencies he has signed up with to let them know he's available; that is, if they don't call him. No matter, Diraison has his freedom.
"There is the danger of becoming complacent in a steady job, even if it's only part-time," he remarks. "I know many artists who decided they liked the regular paycheck so much, they decided to get a full-time job and gave up their art. I don't want that to happen to me."
Diraison insists he doesn't care about vacations and benefits, not that they're unavailable to the temp worker, "but you have to work very long hours to get them. I need my time to pursue my acting career."
That said, he points out that temp work has its limitations. Inevitably, it infringes on one's time. "It's fine if I'm already in a showcase," Diraison says. "That, after all, is night work. But if I have to go to auditions—and most of those take place in the day—temp work is like any other nine-to-five job and I end up missing those auditions."
Still, temp work is preferable to catering, another stint Diraison has engaged in from time to time. Temp work, he says, is more steady and reliable, although it too has its good and less-good periods. There was a slump in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Diraison reports.
Temp work, however, has two decided advantages for Diraison, in his actor's hat. "The corporate world and the kind of people who work in it—people who think about money all the time—are very alien to me," Diraison says. "Temping has exposed me to these people and given me a sense of who they are. I think this experience will help me if I ever play a Wall Street character, for example."
Diraison cites another virtue. "Temping has made me realize—even more than I did before—how much I don't want to be doing this. That has motivated me that much more as an actor."
Putting the shoe on the other foot, he observes that his acting background has helped him as a temp. "I have to pretend that I'm happy to be there. I can fake it well."
Lindsay Halladay—Taking It Day by Day
While she was working on her double degree (in English and theatre) at Rutgers University, Lindsay Halladay decided she wanted to try spending a summer in New York City. She answered a temporary services ad in the Times and was able to get regular assignments during those months.
After graduation, she spent a year in a full-time job before making the big move back into the city. When she did return a year or so ago, to pursue her acting and solo performance career, she was able to work through the same temp service once again. She spent about nine months doing "hardcore" temping—mainly administrative and secretarial work, with some proofreading.
Halladay's major artistic endeavors have been in the area of slam and performance poetry. She also is one of four artists called "The Mayhem Poets," who teach workshops and hold open-mike events—often traveling to high schools and colleges for presentations. Additionally, Halladay is now rehearsing Jean Anouilh's "The Lark" at the Sanford Meisner Theatre, playing the leading role of Joan of Arc.
With her busy artistic schedule, Halladay needed maximum flexibility in her employment schedule. She chose to work days only: no evening, night, or weekend shifts. And rather than take on long-term assignments, she tended to work on a day-to-day schedule—waiting for those calls in the morning that sometimes came and sometimes didn't. She found this routine to have both advantages and drawbacks.
"It was gratifying in that, as an actor, I'm fascinated by people. I'm fascinated by new places and new situations, so it's always interesting to go someplace new and observe. It was sort of frustrating, though, because I didn't always feel like I could do the best job for them. I remember I worked at this one law firm; I came in for the day, and part of the job was I had to write down the exact time that every individual in the firm came in, left for lunch, came back from lunch, and then left for the day—which is not a hard thing to do if you know who everybody is. But when you don't know, you're asking the president of the company, 'Who are you?' It's a little embarrassing."
Though Halladay was registered with only two services (and only managed to be placed in jobs by one of them), she did work regularly. She feels that this was partly because she was frank about her need to balance her work and creative lives.
"I worked with the company to make the balance happen. If I'd gone in and was sort of pulling the wool over their eyes, and they didn't know I was an actor, I don't think they would have wanted to work with me after a while."
With the job market's generally dismal outlook of late, and with her increasing work as a performer, Halladay has segued out of temp work in recent weeks. However, she does believe that some skills she gained in the temp-worker world cross over into her performer's life.
"The play I'm in now has a cast of 14, and it's important that we all have a rapport with one another while we work and between rehearsals and whatnot—that we're able to work together on a very even level and not let things like egos get in the way. Although I can't point to anything specific where I thought, 'Oh, I can take this into my actual acting,' temping has certainly helped me realize a lot of things about the business aspects of being a performer—having a certain composure around individuals and being polite."
—Mark Dundas Wood
Susan Kerner—Personal Assistant
Susan Kerner used to take on standard office temping jobs, but found that the reality of office culture allowed for very little flexibility in balancing these jobs with the reality of auditioning. "If you get a call for an 11:30 audition that day, it is not really that easy to go outside of the conventional lunch hour, on the spot." Kerner also disliked life "in the cubicles."
She serendipitously discovered a form of longer-term temping she recommends to fellow performers—that of "executive assistant" or "personal assistant." She discovered this when she saw a newspaper ad for an executive assistant and checked it out. She put in a long stint in one such position and now holds a second.
These are not conventional "day jobs" in the sense that her employers know acting is her top priority and that she would leave if a long-term acting opportunity arose. She takes time off regularly for auditions and projects. "You have to arrange that up front."
Kerner explains that a personal or executive assistant is someone busy VIPs need to handle chores and the details of projects. "I say, 'I'll do everything you hate to do,' " says Kerner. This ranges from keeping the person's schedule in order to taking out the dry cleaning or walking the dog, from handling redecorating to putting together a social function. "These people—such as philanthropists active in fundraising events—have every moment packed," she says.
"When I have an audition or a short gig of a day or two, I simply make up the time. The longest I have had to take off is about three weeks at a stretch, usually if I'm in rehearsals for a play." Kerner either makes up the time, working longer hours later, or doesn't get paid during her weeks off. But she knows the job is waiting when she's done.
"Once rehearsals are over, there usually isn't any conflict, as I perform at night. If an acting opportunity came along that required full attention and more time, I'd leave and recommend a friend to take over."
One warning Kerner issues is that actors should not look to these jobs—which, she says, either come through word of mouth or through newspaper want ads—as networking opportunities. "The kinds of people who hire executive assistants want total discretion. You are in the background. Never try to plug yourself to the people you come into contact with. That would be the end."
Kerner has had leading roles in two Lifetime Television movies, in a television pilot, and in the independent film "Pass the Buck." Her Off-Broadway and regional credits include principal roles in productions at the Circle in the Square, the American Theatre of Actors, the Oakland Civic Theatre, the New Jersey Repertory Company, and others. She also does commercials. Kerner holds an M.F.A. from the Actors Studio Program.
But, of course, roles end, which leads her back to her personal assistant stints. "High-powered people like to hire actors because we have poise, express ourselves well, and can deal with a variety of situations. You have to be able to deal with prominent people all the time in a competent fashion."
As to another important practical matter, health insurance, Kerner says that in her current position, the arrangement is that she joined an artists' organization that offers these benefits to its members on a group basis. Her employer reimburses her for the cost.
She works from her employer's home. This is often the case in such jobs. She has worked in the past, and has heard of other such situations within a corporation, where a honcho has a staff that includes assistants who deal with company business, and an assistant such as Kerner, whose job is to free the VIP from daily chores.
Catherine LaValle—Safety in Numbers
Catherine LaValle has been in the business professionally for nine years, appearing on Broadway in "The Scarlet Pimpernel" ("Marguerite" understudy), and on tour with "The Sound of Music" starring Richard Chamberlain ("Maria" understudy). She's also done film and TV roles and is hoping to do more, so one of the reasons she temps is to remain in NYC. "I find going out of town puts you back a few steps, making connections and networking harder."
LaValle has developed software skills in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook, etc. "If you have great computer skills, there are lots of jobs out there for you that pay exceedingly well." LaValle finds balancing two careers can be hard. "I am not one to sit back and eat up my savings because I'm not acting. I also need to pay for classes. As a temp, you have to manage your time well. It is always tough to go to chorus calls and callbacks because you don't know how long you'll be gone. For these, I usually take the day off. EPAs are a snap because you can get your appointment, go to work, and know you will come back in a predictable time frame. It helps to be in an office near major audition venues. I always make it clear that I am an actor, but that I'm also dedicated to my temp job. I make sure my work is done and that I respect the client's needs.
"I prefer to stay in one place long-term because I can build a relationship with the client that allows for more flexibility. The economy being the way it is, short-term jobs invite dreaded holes when there might not be work. I also know a few actors without computer skills who work as receptionists. One strength actors have is persistence—essential to keep both your acting career alive and the temp jobs coming. I have also definitely added to my mailing lists and made many new friends temping. When you look for a service, try to find ones that use a lot of actors. Ask what they pay per hour for various positions. It does vary and you should not be shy about this."
LaValle takes a catholic approach to registering with services. "I am registered with about six agencies. It is really risky to rely on just one to keep you steadily employed. As far as freelancing, you can work for whoever offers you work, but if you want to take advantage of benefits, you have to put in steady time with one. I went for around five years without having to temp. The rates don't seem to have gone up much, and I must say there doesn't seem to be the abundance of work. I recently heard some 80% of companies use temps; this is also a reflection on the times, as it means they are not hiring as many permanent employees. There seem to be more people pursuing temp work than before.
"I find most clients are happy to have an actor in the ranks, and as long as I treat it as a positive thing, they are happy for me, too. Many temp agencies offer the opportunity to buy into health benefits. Some say you can earn holiday pay after 350 hours, participate in a 401k plan and direct deposit. Lots of the services offer free advanced training and the use of their computers to brush up on skills. It can only help, as it makes you more marketable. I loaded my own computer with MS Office and brush up on my skills at home."
LaValle uses different clothes for auditions that she calls "more playful than work clothes." Many of the offices she's worked in have extended casual Fridays now to casual Monday through Friday, depending on the public visibility of the workspace. "I usually show up the first day in a suit or a nice skirt and top and take my cues from the 'regulars.' " She feels agencies understand actors' need to audition. "They'd rather you turn down work than suddenly bag it when you are supposed to show up. Be respectful and reliable. If you're unhappy, ask for them to replace you. They will appreciate it if you work with them, knowing their relationship with the client is important." She also advises, "It is essential to keep in touch, keep calling. You know the line between assertive and obnoxious. But if you don't call, they won't know you're available, and they'll forget."
Jody Madaras—Giving Good Reception
During a period back in 1997 when his career was in low gear, Jody Madaras decided to try temp work. He asked fellow alums from the University of Michigan and other colleagues for advice. They gave him a list of temp services to call.
Madaras hooked up with one service and worked in temp gigs fairly regularly for about three months. Then, fortunately, his theatrical work picked up. A self-described "song-and-dance man," Madaras toured extensively in musicals overseas, performing in 27 countries.
Recently, however, the actor decided he'd like to return to the temp world—but on a casual basis.
"In June of this year, I was cast in an Off-Broadway play called 'Peg of My Heart,' so I found myself back at home here," he explains. "I had a lot of time during the day—a lot of daytime hours. So, I thought, to raise a little extra money for Christmas and the holidays coming up, I'd call the same temp service. They're very loyal to their people, and they said they thought they could find something for me during the day."
And so they did. Madaras says he hasn't noticed a deceleration in the temp world at all, despite the slowed economy of late. As far as he can tell, the scene in 2003 is not much different from what it was in 1997.
Madaras' perception may have to do with the kind of temping he's been involved with. In some quarters—among word-processing workers, for instance—temporary work has diminished, in part because employers can outsource the work to overseas markets such as India. But Madaras has worked mainly in the area of reception—with some light office duties (such as composing and sending emails). Despite technological advances, it's still unlikely that many companies will try hiring somebody stationed in Bombay to greet office visitors at the front desk of offices located on Madison Avenue.
Madaras claims that he intentionally chose this sort of temp work and that he deliberately has not pursued the opportunities for technical training that some temp services offer. "I'm kind of a 'light-weight' temp, in that I didn't want to bog myself down with a lot of computer work. I just wanted some kind of easygoing, fun stuff."
The actor claims he's had success in temping largely because he's not been afraid to be himself. "When you go to temp, it's a great opportunity to use your personality. Get to know the people you're working with—share a little of yourself. In a lot of these offices—or if you temp at a hospital—being a good speaker, being a good listener: They love that. And, as an actor, that's what I do: talk and listen."
Madaras has literally had other tricks up his sleeve as well. He's performed magic since he was in junior high school, so while temping, he's sometimes entertained co-workers with bits of illusion.
His personableness has also helped promote his theatrical endeavors. Some of the doctors at a hospital where he worked this summer found out about "Peg of My Heart" and went to see the production. "So my temping sold a couple of extra tickets for the show."
At present Madaras is not doing much temping. He's scheduled to direct a children's musical for TADA! this fall. Then, in early 2004, he'll go to Ohio—first to direct "Guys and Dolls," then to appear in "42nd Street." Still, he's happy to return to the reception desk from time to time, as a supplement to his main income.
—Mark Dundas Wood
Kristin Maloney—Knowing When to Leave
Kristin Maloney was nervous. She had a noon-hour audition at Lincoln Center for a new production of John Philip Sousa's operetta "The Glass Blowers." It was a last-minute thing—arranging the appointment had been a huge favor from her agent. But she was working that day at a temporary assignment for an investment bank—at Building 7 of the World Trade Center. Trying to be a scrupulous worker, Maloney made arrangements with her bosses to take a longer lunch. "I'll try to make it back in an hour and a half," she told them.
Her audition went smoothly, although it felt a bit rushed. On her way out, she told herself, "I'm never going to do that again. I'm going to have to make auditions my priority and take the morning off."
Just then, the director found her and told her that the casting team wanted her to read from the script. Her first thought was, "No, I have to go back to work." She's relieved now that she didn't actually speak those words. Auditioning for (and getting a role in) "The Glass Blowers" was one of the biggest breaks Maloney had received since arriving in New York a few years earlier.
The actor-singer had garnered office experience when she worked in the bursar's office at Cornell University. She had then inched her way into New York from Stamford, Conn. For a while, she thought that she would temp in Stamford and commute into Manhattan for auditions. When she explained this plan to temp service staffers there, big question marks appeared above their heads.
In New York itself, however, Maloney discovered that temp services were much more understanding about the performer's life, especially the need for flexibility: "Most of these staffing firms that I've worked for—and I've put my name into about five of them—are mostly made up of staff who are also pursuing performing arts careers."
Maloney began temp work in New York in 1998 and 1999, when the employment boom was still going strong. She had no problem working regularly—usually in weeklong assignments—doing executive and administrative assisting. Principally, she was sent to large investment banks. She was regularly offered permanent work (which she turned down repeatedly).
One of her first assignments was as a recruiter's assistant for a web design firm. "It was just a hiring craze, absolutely crazy," she says of those boom days. "And at this point, I don't even know if, had I stayed with that company, my position would still exist. I don't think they would need an assistant for recruiting anymore!"
As the economy slumped and work tapered off, Maloney's temp-worker friends branched out into other industries. She herself now works out of her home, transcribing tapes. This work is highly flexible—and it sometimes gives her a link to other creative artists. (For instance, she's lately been transcribing interviews for a documentary filmmaker.)
This August, when Maloney came back from Europe (where she'd been performing in "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"), she did hook up with one of her old temp services. And once again, they tried to entice her into permanent work. "After a while," she says, "you build up a relationship with people, where they know they can count on you, but that they also can't—because of what you value. I leaned over and I said, 'Actually, that sounds great. But I'd have to have flexibility for auditions, and if I got [an acting] job, I'd have to leave you with a week's notice.'
"They laughed and went, 'Okay, thanks.' They know what my deal is."
—Mark Dundas Wood
David McNamara—Building a Relationship
David McNamara recently appeared in the regional premiere of Lee Blessing's "Thief River" at Florida Stage. He's also performed at Barrington Stage Company, the Utah Shakespearean Festival, and the Kennedy Center, and received his M.F.A. in acting from the University of Missouri. The number one skill he's found making an actor valuable for temping is "the ability to come into a new situation and figure out what needs to be done, what my relationship with the people around me is, and to just do it. What companies are looking for most is malleable people they can rely on to learn something new quickly."
McNamara feels the most tenuous aspect of temping is maintaining the ability to remain warmed up and focused for an audition that you have to run to on your lunch break, while still being able to be good at your temping job. His concern is that "it's very easy when you are working at a desk to sink into a kind of lethargy and to go to an audition cold."
McNamara finds he prefers longer temping jobs. "I had the privilege of working at MOMA for over two years. My supervisors were flexible enough to allow me to audition." He advises, "If you're in a situation you hate and feel your artistic soul fading, then it might be better to have short-term assignments. If you don't have high office skills, you'll likely be paid less than if you have experience as an executive assistant. I'm receiving less money right now than I did a few years ago, and I don't know if that's due to the market, or the nature of my current assignments. You might have to supplement temping by other gigs like catering, which I also do. The important thing is to figure out how much you need to sustain a life in New York. Get by on less and you will have more options. If you need more, I suggest either boning up on your office skills or supplementing your income. You'll want to earn enough money to be able to survive, yet have the freedom and flexibility to pursue what you're here for."
McNamara has worked with only one temping service since moving to New York. He knows some people find value in registering with more than one, but he feels, "It's really important to build a relationship with a service. It's not unlike building relationships in the acting world. The more in contact you are, the better the chance of them calling you up for work. Don't be worried, companies will always exist that need temps. Though it may have been a little scarce, there seem to be more jobs becoming available. I've found most of the people I've worked for to be very nice and truly interested that I'm pursuing the career of an actor. I also think it's important to not give the attitude that 'temping sucks,' and how you can't wait to get out of there."
McNamara's temping service gives one week's paid vacation for every 900 hours worked. You also have the option to pay a certain amount each month and get health insurance, but he feels the price is too high. "That's probably the number one drawback to temping. It is possible to get health insurance, but it may not be economical to do so."
He's found a lot of free training available, too. "They have a computer station in the office that you can go to at any time and do free tutorials in computer programs." If he has a theatre audition, he'll generally use the same clothes he temps in. A commercial, film, or TV audition is a little different. He advises, "I think, as a general rule, it's good to buy clothes that aren't too specific, so you can use them for both."
As for taking off for auditions, most temping jobs give you the option as to when you can take lunch, which gives you flexibility to take that hour when you have the audition. If you think you might take longer, he's found no problem in saying he "might be a few minutes late from lunch." It's best to just be honest. "Keep in mind tons of actors temp. If you go away to do a regional theatre job, chances are slim you are burning bridges with your service. It's really laziness that temp services don't tolerate."
Kittson O'Neill—Learn the 'Big Three'
Kittson O'Neill temped regularly for a long time, but has found that office culture can make it difficult to get out to auditions. "They don't always get it. For years, I had a lot of sudden 'dental appointments.' Somehow, 'dental appointments' are more accepted."
She considers herself lucky in that several temp jobs at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals gained her a reputation within that organization for reliability and doing good work. "Because they know me, over the past year or so I've gotten called in by Pfizer roughly one or two days a week to fill in as a temp on the very short term and I'm still doing that. I know the systems they use and their procedures. This has proven to be a good thing for me. I do occasionally still do longer temp work, but never for more than about a month. It gets too confining, like a day job. The two temp services I've found particularly helpful are the Laurie Group and ASA Personnel."
O'Neill's acting credits include appearing in "Macbeth" at the Pulse Ensemble Theatre, plus roles at the Theatre for the New City, the Second Stage, the Women's Project and Productions, Emerging Artists Theatre, the Belmont Italian-American Theatre, and the Fringe Festival. Regionally, she has worked with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the New Jersey Repertory Company (where she once worked as literary manager), the Northeastern Theatre Ensemble, Stage West, and Boulevard Ensemble. She is an alumna of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She has also worked in several independent films. O'Neill has extensive training in stage combat.
O'Neill's couple-of-days-a-week arrangement with Pfizer frees her from looking for survival jobs and provides tremendous flexibility. If she has an audition on a given day or a project for a few weeks, she simply lets them know that and picks up with them again when she's free. This sort of thing can grow out of doing conventional temping. A place gets to know a worker and makes a mutually suitable arrangement.
O'Neill says that among the skills she has found to be much in demand, both at Pfizer and in the work she's done for temp services in the past, typing is the most important ability to have. That can be applied to many kinds of assignments.
"They ask for the program 'Microsoft Outlook' a lot," she says. "That's a company-wide organizer, calendar program. It's an excellent thing to know.
"The big three though are PowerPoint [in essence, slide shows], Excel (an accounting program), and Microsoft Word. PowerPoint in particular can provide solid assignments."
In terms of the bottom line—earning the money to support one's acting career—O'Neill says that far more money can be made working the night shift than the regular nine-to-five day. She personally finds she just can't do that, but those who can will be able to substantially boost their earnings.
The downside of her arrangement with Pfizer is that she does not have health insurance. "I'm right in there with much of the rest of America," she says. "That's a situation this country has to fix."
Nancy Pagan—A Delicate Balance
"If I'm doing a project, temping allows me the freedom to not work one week if I need the time," says actress Nancy Pagan. Like many other performers who pay the rent and living expenses by temping, the flexibility it allows her is a major attraction. Auditions, classes, and performances needn't be abandoned.
In Pagan's case, she didn't like other types of part-time work—"I'm not good at retail or sales, so I wouldn't be good in that kind of environment."
She is working with just one temp service now, Vanguard, which is in White Plains. She had applied to a lot of temp services in the city, but felt she was being given a runaround. They promised her work, but it seldom came through. Because she has a car and is able to travel, she answered a receptionist position advertisement for temp work in White Plains, not realizing it was a temp service.
"I had some basic computer skills, and I'm vaguely familiar with many of the programs, although I need a little bit more training with some. When they tested me, I scored okay, although I could have done a little better. I did a tutorial they have on their computer, and by the end of the week, I was doing much better."
She's decided to work only through Vanguard because of the opportunities they have given her, and she works regularly. She gets paid $13 to $15 an hour, depending on the type of work—although she has taken some jobs that pay only $10 or $11 an hour "because sometimes I really have no choice. It's enough to get along on, so I do it."
Pagan says there is definitely less work since Sept. 11, although it's starting to pick up a little bit now. She's currently in her second week at the same job, and is pleased about that. "If I'm doing three different jobs in a week, there's more pressure on me. Doing receptionist's work, everywhere I go there's usually a different system that I have to learn."
She says just as she psyches herself up to learn the new system, the next day she's somewhere else, and she has to start all over again. The service tells her in advance how many days she'll be on a job, and it's optional whether she wants to accept the assignment. "But if I'm really stressed for money, I'll take the work."
She is always trying to balance her professional life with her temp work. "You want to be out there doing your craft, but you know realistically that you have to pay your bills. And in show business, you don't always get paid to do the project you want to do—but you want to do them because it's important to your career."
So sometimes Pagan has to give up certain opportunities to perform in order to survive—a choice she struggles with all the time. "Looking at Back Stage, or hearing about auditions I want to go to, I may have to put them off, because I know that for the next month I'm not going to be able to do anything because I need to work to pay the rent!"
Usually, her acting skills do not come into play on the job, although, currently, because she's speaking to people on the telephone about problems and products, she feels she is, in some way, acting. "I try to put a positive spin in my voice, regardless of why they're calling."
There are no health or vacation benefits of any kind that come with her temp work. And generally, Pagan finds that the companies she has worked for don't care about her outside activities, whether it's a short-term or long-term assignment. "They just want you working, and don't want to give you time off for auditions or things like that." But in the final analysis, temp work is the best way for her.
—Ira J. Bilowit
Tom Ryenn—Long-Term Logistics
"When I first came to New York, I heard that you could make $17 to $19 an hour doing temp work," says actor Tom Ryenn. "And I thought this was a way of earning pretty good money without having to work in a restaurant or department store."
But the best thing about temp work for Ryenn is that it doesn't impinge on his professional pursuits, especially now that he has a long-term assignment. "It's really the most beneficial position to be in, where you have a steady gig and have a schedule, and you can work your acting life around it."
He originally answered some ads for temp services, and after they called him in and tested him, he began getting work here and there. For the first few months, he found it hard work, getting early morning calls to come in for a day. But after a while, as his skills grew, so did the jobs.
"The temp service brought me on as a proofreader, which I had done while in college. While I was on the job, the company I was assigned to groomed me to learn more skills—because I wanted to learn them and because I got along well with the management. So I got on-the-job training, although it wasn't formal—I'd learn by watching and doing, and I'm still doing that."
Of course, this was possible because Ryenn's temp assignment eventually turned into a very long-term assignment. He didn't have a choice, it just happened. But he feels that if your attitude and your work are good, when a position is open, they will keep you on.
"They absolutely give me the time I need for my acting career, and try to work around my schedule as an actor. In my office, 95% of the temp people are artists—actors, singers, painters. And the management knows that we might need to take time off for auditions, or to take a month off for a show. And they're flexible and they accommodate us."
Ryenn has been there three years now, all through the same temp service that was his first. He works the 5 pm to 1 am shift, but if he has an audition, they let him take time off. And if he has a show, he can take time off, or they will let him change his shift so that he can work the show and the job at the same time, if he wants to.
As a temp, Ryenn can get benefits, but he has to pay for them himself each month. And he used to work for a service that gave 20 hours vacation pay for every 500 hours you worked—like a rebate. But because of the recession, that ended.
"The job market is bad since Sept. 11, but I've been fortunate enough to be with this company through that. But I hear about the market from other temp people coming in here. I also hear some of the big banks are cutting the salaries of the long-term temps, and they're willing to stay because it's either that or not have a job."
He chose to stay with his first temp service because the other services would send him out on lower-paying jobs or undesirable shifts. "It really depends on the service you're working with, and if you're lucky enough to get an agent at that service who really cares."
Ryenn feels that being an actor helps him be more articulate with the management people with whom his company works. "It helps me have a little more charisma and personality toward them."
—Ira J. Bilowit