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Career Dispatches

Sites and Sticking Points

Sites and Sticking Points
Judy Chen, New York City

A month of not having to wake up to an alarm clock in June felt really nice. I appreciated the flexibility because I never had it before. However, the truth was, two weeks into my new lifestyle, I was starting to feel bored out of my mind. Thankfully, starting in July, everything picked up again. My new schedule now consists of acting classes four days a week, working at my new job, daily yoga/gym, auditioning, rehearsing, and performing.

Even with the time off, though, I still had a productive month. (For an insomniac who can't sit still, playing a character in a coma would probably be the most difficult role I can think of.) One major task I completed during my month of leisure was to finally launch my website, Given my design background (my undergraduate degree was in architecture, which surprisingly came in handy after all), I knew how I wanted my page to look: simple, clean, and straightforward. The bargain hunter in me refused to hire a Web designer at a crazy price, though perhaps I inadvertently paid for this creative service through my own four years of college tuition. I researched on the Web, found a free website template creator, and taught myself how to get it up and running with the domain name I had already purchased (complete with site analytics tracking). I was surprised at the resources available on the Web nowadays and how idiot-proof it has become for someone as tech-illiterate as myself. This was certainly a big accomplishment.

In addition to the website, I spent the month of June poring over all the plays I had been wanting to read, watching movies (especially foreign films) and television series that I never had the time for, developing and writing a few short projects with my friends, and conducting extensive research into agencies and management companies that may be open to representing new talent.

Now, the bulk of my time is spent at my new job and working on a variety of material with my scene partners. My new acting classes are very demanding, which is wonderful. I have chosen pieces that challenge me and allow me to perform a broad range of characters. The last thing I want to do is to typecast myself, so I want to make sure that I will have diverse reels to post on my site. Ironically, I am busier now than I have ever been, even when compared with my former corporate self where I was always at the mercy of deadlines. While I haven't seen my friends much and have had practically a nonexistent social life now that I'm devoting most of my time to really improving my craft, I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that when it comes to doing things we love, none of this feels like a chore or a sacrifice.

Jenna Lamia, Los Angeles

This month, I've been thinking about "representation." Because of the multiple directions my career has taken, I find myself with a menagerie of representatives. I am a writer, an actor, and also an audio performer, and I have different agents for all three, plus a lawyer and a manager. I know how lucky I am to have found steady work in any creative field, let alone more than one, and how fortunate that I have talented people working on my behalf to ensure that I continue to find it. However, my paychecks lately are a little bit like the great and terrible fish in "The Old Man and the Sea." They are hard-won, but by the time I get them home, so many bites have been taken out of them that they are not much more than a picked-over carcass.

I realize the position in which I find myself is entirely my responsibility. Live and learn. I just wish I had come by the lesson a bit cheaper. I recently had a situation in which I was not permitted to accept a SAG job on a TV show because I was already employed on the same network as a writer. If I had negotiated my original WGA contract with that network as a writer-performer, and not solely as a writer, it would not have been a problem, but I did not know that. My "writing" agent had no communication with my "acting" one and therefore had no idea that situation might arise. (To be fair, it is a rare complication.)

I learned from this disappointing experience that no matter how many people you entrust to represent you, you must never fail to represent yourself. I also learned that noncooperation among the various unions costs a lot of people jobs. The spirit of the rule is to protect SAG jobs from being taken by nonunion actors. But I am a longtime dues-paying member of SAG, and I was shut out because I am also employed under a WGA contract. The fact that I am a writer somehow makes me a less eligible SAG member? That is annoying, to say the least.

You cannot be a sideline observer in your own career, and you cannot assume your various representatives (and unions) are communicating with each other. A lot of actors feel so lucky to have any agent at all that we are afraid to speak up when we are unhappy with the way our careers are going. Many of us struggle for so long to get our foot in the door that, once we get there, we are terrified to be that squeaky wheel. But I'm here to say: No one is going to agent you better than yourself. You must always demand fair treatment and expect your agents to earn their 10 percent—and your unions their annual dues. If they don't, find someone who will.

Ed Stelz, New York City

What animal should you avoid sitting next to during a test? A cheetah. My kid nephew cracked this joke when I was visiting my family in upstate New York this past weekend. Though cute and funny—especially when told by my adorable nephew—the joke actually related to the article I wanted to write this month.

Since conservatory graduation two years ago, I've tried to, from every angle, "cheat" my way into this business: use the information I acquired from teachers at school, tackle the advice given in business books/magazines/newspapers/blogs/websites, tap into networking companies, schmooze industry folk, etc. But I've realized that we are sometimes overloaded with a mass quantity of ways—or techniques, or equations—to achieve success, and truly neglect the simplicity of it.

At some point in our careers, we'll need a quality agent whom we can share a great business relationship with. After my last show, I got that opportunity; I piqued the interest of an agent at Gersh. He called me in. We met. He was impressed with my work. We chatted, we laughed, we high-fived. At the end of the meeting, he said he wanted to see just a tad bit more of my work—a reel, perhaps. Whammy! Don't have one. But no problem, right? I've done plenty of free work, like I've been informed to do: short films, student films, a feature. Double whammy! Literally years and millions of emails, Facebook messages, and phone calls later, the material still hasn't gotten back to me. Though the connection with him isn't lost, I'm currently at a stalemate. All that work, all those procedures I followed finally got me a solid opportunity, and I'm stopped cold like a child slamming into a sliding glass door. After breaking all this down, I now understand that "cheating" can help open doors, but sometimes those doors lead to empty rooms or even dead ends. Driven by the need to succeed, it's easy to blindly rush forward without having a foundation.

One of the partners in my production company said it best: If you think you are good, prove it. How do you prove it? A reel with quality material on it—worthy of being on television or film. What else do you need? In our industry, a great headshot. Credits? I really don't think so, as long as your reel speaks for itself, though eventually credits will be important. And if we are willing to throw down $500 to a grand for headshots, why isn't it the norm to do the same for a reel? I wish I had done that. Then maybe, by now, a door may have led to the set of "Boardwalk Empire" or "Bored to Death." A major component of success is quality. Yet I know a large number of actors who can't prove their worth. I'm one of them. So don't be like me. Don't be a cheetah.

Deborah Strang, Los Angeles

Joel and I are in New York for the next three days. We have rented a studio apartment on the Upper West Side near the park, thanks to a random conversation with a friend during intermission at The Antaeus Company in Los Angeles last week. The apartment is beautifully renovated and has high ceilings, sunny windows, wood floors. I'm ready to move in, order the Times delivered, shop at the corner Korean deli, and be a New Yorker again.

We come to New York a couple of times a year, usually staying with Joel's family on Long Island or in Brooklyn. But thanks to the friend's last-minute recommendation, we called and something was available and here we are. Most of the shows we wanted to see have closed. I managed to grab a discounted ticket to see "Jerusalem" for tomorrow night, and we'll try hopelessly to nab last-minute seats for "The Book of Mormon." On Thursday, we are going with friends to the "new" Coney Island, where I had my first Nathan's more than 36 years ago.

I moved to NYC in 1980, arriving at Port Authority with one suitcase, wearing flip-flops and a straw hat, and carrying my pillow. I slept on a friend's floor for a couple of nights, then moved in with another friend for a couple of weeks on the Upper West Side, and finally found my tub-in-kitchen walk-up in Hell's Kitchen. And I fell madly, deeply, permanently in love with this city. I actually thought I would never leave.

Most of the people I knew have left town. Among those still here, my friend Jerry, whom I went to undergraduate school with in Virginia. Jerry works many jobs: He teaches, he acts, he directs, he works with his theater company doing whatever needs doing. Sue, a playwright, works at CNN. Cynthia, one of the most talented actors and certainly the most interesting woman I have ever met, takes acting when it comes, adopts old ladies, has daily adventures on the streets, and reads The New Yorker.

All actors should live here at some point—preferably when they are young enough to make the sacrifices that NYC requires. I love my life in Los Angeles now and have no regrets at having moved there. But New York is still the landscape in my dreams. The streets are full of constant stimuli; there are no cars to seal us in, no constant talk radio providing our soundtrack. I enter the subway with a smile on my face and stare at all the people. A man asks me if I'm lost when I look at the map.

When I lived here I had no money. Eating out was a slice of pizza or two Gray's Papaya dogs for 60 cents when I was around 72nd Street. I would walk into Zabar's just to take in the smells and the people. Now I dine where I like, I see whatever show is available. For three days, I am a well-to-do Upper West Sider. I'm going to walk in the park like I own it.

KC Wright, Los Angeles

I've decided that patience is just a waste of effort. Don't get me wrong: Building a career takes plenty of time and faith. But the energy I've put into this Zen-like calm could be much better spent. A few months ago, I wrote about treating my career like a rehearsal process: chipping away at the final goal, making new discoveries each day, and knowing that in the end my performance will be there. I'm not sure I realized it at the time, but the day I stopped sitting back and being "patient," the wheels were set in motion; for the first time since moving out here, I feel close to opening night.

It doesn't take much. A little over a week ago, I decided that a big change was due. A part of me wanted to move to New York and start fresh, a part of me wanted to go back to my hometown of D.C., a big part of me wanted to go live in a shack in the mountains and forget that show business exists. But the logical part of me did the best thing I've done in a while: I scheduled a career consultation with acting guru Lesly Kahn. Lesly is the best comedy teacher I know of and is also brutally honest, mercilessly encouraging, and endlessly supportive. My meeting with Lesly only lasted 25 minutes, but I left her office with a brand new energy and a brand new plan.

Lesly strongly recommended two things. The first was casting workshops. I've always had doubts about casting workshops since I hate to feel like I'm paying to audition, but if taking some workshops even inadvertently contributes to my next booking, well, I guess I can swallow my pride. Maybe I'll even learn something!

The second recommendation was studying with "Actors' Advocate" Dallas Travers. Dallas is not an acting teacher but a marketing expert. Her programs teach actors to self-market, and her approach seems simple and effective. I've got a lot to learn when it comes to marketing, so I'm looking forward to focusing my energy in new ways.

Right now that's what it's all about: focusing my energy. I can drive around town feeling frustrated, or I can write a new sketch to put online. I can complain on the phone to my brother, or I can sweet-talk him into designing me a website. (Check it out: I can worry about a lack of auditions, or I can enjoy the few auditions I get. This brings me to the best news of the month: The day after meeting with Lesly, I was called back for a big commercial. Guess what? I booked! For the first time in a year! And just wait, it gets better. As this was my first SAG principal role, I received a Taft-Hartley. After 18 years of dreaming, four years of schooling, and two years of yearning, I am now a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild.

I think it's time to stop yearning; it's time to get back to work.

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