What you do is invaluable. Remember that.
I write this as an actor who is now a therapist, and loves it, and who works with a lot of actors, each of whom is unique but also very much like you: They know how to use themselves creatively, effectively, and meaningfully in every area of their lives.
Now by “what you do,” I mean the craft of acting, not the business. The craft expands our creative capacities, while the business forces us to only think in twos: in versus out, union versus nonunion, etc. In short, we are shown a hard line between being an actor and not being one.
Fortunately the craft part of you does not think in twos, but in multiplicity and possibility. Your craft precedes your awareness of the business, and begins with a sincere interest in what makes each of us tick. You observe how we differ, and discover common threads linking us together. You get acquainted with yourself as you are, and then explore who you might become, experimenting with the way you talk and walk, and imagining unimaginable dilemmas, and calling upon humor, desire, charisma, fear, authority, rage, grief, despair, bravery, and various other natural resources from deep within yourself that may not have been readily available to you in life as you have known it. And you use them all to tell evocative stories—both about you and about people who seem very different from you on the surface.
Your endless mission then—no matter how you make a living—is to develop your own voice while at the same time breathing life into the multifarious voices of other people.
And in that sense, being an actor is no different from being a therapist, or writer, or friend, or a range of other roles in life that require empathy, and versatility, and openness.
But then there’s that tricky word: career.
Do you need to make your entire living each year from paid, union gigs to call what you do a career? Do you need to qualify for the SAG pension plan or be a household name in order to call what you do a career?
What about my friends who write plays and perform them in parks and warehouses, and sharpen their skills doing readings and web series? Do they not have acting careers because they work 9-to-5 in order to have health insurance? What about my aunt, the psychiatric nurse, who has consistently performed as an actor in NYC and in small towns, on Equity stages and community theaters, in industrials for which she was paid and student films for which she was not—and who uses her performance skills to great empathic effect with her patients? Does she not have an acting career because she makes the bulk of her living as a nurse and doesn’t audition for pilot season?
It’s time to reclaim what it means to be an actor. What we have learned about committing to emotions and expanding empathy, and using our voices to become many great things, is too precious to be taken from us by a reductive industry that capitalizes on trendy stereotypes.
Now, whenever art and industry collide (however rarely), we should certainly applaud. And of course we should celebrate any employment opportunity we are able to earn as artists.
But we must also use words like career to describe the myriad ways we practice the art that we love, live, and breathe. And not only when we are lucky enough to star on a show that everyone’s mother will hear about, but whenever we get to be listeners, healers, lovers, leaders, activists, creators, and storytellers in every facet of our lives.
When I reflect on the disparate voyage of my life—from being an actor, to producing theater, to social activism, to becoming a therapist, writer, and public speaker—it feels like one career, rooted in the art of acting.
After all one of our greatest abilities is to make meaning out of lives that don’t play out exactly as we expect. No matter the circumstances of our scripts, we search deep to make our characters lives make sense. We can do the same for our own.
So, however you practice your craft, please remember that you are an actor.
At the end of the day it’s how you spent your time that will matter, not your popularity rating on IMDb. Your craft will always help you navigate the rocky roads ahead. And you will continue to affect and inspire other people as you go in all those crucial, wonderful, ways that actors do.
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Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R, MFA, is an NYC-based psychotherapist in private practice, author of “Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional, Twenty-First Century Weddings,” a contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and an actor. For more information, visit www.markoconnelltherapist.com.
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