How to Survive + Thrive as an Unemployed Actor

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Acting is a profession where you will always be in a constant state of unemployment. You book a TV series, a film, a play or a tour, and when that project ends, and it will end at some point, you’ll need to find work again. This is the reality of being an actor, but you can not only survive in this constant state of unpredictability—you can thrive. 

When you’re not working as an actor, the key to your success is to have a goal. You need something to aim at. Goals support and protect us. Goals keep you sharp and open doors for you but most importantly, they give you a sense of purpose as an artist. You need a goal that inspires you to improve every single day, even if it's only by a small percentage. Work harder today to be a better actor than you were yesterday, strive to do more today than what you did yesterday, and discipline yourself to save financially for your career. 

Living somewhere like New York is incredibly expensive and no matter where you are, you need to discipline yourself to save so that you can survive your periods of unemployment as an actor and more importantly, you can outlast your competition. It’s a business of attrition and you need financial resources to improve, grow, and be able to produce your own material. Have a goal of saving 5–10 percent from every acting check you earn. If you do this throughout the year, you’ll be shocked how much money you’ll have saved. 

If you’re not making money as an actor but have a survival job, save five percent from every check. Don’t spend all of your income as it comes in on expenses like coffee. Sacrifice certain purchases to save a portion of what you earn either from acting or from your day job so that you can continue to pursue the life you want as an actor. Have a clear goal and focus all of your financial resources to making that goal become a reality. 

How to Make a Living as an Extra

Having a goal puts the responsibility on you, and that is exactly what you want. Sitting around waiting to be booked on an acting job, or hoping that your agent or manager finds you work, is aimless and hopeless. You may feel like you have no control over your artistic life, but you do have control. You have more control than you think. 

Take personal responsibility. Work on a monologue that needs to be sharpened, learn a new monologue, learn 20 monologues, or create a project for yourself. Always be improving and always be creating opportunities for yourself. Improving your craft as an actor gives you a strong sense of purpose and direction. It invigorates you. It keeps you moving forward and opens doors for you that you can’t imagine.

There’s a practical and very good reason why this works. When you improve, people want to move closer to you and they want to present you with more opportunities. It’s why the clichés “success breeds success,work begets work,or, the one that I particularly find inspiring,luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,holds so much truth because we're attracted to improvement. By improving every single day in some way, even if it’s just by some incremental amount, you’ll grow exponentially as an actor and allow yourself to achieve things that are literally off the charts. This frame of mind will change your life. 

Not too long ago, I gave my myself a goal of creating a project for myself. Every day for five years I worked diligently on writing and crafting my own play. I had many days when I didn’t progress as much as I wanted, and was only inching along. But I kept moving forward every single day. I’ve been fortunate to perform my play at notable spaces like the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the opportunities it has presented me and still continues to present me. Opportunities that I made for myself as an actor. 

What Actors Need to Know About Finances to Make a Living

Don’t let the distance from your goal crush your spirits. Just break it down into small parts so you can have something to aim at every day, something that really inspires you. Every day just do a tiny bit toward the goal, but every day move toward it and never beat yourself up if you don’t achieve 100 percent of what you set out to do that day. Fifty percent is better than zero percent and 10 percent is still better than zero percent. This is key. Make a schedule and keep to it, but do write a schedule of some kind. You need a written map to guide you. Every night before you go to bed, write down one step, even if it’s a small step, of what you want to accomplish toward that goal.

Acting is hard work and it takes more than it gives you. There is just no way around that reality. It is hard, hard work. But it’s incredibly rewarding, and we are lucky that we have been called to tell stories for the world. You can find happiness and success if you have goals and a sense of purpose to move forward with as an actor. It’s how you thrive when you're unemployed and it’s how you separate yourself from everyone else you are competing with. When you go to work on your goals, they will go to work on you!

*This post was originally published on Aug. 26, 2019. It has since been updated.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Author Headshot
Douglas Taurel
Onscreen Taurel has appeared in numerous TV shows including “The Affair,” “Mr.Robot,” and “The Americans” to name a few. He’s performed his play “The American Soldier” at the Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, and Off-Broadway twice. He was commissioned by the Library of Congress to write and perform his second solo show, “Journey Home.” He’s recently finished producing his film project “Landing Home.” Follow him on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/douglastaurel/
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