Making a Success of It

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Judy Chen, New York City

Frustration and persistence are often two sides of the same coin. The year is halfway over, and though I have added more experience to my acting résumé, I think the number of rejections we all face is a constant reminder of how stiff competition is in this industry. Auditioning is like going on numerous blind dates: You ponder your choice of attire (I know men do this too, even if at a fraction of the time women spend), you feel a little nervous, you aren't sure what to expect when you arrive, and you hope there's good chemistry so that you eventually get the callback.

Now that I am no longer at a desk every day, I have been able to devote more time to pursuing acting as a career, which is a full-time job. Like anyone starting out, my website is currently under construction; I'm working on putting together a great reel; and I am starting new classes and workshops in the coming weeks.

I have begun developing interesting ideas I have always thought would make for great short films, and so I spend a lot of my free time writing. The creative process comes in many forms; this is but one additional outlet to help me with my craft and possibly allow me to become involved with the varied film festivals around the country. Lastly, I'm researching the different agencies that may be a good fit for me and am looking for ways to get my foot in the door. Every parent thinks their child is the most special, so how can I get an agent to feel the same way about me?

Even with the grocery list of tasks I am trying to accomplish above, I still feel as if I'm spinning my wheels. I hope I am not the only person who feels this way. I frequently come across actors in magazine interviews who say that they had all but given up and had decided to pursue that one last audition that finally helped them make it big. Honestly, I'd much rather hear from people who threw in the towel. At what point does frustration finally outweigh the persistence?

To keep from feeling flustered, I find it helpful to remind myself of my recent achievements. Milestones thus far include getting my first big paycheck from a shoot and having a director rewrite a character around me because I did not fit the initial description of what he had envisioned. Any progress, even in baby steps, pushes us forward and shouldn't be underestimated.

Since I've started performing, I've learned that having the support of your friends and peers is incredibly motivating. For the moment, all I can do in the wake of their encouragement is continue to grow as an actor. Prince Charming may not call me back after the blind dates, but if Ari Gold would like to be my fairy godfather, I'd gladly welcome that too.

Jenna Lamia, Los Angeles

A friend of mine writes a dating-advice column. A recent theme was: what she would say to her younger self if she could go back in time and impart the wisdom gained in her 20s. For example, "Don't blame yourself for every failed relationship. Sometimes the other person really is crazy." Her approach got me thinking. I'd love to go back in time and tell my younger self a few things about being an actor. Principal among them: Do not assume that you did not get a part because you gave a bad audition. Obviously, you may just not be what the writer or the director had in mind, but there are all sorts of other extenuating circumstances that influence casting, 99 percent of which have nothing to do with you or your skill level.

A writer I work with recently told me that while casting her pilot, she had her heart set on a "name" actor for the lead. But before she was allowed to make an offer to this actor, the studio required that she hold a minimum number of auditions for other actors, so it would appear she had cast a wide net and not found anyone, thereby justifying the exorbitant amount of money they would have to spend hiring a name. My friend was forced to hold a callback session on a rainy Friday afternoon at rush hour before a major holiday. Fifteen experienced, hard-working actors were asked to come in and strut their stuff in front of a roomful of people who had no intention of hiring any of them. Of course, none of the actors knew this. I am sure each one of them worked hard preparing the material, and each probably spent an hour or two picking their outfits and doing their makeup. They hired babysitters and rescheduled other appointments, maybe even moved flights, in order to be at their callback and do their best work. And then none of them were cast.

As actors, we take on more than the average ego could sustain. Because we are the most visible component of plays, films, and TV shows, we are blamed (often unfairly) for their failure (and, yes, sometimes praised for their success), when in reality we have very little control over the finished product. It's a vulnerable position indeed. So let's not also take on the burden of not getting "the job." More often than not, the reason we do not get a part has nothing whatsoever to do with us. Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare and give every audition your all. If you're going to show up, show up guns blazing. You may get the part. Just don't blame yourself if it doesn't happen. Sometimes, the other person really is crazy.

Ed Stelz, New York City

It's all about connections. So clichéd, right? But, let's go a little deeper into this cliché to see why it's true. A majority of the work I've booked, or even auditioned for, came from some type of connection. Recently I was given a lead role in a Web series, called "Programmed," because an actor had to drop out. So the producer, a friend, called me up and asked if I would like the role. There are already three seasons of 10 episodes each written—guaranteed work with a character for the next year. There are thousands of situations like this that I'm sure many of you have read about, from the top of the industry all the way to the bottom. But why does this happen? The answer goes beyond our acting careers.

I have to admit that this month has been slow for me for one reason only: the feature film I'm writing. I spend seven days a week writing for hours and hours on end. It is the main focus that I'm devoting my life to. (So the month is not really slow, in a sense, but slow in the realm of booking work). There are many reasons why I'm writing this film, but one is so that I can cast my actor friends in it. With the industry as tough as it is right now, I want to do everything in my power to help these friends out. And they all share some characteristics that make me want to do this for them.

One of their most appealing qualities is the voracity in their approach to get what they desire—no matter what it is. They don't just sit around waiting for things to happen. Then there's the generosity they exude. Selfishness isn't in their vocabulary. And on top of that, not once have they ever broken a promise to me. They're humble, compassionate, have a good sense of humor, and are fun. Despite all of us failing many times over, these friends show nothing but respect and support. And above all, their true honesty makes me crave their presence.

What it comes down to is not who we are as actors but who we are as individuals striving to become working actors. And along the way, we can use all the help we can get. So the better we are as individuals, the greater chance we'll have to make the highest number of connections possible that may, someday, help take us to the next level in our careers.

Deborah Strang, Los Angeles

Inspiration can be an elusive mistress, onstage and off. I find myself struggling with what to talk about for this Take 5 and have started it several times this month, only to cut and paste it into my "outtakes" folder instead. This is a month of wearing many hats, and I feel scattered and sleepless in Los Angeles, not sure how to accomplish all that is on my plate. Did I just repeat myself? Have I said this to you before? Who are you anyway? Why are you reading this? Have you even noticed that each of us is writing something every month? Has any of this been of any service to you? Do you read past the first paragraph?

Yesterday my neighbor called out to me across the fence that he had been at his job waiting for something and had picked up some magazine and seen some article by me. I asked him what I was writing about and he couldn't remember. Once in a blue moon, a fellow actor mentions that they saw my picture in Back Stage. A deadline becomes an inspiration of sorts.

I am not in a show right now, so my mind has time to ponder such things. Which is not to say I have time off. I had actually thought I might take the summer off from teaching. My Shakespeare class tends to stray during the summer, and with my company's theater coming down around us in preparation for our move to our new home in Pasadena, I thought I might just need the time for packing. But somehow several former students, coupled with a few new ones, have converged to form one of the most rewarding classes I've had in years. They want to continue, and that inspires me to want to be there.

We're setting the new season at A Noise Within, working on the new brochure, negotiating with the printer and the mailing house, learning a new database program for the box office, hiring and training new box office assistants. We'll soon start subscription renewals—one of my favorite times of year, when I get to speak to each of our patrons, hear their stories, get to be reminded that I do not act in a vacuum.

In the midst of all, I am leaving town this week for an uncle's memorial service. I'll see my three sisters, many cousins, my two remaining uncles, and one of my nephews and his four children. Tommy was a wonderful uncle, the one who left his eight siblings in the mountains of Virginia and became a Yankee. While I was growing up, his whole family felt exotic to me. He and my aunt smoked cigarettes and drank cocktails with names. Even their three daughters spoke with Yankee accents and laughed at our hillbilly twang. They lived in New York City. I guess he became my yellow brick road. With my family, I become the audience. I soak up their stories. I take inspiration from many sources.

KC Wright, Los Angeles

Sometimes I have to step back to step forward. When I signed on to write this column, I still considered myself an L.A. newbie. I was represented by a fantastic agency, auditioning for network television and high-profile features, and waiting patiently for my big break. A lot has changed in just a few months, starting with an eerily calm pilot season; still, I kept busy with theater performances and classes, and took my agent at his word when he promised business would pick up. Little did I know that business would never pick up, as my agency let me go right as the season came to a close.

Disappointed as I was at the time, I had no idea how dramatically my experience as a Los Angeles actor would change. Without the access granted by my agent, major auditions slowed to a halt. When I had the representation, I was a unique and exciting new actor with world-class training, ripe for comedic stardom. Without them, I am a young actor with no major credits and little film experience. I am not a dime a dozen, I'm a dime a million! This experience is so startling, frustrating, and incomprehensibly common; just when I think I'm getting somewhere, it all comes crumbling down. How many of you have felt the same way?

Of course rejection is part of the job. I've known that since I was cruelly cut from "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" at age 10. And setbacks? Sometimes you win (Natalie Portman in "Black Swan") and sometimes you lose (Portman in "Thor"). But the past few months have been about more than setbacks or rejection; they've dissolved my naive belief that the right school, the right agent, or the right haircut will bring me a career. I have nothing to work toward but my own satisfaction; at the end of the day, that's all that I can hope for and all I can control.

When I was with my agency, I stayed back from the process and allowed them to dictate the course of everything. I thought I was doing right by trusting them, but it resulted in a definite complacency. The auditions were keeping me busy enough, so why bother joining a sketch group? Self-submitting? Producing my own work? I didn't have the time or the motivation, so I sat back and waited for other people to get me opportunities. I think part of it was arrogance; I was represented! I didn't need to sort through casting notices with the unwashed masses! But I mostly blame inexperience. I thought working hard meant learning my lines, staying in shape, and going to classes. I had no idea how much more I could do.

Now that I am hunting for myself, I've discovered a whole new skill set. I'm auditioning almost every day for self-submitted projects and recently booked a SAG Web series that shoots this summer. I'm also in the early stages of forming a sketch comedy group with friends, and I'm no longer procrastinating on writing my own material. So as painful and humbling as this change has been, I can finally see it as progress.