Side Hustle Spotlight: The Nun Who Became a Nurse + Now Does Stand-up Comedy

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Photo Source: Kelli Dunham

Welcome to another weekly edition of Side Hustle Spotlight where I interview actors and filmmakers at different levels of their career who have used their other passions to capitalize on a fulfilling side hustle. These folks no longer or have never had to do serving work that drained their energy and made them miserable. Be sure to check out the original article for inspiration on discovering your side hustle.

This week’s actor has had a very interesting journey: she went from being a nun to a nurse, and found creative freedom in stand-up comedy.

Name: Kelli Dunham

Side hustle: Nursing

Years acting: 18

Favorite acting credits/opportunities: Self-producing five comedy CDs, including “I Am NOT a 12-Year-Old Boy” and “Gender Envy”; being featured on Showtime’s “Penn & Teller Bullshit”; touring one-person shows such as “Bad Habit,” “Pudding Day,” and “Jesus Was No Sissy.”

What do you do when an audition or shoot comes up?
Right now, I’m focused on stand-up, writing, and working on my own projects, so I have a full-time job in the public school system. My biggest booking focus is for shows during weekends and school holidays and, if other opportunities come up, I can take vacation days. When I was touring more actively, I had more flexible nursing jobs (doing home visiting, per diem work, writing content for health-related websites, etc.) and that worked well.

Have you ever felt like your side hustle was in jeopardy because of acting? How long did it take you to feel like you had security at this side hustle, even if you took time off for an acting project?
The beauty of being a nurse is once you have a year or two of clinical experience, many opportunities open up for you. If you’ve had a protracted absence but kept your license and continuing education up to date, you might not be able to jump into a job at a prestigious Manhattan hospital, but you could definitely find someplace that would work for you, especially if you’ve kept up networking with other nurses.

What skills or talents did you need for this side hustle? How long did it take you to qualify or complete training for your side hustle?
Nursing definitely requires science and math aptitude and a healthy dose of compassion. I started working as an RN with my associate’s degree and continued in school to get my BSN. But I was earning a nurse’s salary after 24 months.

How does this side hustle fulfill you? Do you feel like you’re helping people/society/humanity in a tangible way?
There’s no question that nurses have the opportunity to make the world a better place or at least a better place for your patient and their family. Our healthcare system is a total mess and that can be discouraging for everyone involved, but if you can be not only clinically competent but also kind and compassionate, sometimes you can provide a kind word to someone who is literally having the worst day of their life.

Has your side hustle made you better at acting or achieving your acting goals?
Probably not directly, except for when I am asked to perform at nurses’ conferences, which has definitely become a big part of my niche.

Indirectly, in my current job in the school system, I love that every day I interact with so many awesome people who have no connection to the entertainment industry. They will love me or hate me based on whether I remember to follow up about the vision screening (which I do have control over), and not whether I ever have my sitcom (which largely I do not have control over). I have a solid work family and that gives me a healthy base from which to do all my work, including my creative work.

Why did you choose to do this side hustle instead of more stereotypical acting side hustles like serving?
Aging is real! I spent my 20s as a religious fanatic (not hyperbole, I was a nun) and so I found my creative voice pretty late. I knew if I wanted to be in this for the long haul, I had to find a profession that could flex and support me—if needed—[throughout my life].

Also, as a performer it’s so easy to become self absorbed, it feels like that’s an inevitable result of dealing with the constant rejection of the business. But if I come in on a Monday whining about how no one laughed at my show on Saturday, my co-workers are going to remind me (sometimes gently, sometimes not) that this is the epitome of a first world problem. It doesn’t make rejection less difficult, but it does put in perspective.

If you produce your own work, do you feel like this current side hustle allows you the freedom/resources to do that?
Yes! Having a stream of income that isn’t related to performing means pay can be a factor in my decisions about which jobs to take. Last year, I produced something called Organ Recital, which is a storytelling festival about bodies health and healthcare; we took over the Jack performance space in Brooklyn for a week and I offered performers I trust a night to put together themed shows. So much work came out of that event, performers addressing topics they’d never before thought of bringing to the stage. It was awe-inspiring to watch and to be a part of. And I could do it because of resources from my day job.

Do you have any advice for actors that aren’t sure what path to take while they are waiting for acting to pay all the bills?
Go to nursing school! Yes, it’s true there will be body fluids on your shoe at some point but if you live in New York, that happens anyway. Check out financially reasonable options like community college programs or, if you already have a bachelor’s degree, many schools have one-year bridge programs that lead to an RN. You can email me if you have questions or need cheerleading—I’m glad to help!

Check out Backstage’s comedy audition listings!

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.

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Linnea Sage
Linnea Sage is an actor, voice-over artist, writer, and producer in NYC. She currently stars in the comedy series “WILDCATS” on the Fullscreen Network, as well as voicing superheroes in the Marvel video game, Avengers Academy. Follow her @LinneaSage on Twitter and @Linnayeahhh on Instagram.
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