• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Wages of Art

Finding your passion, and paying bills.

April 5, 2015

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend at my health club about a play I'm in rehearsal for. One of my neighbors, a professional actor (Brooklyn Heights is full of them) overhead and interrupted us, saying, "I didn't know you were an aspiring actress!"

He had That Look, which I've learned means he was about to launch into a lecture about how to up my game, so I tried to head him off. "I wouldn't say 'aspiring,'" I told him. "I'm right where I want to be."

He took this as a challenge to fire off questions that I imagine he thought I hadn't heard before: am I in a union? (No.) Do I have an agent? (Not for acting, no.) Do I always get paid scale? (Hahahaha.)

"Well, you see, if you had an agent..."

I don't want an agent, I explained. I work several days a week, and while I have some flexibility, I can't drop my patients or supervisees to go on an audition. I am also picky about the projects I commit to, and I prefer fun, interesting parts in low budget indies to  the sorts of parts that would pay an agent to represent me.

"Oh, well, you can afford to play," he said, but he felt I was making it harder for "real" actors by accepting lower paid work just for the experience.

I can understand this attitude, but it is not how I see it. I tried it the other way when I was in my twenties and thirties, and realized that if I kept going I risked losing my love of the art. There was so much pressure to "make it," to go out for parts I disliked because they would offer me exposure, to pursue commercials, to cultivate people I wasn't interested in and neglect my real friends, all for the sake of some elusive "big break." It wasn't for me.

When I considered reentering the field when Ben was applying to colleges, I asked an older friend who is a wonderful actor if she thought this was a realistic goal. "It depends," she said. If I wanted to headline on Broadway, or quit my day job, then yes, it probably was unrealistic. "But if what you want is to do good work with good people—you have what it takes." Doing good work with good people has been my standard since then, and by that criterion I consider myself a huge success.

I explained to my neighbor that I have three rules regarding pay: If a producer is going to make a lot of money on a film or play, they have to pay me scale. If it is work I don't enjoy (extra work, playing a corpse, etc) they have to pay me scale. If it is a broke artist with an exciting project and an engaging part for me—I will work with them. It is the same principle that guides the sliding scale I employ in my therapy practice. I don't think this is hurting "real" actors — I am a real actor. I am helping exciting projects get off the ground. It is my contribution to the arts. If you want to define your own success in purely commercial terms, go ahead, but don't apply that standard to me. (I didn't actually say the last part, but it is how I feel.)

I'm writing about this in detail because I get similar responses when I tell people that Ben is majoring in music in college. Some offer their condolences, others try to cheer me up by telling me about their cousin's friend's kid who makes big money writing jingles. Maybe Ben will discover a passion for jingle writing, who knows. Right now it looks as though he has a steady future in sound engineering (his other major) and will be able to pursue music purely for love. As long as he can eat and sleep safely, I don't care — I only hope he has as much fun as I'm having.


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