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The Industry

Image credit: Brad Neathery / Unsplash

How to balance the business and art sides of acting, and the importance of treating your career like a small business.

Those of us trying to make a living as performers often find that there’s a tension between the ‘business’ and the ‘art’. These two ideas seem so much at odds – juggling both is like building a snowman on a bonfire. We dislike compromising our work or deviating from our ideal goals, but we also don’t want to live in poverty. 

Now, I’m not an official expert of anything (*disclaimer*), but in my 10-ish years of regular-ish work, I’ve learned a little bit about managing both the business and the art of acting.

‘Work’ vs ‘Employment’

‘Business’ is the commercial exchange of products or services for financial profit. ‘Art’ is the expression of human imagination and skill in creating something, or the thing that is created from that expression.

In an ideal world, art and business would go together like this:

Person A: “Hello, here’s an art I made.”

Person B: “How much?”

Person A: “10 squillion moneys.”

Person B: “Sold!”

Sadly, it’s rarely this simple.

‘Art’ is subjective and fluid, with no ultimate answers on what makes it ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ‘Business’ is objective. It likes sharp edges with definite facts and figures. ‘Good business’ is determined by who has the most squillions of moneys. This leads to an uneven appreciation for ‘employment’ over ‘work’. ‘Work’ is physical or mental activity undertaken to achieve a goal. ‘Employment’ is the state of being compensated (financially) for your work. Actors ‘work’ constantly, learning material, rehearsing, attending workshops, yet we only feel validated if we are in ‘employment’. This is where the conflict between art and business truly lies.

Artists might ‘work’ passionately, creating something unique and exciting that unfortunately might not sell, whereas certain ‘employment’ might pay buckets for us to be breathing props: “Stand here, walk there, say this,” etc. Although, if you’ve done your own work and understand your role, then you’ll know that great actors can, “Stand there, walk here, say this,” and still produce astounding performances.

I can’t advise on whether it’s better to ‘suffer for your art’ or to ‘sellout’ your skills for cash – that’s up to you. However, if anyone ever judges or debases your choices remind, them that Hollywood icon George Clooney advertises coffee, and that Iggy Pop, who gave pre-punk rockers a lust for life, is now selling them car insurance. They’re artists. But between jobs, they must have needed the money. We all do.

Organise Yourself Like a Small Business

Being between acting jobs is a good time to get our business heads in gear. We should consider ourselves CEOs organising a small company. Outsourcing certain ‘business’ aspects of our company is almost essential for artists.

Agents (if you have one) are like your sales department. Even if you oversee your own finances, an accountant might be needed to sort tax returns, etc. PR and Marketing can be handled through social media. Your phone, laptop and printer are your IT department. If you don’t have a computer then you should seriously consider getting one – ideally with video and audio editing software for self-tapes, showreels, etc.

Equity membership gives access to a contracts and legal department, ensuring you get a fair deal. Your Spotlight subscription is like a season ticket to a bustling marketplace where buyers and sellers keep the wheels of our industry turning.

All of the above is a lot to set up and manage, but doing it right will pay off in the long run. There are other decisions we need to make, particularly when sorting out our taxes and declaring as self-employed. I can’t advise on how to arrange this as I’m not an expert, but I suggest you seek advice from your agent, other more experienced actors, Equity UK and check out gov.uk on working for yourself.

Being Both Creative and Productive

Jobbing actors are like creative producers, or productive creators, or people who have ideas and make something of those ideas. ‘Creativity’ is the process of exploring an idea or problem to uncover possibilities and solutions. ‘Productivity’ is when that process creates defined ‘products’.

For performers, our ‘products’ are our performances. We may need to adjust them to suit our audience or audition panel, and also take any notes received from directors, etc, so always maintain a little creative flexibility in all finished ‘products’.

Performers face the unique dilemma of being both producer and product together. Our height, weight, attitude, ethnicity or heritage, and accent play a part in our employability for a project. Often, the marketplace is ruthless and just doesn’t want what we’re selling. We must deal with this like a business would – impersonally. Take the hit, revise strategies. If we get feedback, take it on board. 

If the decision was made for reasons beyond our control, we need to accept it, be disappointed for a while, and then forget about it and move on. While we may feel like square pegs in the round hole business, another project may hire us for the exact reason we were rejected before.

Taking Back Some Control in Your Acting Career

Remember: we decide the kind of performers we aspire to be. We can find a niche and exploit it, selling ourselves as specialists in one specific area, or we can gain experience in different things and sell ourselves as an all-rounder. Making these kinds of decisions can give us a sense of purpose and direction within the industry. If one route seems unsatisfactory, we can change our minds and try something different.

The narrow mindedness of ‘business’, often leads to ludicrous ideas like, ‘Regular actors can’t do musicals’, ‘Musical theatre actors can’t do regular plays’, and ‘Actor-musos should be sunk to the ocean floor in a yellow submarine’. Honestly, these are the kinds of nonsense barriers we face sometimes (except the actor-musos bit, obviously – they should be rocketed straight into the sun).

We can also look to invest our energies towards creating our own work and blaze a trail through the industry on our own terms. This is a difficult road to take, but it can be done.

Owning and Accepting Yourself as an Actor

Finally, we must accept that sometimes life is simply unfair. We may never get the ‘employments’ we want or sing on the stages we imagined. However, we must also combat certain toxic thoughts that fester in actors’ minds – that we’re bad, unworthy, not ‘real’ actors, and that we’ll never be good enough for ‘The Industry’.

The business side of me knows that I have to bow down to the power of the industry sometimes to earn a living, but often the artist in me wants to tell The Industry to, “Shove its square pegs right into its round holes.” I hope The Industry doesn’t read this… but if The Industry is going to be up and down with me, then what’s the harm if I’m up and down with it? I can love it and hate it, and still somehow hope to strike some kind of balance, to continue building my bonfire snowman.

We shouldn’t hand over our self-esteem and spiritual wellbeing to the business, because unless it’s going to make somebody a squillion moneys, business probably doesn’t care. Our creative souls and imaginations are too valuable to be contained in narrow sharp-edged boxes, judged only on the price tags someone else has stuck onto it. 

So focus on working to be the artist you want to be, and make as much money as often as you can. That’s what we’re all trying to do.

PS: Anyone got any jobs going? I will act for food.

John is an Irish actor living in London. He started his career in Clondalkin Youth Theatre and trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. He has worked and toured with productions internationally, and starred in The Commitments, in the Palace theatre and on The UK and Ireland Tour. He has written scripts for radio, stage and also for comic books.