Be a Successful – Not Starving – Artist

“I’m not getting paid, but I’m getting credit and free meals!”

At the beginning of my acting career, I worked countless jobs for credit only and the opportunity to gain experience and build my resume.  It was great the first year or so out of college, but I soon realized that adulting is kind of hard (especially when you’ve graduated right into a recession).  I needed money to pay my bills, buy food and afford headshots.

As actors, we are conditioned to think that working for free is expected and necessary when starting out.  We are all overworked, underpaid and way underappreciated – and society tells us it’s acceptable because we’re “just actors”.  We believe that suffering for our art is the norm, that being a starving artist is admirable because we’re doing what we love.

The reality is that starving for your art is impractical and just plain dumb.  Living paycheck to paycheck prevents you from achieving your goals and realizing your true potential.  It’s hard, but you don’t have to starve in order to achieve success.

Here are some tips to avoid starvation that I wish someone had given me when I was a newbie actor:

  1. Work for money and for credit.

It’s true that when you start out, you will have to work on some non-paying projects to gain experience, such as community theatre gigs and student films.  These are valuable experiences to be sure, but they shouldn’t be the only ones you seek.  There are plenty of paid roles available for new actors, even if the stipends are small starting out.  You just have to know where to look.

Most regions have listservs available to local talent which list upcoming auditions, classes and other opportunities.  For the mid-Atlantic region, most actors find work through DragonukConnects (highly recommended).  Actors in New York and L.A. sign up for or Actors Access.  I would also recommend seeking out your local casting offices. They’ll connect you to paid commercials, prints and voiceover work.

The point is, you don’t always have to work for free.  Find ways to gain experience and get paid for the work you do because you deserve to earn income for your effort.

  1. Get a day job.

On the one hand, if you have a day job, it becomes more difficult to attend auditions, rehearsals and performances.  On the other, without a day job it’s difficult to pay your bills.  Trust me when I say, “Get a day job.”

Even successful actors who have booked roles on hit television series and blockbuster films will tell you that they still spend more time in between acting jobs, auditioning and penny pinching than they do onset or in a play.  Most of us have side hustles.

Yes, you should always seek out paid acting work when possible, but know that this industry is ruthless and unpredictable.  Do yourself a favor and find a day job, even if it’s just part-time, so you can afford to pay your rent.

  1. Develop more skills than just acting.

Growing up I was told, “Learn everything you can when you can.  You never know when that skill will come in handy.”

It wasn’t until I decided to pursue an acting career that I realized how valuable that advice was.  After spending five years studying music and theatre, I had to learn fast after college which of my skills as an artist could be translated into assets in the workforce.  I spent most of my twenties working odd admin and sales jobs until I earned a certification as an arts integration specialist.  I now spend most of my time teaching theatre to students in between acting gigs and it’s been a pretty lucrative side hustle thus far.

It will always be a struggle to find work.  Be patient and develop whatever skills and interests you have.  If you’ve worked with kids in the past, consider becoming a teaching artist.  If you’re a health and fitness junkie, find a way to consult as a nutritionist or become a personal trainer.  If you love make-up, become a make-up artist onset or for photoshoots.  If you’re a good photographer, start offering services to actors in need of headshots.

There is no such thing as a worthless skill so long as you find a way to use it productively and to your advantage.

  1. Learn how to budget!

I cannot stress this enough!  Budgeting has become the single most important skill I have ever learned.  In my twenties, I consistently overdrew my checking account and spent hundreds of dollars on overdraft fees.  I finally admitted that, not only did I have a spending problem, I lacked the necessary budgeting skills needed to get me through everyday life.  I decided to take a budgeting course and it changed my outlook on money and spending.

I’ll confess that I still struggle with budgeting.  I’ve realized that I’m not the only freelance artist who does.  Our work as independent contractors with changing schedules and inconsistent income can make it difficult for us to find one budgeting technique that works for all situations, even with a steady side job.  But you need to take the time to learn because in the end, no matter how much or little a production is paying you, you are the one responsible for the amount of money you have (or don’t have) in your bank account.

  1. Make sure you’re paid what you were promised.

When I first became an independent contractor, I was incredibly apprehensive negotiating contracts and chasing down money that was owed to me.  I got over it.  I realized that my effort and time are invaluable and the least an employer can do is pay me for my work.

Don’t be afraid to go after your paycheck.  Also, learn how to talk about money.  We live in a society that has taught us that talking about money is taboo, but as independent contractors, it is incredibly important for us to be willing to talk about finances.  Do your research.  It becomes easier to negotiate your contract if you know how much your colleague, who has the same amount of experience and training, is getting paid to do the exact same job.  Know your worth, not just as an artist, but as a person.  And make sure you get it in writing!

All of this being said, you will fall on hard times.  No matter how much you’ve prepared, how much you’ve saved or what kind of side hustle you have, it is inevitable that you will struggle.  That’s not just the nature of this business – that’s life.  My one consolation to you is that everyone is going through it, not just you.

There is never one way to fully prepare yourself for all the things that can and will go wrong in this line of work.  But when I experience difficult times, I remember what my dear friend once said to me: Control what you can.  Let go of everything else.

Cori Dioquino is a Filipino American actor, teaching artist, writer, and producer based in Baltimore and NYC. In 2018, she co-founded and is currently a co-executive director of the Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective (BAPAC) – an arts organization that aims to provide opportunities for Asian American and Pacific Indigenous (AAPI) artists to create and tell their stories without barriers. Cori continues to teach as an arts integration educator throughout the DMV.

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