by Bryce Pinkham
If you’re anything like me, you probably found yourself down at the theatre in college in large part because you wanted nothing to do with the business school. You felt drawn to expressing yourself creatively in an environment that allowed for, even praised, your uniqueness, your eccentricities and your lack of desire to do high-level math. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t fully comprehend business terms like “overhead” and “distribution outlet.”
If you’re anything like me, you went to graduate school because you wanted to be able to do anything onstage, you wanted to stretch and challenge yourself not only as a performer but as an artist. If you’re anything like me, you probably left graduate school feeling like you could do anything and that “the business” didn’t know what was about to hit it.
If you’re a professional actor and you’re anything like me, you’re probably figuring out how to pay your rent, your loans and remain connected to the joy you once felt offstage left.
I take a stab at self-revelation: “I view my acting career as my own start-up business. It’s something I ‘go to work’ to do. Every day, I attempt to promote, expand and grow Bryce Pinkham, Inc.”
In theory, and aside from the terribly uninventive name, it sounds smart: I am building my own business and that business is “me.” I know I’m not the first actor to attempt to use this model; in fact, I’m sure I stole it from somebody else. And yet, as I’m describing this approach out loud, it seems somewhat absurd: How can I claim to run a business when I don’t know the first thing about business? I’ve never even taken a business class. While college roommates were throwing around words like “capitalization” and “accrued interest,” I was geeking out about iambic pentameter and Uta Hagen.
One of the handicaps actors who train in the theatre face is that we enter “the market” believing we can do anything. It’s not our fault; it’s part of our training. But from a business standpoint, “I do everything” might not be the wisest approach. Imagine an entrepreneur who goes to school to be a computer programmer and then shows up at his first tech fair selling iPhone apps (software), a new smartphone (hardware) and cases (accessories). Not only is this entrepreneur going to lose valuable time and energy running back and forth among three different booths at the fair, he is going to confuse potential costumers as to what his brand actually sells.
Imagine a different programmer showing up with just his best product: an iPhone app to compete with Apple Maps. He happens to program apps particularly well and he’s found a demand in the market (I mean, have you tried using the new Apple Maps?). His app sells like hotcakes. After selling apps for five years, he goes on to sell things no one would necessarily expect from him: phones, accessories, games, a whole search engine—he’s the Marlon Brando of the geek elite, but only because he started small.
I know comparing actors to computer programmers is more than a stretch, but the point that Marcia DeBonis has helped me realize is that an entrepreneur does not try to conquer the market all at once by saying he can do everything. Initially, he seeks to enter the market in any way possible. Marcia believes it’s the same for young actors: It may be true that we do many things really well, but at first, maybe we should just focus on what we have that will sell, and conversely, what we have that won’t.
“Don’t give them any more reasons to say no to you,” Marcia beseeches. “If you have bad legs, don’t come into an audition wearing a miniskirt just because miniskirts are in style.” She explains that many actors, in their desire to say “yes” to everything, end up misrepresenting themselves: “If you’re a character actress, don’t describe yourself as a young Meg Ryan. Don’t say, ‘Yes, I’m funny,’ unless you mean it; it’s really easy to find out that you’re not.” These warnings may be tough to swallow after three or more years of teachers encouraging a young actor to stretch himself, to say “yes” to every opportunity and challenge, but they are business lessons that may be crucial for survival. By the end of my interview with Marcia, one thing is abundantly clear: Too many young actors are entering our field without sufficient focus.
But there’s the rub: Maybe one reason business is so hard for actors is because we do take everything personally. We’re supposed to: We train our brains to take imaginary circumstances personally. So how can we be expected not to take the same approach to every interaction in our real lives? In fact, our “business” is so closely tied to who we are and what we look like, it’s almost impossible not to have our feelings hurt when someone doesn’t want to buy our product. We’re artists because we didn’t want to be salesmen.
It’s hard to improvise with strangers at commercial auditions when we trained in ensembles to perform the words of Shakespeare and Chekhov for hundreds of live audience members. It’s hard to pick up the phone and complain to an agent we worked so hard to get, or to turn down an acting job because it doesn’t pay more than unemployment. It’s hard to shamelessly promote ourselves on Twitter and Facebook when our acting idols are monuments to humility. It’s easier for us to dream about the future than it is for us to get down to the nitty-gritty of the present.
But at the end of the day, we are the only ones responsible for the success of our business. It’s not up to a casting director or an agent or a director. It’s not all luck—it’s business, and whether it feels good or not, it’s how entrepreneurs survive.
Remember, if you’ve made it far enough that you consider acting your profession, you probably have a natural sense of purpose and the backbone to shoulder more than the average José. If your skin crawls at the idea of trying to sell anything, let alone yourself, try approaching the challenge as you would approach a role. As former talent agent Phil Carlson suggested to me, think about it as “the acting you have to do in order to get to do any acting.”
It may seem unnatural at first, but after some practice, you’ll make people believe it’s real. After all, though you probably weren’t calling it “entrepreneurship” back then, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been hustling your product ever since you stumbled onto that first homemade stage—you know, the one with the raggedy old sheets you pinned up for curtains and the priority seating for stuffed animals—and bellowed with the confidence of a seasoned veteran, “Hey, guys! Look at me!”
Bryce Pinkham is an actor and contributing editor to The Actors Center Journal.