Acting Reflections: The Next Right Thing
It's fascinating to see the seasons change every year, and March is no exception. Although it's a funny month, it's also a nice one because of the arrival of a new season, and like the other seasons, there's transformation throughout our lives. Spring is FINALLY here after a long winter - the weather's warmer, the days get longer, flowers start to blossom, and it seems like much of the world is more colorful. One of my favorite things I look forward to is seeing the flowers sprout from the ground and open up in the sunshine. So many beautiful colors, the scent is heavenly, and the pictures I or professional photographers take are worth a million words. Seeing God's handiwork during this year is a testament to how much I enjoy springtime. I had the opportunities to see the cherry blossoms in the DMV, and both times I went to DC and Bethesda I was in awe of the beauty and simplicity of these wonderful trees. It's practically heaven if you go on a sunny day, with a slight breeze, and the petals gracefully fall off the trees like snow. You can't make this stuff up. Every time I look at pictures from both trips, I'm in awe of how truly magnificent they are. It's an incredible time of year to be in the presence of spring's many pleasures. (Of course if you have allergies, that can be quite problematic. You have my sympathies!) The thing about the seasons is how much of a transformation is going on before, during, and after the initial stages. Even when the new season is plowing through, we can still feel its changes each day. And like the seasons, people change and transform, too. If you recall my last blog, a lot can happen in a year, even without a pandemic. No one truly stays the same in the course of a year, and it's okay. People change, plans change, ideas change, relationships change (hopefully for the better, not for worse), and seasons change. We can't stay rooted to one spot because we'll end up being left behind and in bad shape without any knowledge or desire to learn and grow. It's scary to undergo a transformation, but believe me when I say this, it's worth it. As Glennon Doyle said in her memoir, Untamed, if you're feeling uncomfortable emotions, whether that's pain, angry, yearning, confused, or anything that society considers not okay to feel, you're living your life. Being a human being isn't hard because you're doing the wrong things, but it's hard because you're doing it right. Being human isn't easy, transformations included, and the sooner we realize and accept that it's hard, we can change the perception that life is supposed to be easy. Being human isn't easy at all. Not by a long shot. An actor's life isn't easy. Not by a long shot. This past year has had its fill of transformations, progress, and decisions about where to go from here. One of the places I didn't expect such drastic change was in my acting career. For four years, all I've done was primarily community theatre and nonunion productions, with an occasional appearance in a film, web series, or television show in either a supporting or a background role. And the opportunities would come sporadically, not one after the other. I knew I would reach a point eventually when I would begin to branch away from community theatre shows to more professional opportunities. Even my acting teacher has repeatedly told me it was time to move away from community theatre to more professional productions and organizations. Every year, I would say that something special would happen to me in terms of my acting career, and many times, I would be right. It could either be a first time in a supporting role, or my first musical theatre show since high school, or a fringe show, or even auditioning for an Equity theatre company in an open call. The point was that I always learned or experienced something in my career that I consider a significant part of my life. But nothing like this. After what happened earlier in 2020, I wasn't sure where my career would be heading after not getting a single callback at the URTAs. I just knew that I had to keep going. This is what I wanted to do, and I already learned so much in my then four years in the business. The simplest thing to do in cases like this is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and the rest would fall into place. That in itself is the next right thing to do.
There's something important to remember in your lifetime: each of us has to make an important choice to do what is best for us, and most of the time, it doesn't always please everyone. Big decisions to make are not meant to please everyone. Some people would rather have you stay in their comfort zone and not acknowledge the transformation you are going through to be a better person. Sad but true. The person most impacted by these decisions you have to make? You guessed it. YOU. Yes, it may impact others from a distance, but you have to be the one to do what is best for you. Even if it means you have to do it alone. What sorts of decisions are made where you have to take it one step at a time, and that may be the best thing to do along with listening to that inner voice? Well, it could be plenty of things related to your career - applying to a new job after years of working at one that either served you well or made you miserable, going back to school to learn a new skill or receive your Bachelor's or Master's degree in order to get more job offers and opportunities, whether or not to accept a promotion, moving to a new city for job reasons, expanding or cutting colleagues, adding a new service to the company, or just accepting a job that bests suits your needs. Or it could be decisions that are related to your personal life - whether to switch doctors for the sake of bettering your health or getting a new perspective, moving to a new neighborhood to be closer to your children's schools, starting or ending a relationship, buying a house for the very first time, starting or expanding your family, having elderly relatives live with you, getting married, or making a lifestyle change. These are just some of the tough choices to make, but it's essential that you do what's best for you. You may not always make or keep friends doing the next right thing, but this is one of those times where you have to listen to your gut (aka the inner voice) and trust it. And also believe that everything will be okay. I'm pretty sure that there are actors out there who are making tough choices these days, not just for their career, but for themselves. The biggest choices to be made right now in terms of their career? "Do I return to NYC when the pandemic is over, or stay in a different state? Even permanently?" "Do I accept nonunion projects just to keep my creative juices flowing?" "Do I form a new business to help pay the bills and support my family?" "Do I remain in the union when there's not enough Equity work available right now?" "Do I have enough money to pay the rent? Food? Medication? Health services?" "Do I want to start a family? Or add to our family?" And here's the big one. "Should I continue being an actor?" These are tough questions to ask, and it doesn't just happen during a pandemic. It happens every single day. This business is not for the faint of heart. We constantly get rejected, or at least get more "no's" than "yes's," we have long stretches of unemployment, we need a side hustle in order to pay the bills that doesn't involve waiting tables or working in retail, we audition alongside dozens, even hundreds of other actors wanting a part in the show, we struggle to articulate to our families why we stay in this unpredictable career, and so much more. And yet, we still keep putting one foot in front of the other, and know that that's enough for the day. We keep on listening to that inner voice for guidance, and we keep going. We can't imagine doing anything else with our lives, no matter how hard it is. Lord knows how many times I wanted to give up after every single rejection, and there were plenty of those. But I kept going. I knew this was what I wanted to do, and I had to go through tons of growth spurts in order to be strengthened, enlightened, and patient with myself and the universe. And slowly, more opportunities came my way. You're not alone in having to decide what the next right thing is, even if it's as small as getting out of bed each day. And there will be days when that next right thing will be to let it all out - cry, scream, punch your pillow, listen to sad music, etc. - because it's all you can do right now to navigate through your feelings. It's okay to have feelings for every decision you make, especially if you're in the arts. You shouldn't have to have a heart of stone for every choice you make. Yours truly has been doing a lot of thinking about what the next right thing will be, especially in regards to her career. I already made some big choices this past year that have been beneficial to me, and it affected many of those I knew in my circle, in both good and bad ways. One of them was deciding to end therapy after over six years and being in a better place mentally, emotionally, and physically. One was deciding to lose weight after reaching my heaviest size and not wanting to feel tired after doing a choreographed number or be at risk for heart disease and diabetes. One was to take courses about the business, self-taping, and internal work in order to be educated and aware about this career and myself. One was deciding to speak out about experiencing racism in the theatre community. One was deciding to let people go who no longer shared my beliefs or accepted my transformations. And many more before and after that. There were also ones that impacted my career. I had to decide on which roles I wanted to go for if I got multiple offers (which were very rare previously, but now it's happening more than ever!). I had to decide on which shows I want to audition for based on character descriptions or the stories. I had to decide if I was up for doing an open call, which consisted getting up in the wee hours of the morning to make sure I got a spot on the unofficial list. I had to decide on how far I would be willing to go for auditions, and if it's metro accessible. I had to decide where to get my headshots updated and what to wear for the session. I had to decide on how I would treat myself after an audition, self-tape, or even a rejection. I had to decide if going to graduate school was meant to be. I even had to decide if I wanted to continue in this business. So many decisions. So many choices. So many risks. So many opportunities. So much to consider. But what's the biggest one I have to consider thus far? Well, it's one that I'm striving towards right now, but also weighing the pros and cons every day. And that's whether now is the right time to start the process to join Equity. Seriously? That's your biggest decision you're considering thus far? As a matter of fact, yes it is. Don't get me wrong, it may seem trivial to you, but to me and countless others who are reaching this point, it's a big step to take. But before I go too far, let me answer the most asked question from those of you who aren't in the performing arts. What the heck is Equity? It's basically the many unions in the performing arts - Actors Equity Association (AEA), Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Stage Directors & Choreographers Society (SDC), and more across the country and the world - that represents the actors, stage managers, directors, dancers, choreographers, and more. These unions offer consistent paid opportunities for everyone working under their respective membership. But more importantly, they negotiate wages and contracts for the talent in their profession, make sure that the working conditions are safe, provide health benefits and pension plans, and offer resources for employment, housing, financial well-being, and much more. These sound like great reasons to join Equity, right? Well, I hate to disappoint you, but it's not easy to join, and even the most seasoned professionals have a hard time joining this exclusive union. Not only is there tons of competition to work in Equity theaters and organizations, but it's also very expensive to join. If I'm not mistaken, the initiation fee is currently $1,700 that is paid within a two-year period, but it's due to go up to $1,800 in January 2022. And then there's also joining the union from the ground up. One way to join Equity is through the Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) Program, and that's where you accumulate points towards joining Equity by working with certain Equity theaters. You have to get complete at least 25 creditable weeks (they don't have to be consecutive) over a period of time. After reaching the 25 week mark, you have the option of either joining Equity or going into Phase II, which is earning more points through 25 weeks. To join this program, you have to secure a qualifying position an Equity theatre that offers this program, and you have to complete an EMC registration form each time you accrue weeks with that participating theatre. You will be notified by Equity when you've completed the 25 weeks. Once you complete the program, your eligibility to join Equity lasts for five years. During this time, if you are working with an Equity theatre, you must be signed to an Equity contract. If you decide not to join within the five year period, your accumulated weeks will expire, your registration fee will be forfeited, and you won't receive credit towards a future initiation fee. Phew, what a mouthful! Did I mention that there are a number of ways to join Equity with or without doing the EMC program? Let me enlighten you with some examples from several members of Equity. (I've left out their names in order to protect their privacy.) One actor secured his EMC card through working with a production of Theatre District at Boston's SpeakEasy Stage, but was in for a rude awakening when he auditioned in NYC at Equity-only auditions. He still had to wait until all of the Equity members went before he could be seen. One audition came through in the form of a production of Hair at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. After that, he was cast in a production of A Little Night Music in New Hampshire. Points were starting to add up, but he still had a long way to go. During the tech performance of A Little Night Music, this actor noticed the breakdown for a musical called The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin at the same theatre he got his EMC card, and he knew he had to audition for the show. The problem? He was in tech every day, and this distance to and from the audition was practically impossible. After wracking his brain for days, he finally talked to the director and explained his situation, and to his surprise, the director allowed him to come in late! The day of the audition, he sped like a madman to Boston from New Hampshire (and I don't think that's an easy feat!). He auditioned, was asked to stay for the dance call, and was offered the principal role of Gregory. Since he was an EMC member, the artistic director asked the actor if we would be open to accepting his Equity card for the production. As an Equity theatre, they needed six Equity members and they only had five. Of course he said yes and signed the contract during the read through! One actress had been auditioning for months but was still getting no bites. She came home after an emotionally exhausting day and went straight for the bathroom. She was worried about paying her bills, mortgage, and caring for her then three-year-old daughter who was in daycare at the time. She went even as far as applying to take the Chicago Police Officer exam, since her father was a police officer. What happened next may be a little bit TMI, but it's an important part. This actress was in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, and was sharing what was going on in her life with her friend. Suddenly, her phone started ringing and there was "212" area code. (For anyone who knows this area code, this is one number you DON'T ignore!) So, she answered the phone, and received a phone call that would change her life forever. This actress was informed that after standing in line as number 407, three callbacks, and months of no bookings, she was asked to join the Las Vegas company of The Lion King. What happened next is what's to be expected when you receive a phone call that changes your life for the better. She screamed at the top of her lungs, jumped up and down, and hopped off the toilet to find anything to write with in order to get all of the details. And here's something else: she was told that she would get an automatic Equity membership. She screamed again. The rest, as they say, is history. The moral of these two particular stories, and the more that came before or after these? There's no real one way of getting your Equity card. You can do it the correct way through the EMC program, or you can get a contract outright while working with an Equity theatre. Or you can even get it when you're a child. The possibilities are endless! It bears repeating that there's no one way of getting your heart's desire, no matter how tried and true that specific path is. You have to be the one walking along the road and carve out your own way. You can take the suggestions and advice, but you ultimately have to be the one to do the hard work of making your dreams come true, and leaving all things up to the universe, God, Knowing, or whatever you believe in. It seems like the important thing to learn from these two stories and more is that you have to put in the effort and keep going. Even if it's hard or you're not getting any bites or nibbles from auditions and callbacks, please don't stop going after what truly makes you happy. It will all pay off in the end, and when you've reached that apex, keep on climbing. You shouldn't rest on your laurels after one major accomplishment when there's more to come your way. Nor should you become arrogant or full of yourself that you forget to help others along the way. So, why do I want to join Equity? Well, there's a variety of reasons to join. I'm ensured of safety and protection should I be at risk for an accident or injury through contract negotiations. I get health insurance and a pension plan, which is a nice thing to have these days. (Of course, I believe that health insurance is a right everyone should have, not a privilege for the select few.) I get paid! Yes, this sounds petty, but it feels nice to actually get compensated on a weekly basis for acting, stage managing, dancing, and more, doesn't it? I wouldn't have to get up at ungodly hours to make sure I sign up on the official list at open calls. I could sign up for a time, go in for the audition, and go about the rest of my day on my own terms. I'm offered resources and aids for assistance with a wide variety of topics, including filing taxes. But apart from that? I would be involved with a union that has been protecting and supporting actors since its inception in 1913, and I would be able to work with wonderful people who inspire, challenge, and encourage my career. And if I do have one major goal, it would be that I would be a working actor, and I can belong to a union where I would be recognized and appreciated for being a working actor, and continue doing what I love which is performing and telling great stories to audiences of all shapes and sizes. But like so many things, there are downsides to joining Equity or any union of sorts. Some of the biggest ones? I wouldn't be allowed to do any nonunion projects of any sort, at least without any written permission that I'm allowed to do so. But even then the probability of doing nonunion work as an Equity member is low. And that includes community theatre. So I would no longer be able to do shows and performances with the friends I've made in community theatre. Having an Equity card doesn't guarantee steady work. The initiation fee is EXPENSIVE! The path to becoming Equity can be a long and tedious one, depending on what route you take (either EMC or getting a contract outright). There's not enough open opportunities for people to join this exclusive union, and so many actors want to join. And there's lots more where that came from. (I'm in no way bashing Actor's Equity, but these are just some of the cons that I, and hopefully many others, have to weigh.) In my eyes, the pros outweighs the cons to joining Equity, but the same time, I would be sacrificing so much by accepting a contract and joining the union. At this time, I'm receiving so much nonunion working that is helping me build up the experience and adding so much more to my resume than I've ever imagined. But think of the possibilities of what could happen when I do join Equity and potentially not only get even more work, but be recognized by future casting teams and talent agencies at auditions by the theatre I performed at, the director, the casting director, the show, and so much more. Sigh. It's definitely a struggle right now. (Much of what I've written is based on my observations and feelings, with part of it referenced and researched from the Actors Equity Association website. You are welcome to disagree with me on this, or even share your reasons for joining or not joining the union. But I won't tolerate disrespect or hateful comments. If you decide to cross that line, I will delete your comment and then proceed to block you.)
Now that I've told you what the pros and cons of joining the union are, what Equity is about, and how much I desire to be a part of this organization, here's a lingering question that remains. What is the next right thing to do in the meantime? Well, for me, it's pretty easy to do. The first next right thing to do is to keep seeking out the opportunities, whether they be community theatre based, nonunion, or professional. Each role and performance will teach me something about myself and the craft that I will carry with me throughout my life. The second next right thing to do is ask questions and network. And the best way to do that is to attend seminars, Q&A sessions, workshops, masterclasses, and more where industry professionals are attending. Just try to remember to not appear needy because there are plenty of people who want to learn more about how to get ahead in this business, or even just get to the next big thing that will allow their career to take off. It sounds hard to network and get to know casting directors, directors, choreographers, and more industry professionals, but in actuality, it's pretty easy when you have the right resources available. For me, I've become familiar with sites like Actors Connection, Up-to-Date Actor, theatreMAMA's Acting Circles, and more. Or you can even look as far as getting to know people you've worked with within your own theatre community circle in order to get to know others and network. The third next right thing to do is starting to treat this passion as a business, and it's easy to forget that every chance to audition is your opportunity to present your brand to others and to showcase why you're right for this show. And then there's probably going to be a fourth next right thing, followed by a fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and it goes on and on... But you know something? Sometime the best next right thing to do is just keep going. Put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. You don't have to commit to doing anything major if you don't feel like it or don't feel ready, but please don't stop. And the beauty of these next right things you want to do? They can occur in whatever order you want them to be in. The best thing to do is to start small, slowly build up, keep asking questions, and keep reaching. There's no limit to how much knowledge you can be exposed to if you know the questions you want to ask and how much you want to learn. Don't stop going for what you want the most. You will end up disappointing yourself if you do. Keep fighting for that dream, and never stop believing in yourself. That in itself is the biggest and most important next right thing to do. (Special thanks to the Actors Equity Association website - https://www.actorsequity.org - for the information and details about Equity and for the stories of how members got their Equity card.)