Since I was fifteen, hardly a day has passed that I haven't contemplated theatre in one capacity or another. Since then, even on days that I'm not working on a production, preparing an audition, or reading a play, I've mused over its place in my life, its place in society, its function, its validity. And, after years of study and work, I still find it difficult to explain to those unfamiliar with the field exactly what it is that I do.
An acting career remains a pretty unconventional way to do life, and this truth is perpetually reinforced, whether trying to explain the project-oriented nature of your work to colleagues at your day-job, or filling in the blanks on your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles with "John Stageman worked at Actor."
Introductory conversations usually begin like this:
So what do you do?
I'm an actor.
(Raised eyebrows) ...Oh really?
At this point, the conversation has the potential to go in a dazzling variety of directions. There are the garden variety, well-meaning, but slightly condescending responses such as:
Oh, so you want to be a big movie star!
So you want to be on Broadway, huh? How long 'til I see your name in lights?!
Sigh. This is real life, folks, not Fame. And when someone tells me they're an accountant, I generally don't ever say, "Ooo, so you wanna be a big accountant for Bill Gates?!" or whatever the movie star equivalent is for accounting...I don't know.
Then there are the responses that are straight-up insulting and warrant no further contact with the responder ever in life:
Acting, huh? You make a living doing that?
So you're an actor, huh? Don't you mean 'waiter?'
Thank goodness one also gets the occasional thoughtful response:
Oh wow. What kind of acting do you do?
Oh wow. I have a friend who's an actor. It's a hard life, but she can't imagine doing anything else.
It's remarkable to me how misunderstood this field is. Most of us grow up with the idea that we'll get an education, learn a trade, and get one job with one company for the next however-many years, climb the ladder a bit, and take some cool vacations. On this trajectory, the measure of success is often how much one makes and how prominent one's title.
It's a little different in the acting life. There's no one path; some fall into it late, some pursue and practice it their whole lives through. And the rubric for success, unlike what some may think, is not whether you're on Glee or Girls. Yes, SAG scale (i.e. lots of money, potentially) and an esteemed venue (i.e. The Goodman, The Public, The Guthrie, etc.) are nice...so, so nice.
But, really, the success rubric is intensely personal and varies actor to actor. For some, success is using Shakespeare in a program to rehabilitate convicted criminals,* for others it's the ability to lighten weary hearts and minds for an hour and a half by giving a killer performance in a great musical in a Chicago storefront. Both are totally valid and totally important. (More on that later).
When someone in, say, finance asks me what it is that I do, my goal is to express the breadth of these ideas, to impress upon the inquirer that, while what I do can indeed be "fun" as they have helpfully noted, it's also hard work, and legit work, and important work, and here's why, and that even when I'm not "working," I'm working. But, more often than not, that's the start of a much longer conversation than the inquirer intended when s/he innocently asked, "So...what do you do?"
Back to the drawing board.
* The Shakespeare Behind Bars program offers "theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to the incarcerated, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure the successful reintegration into society." Here's a great article about it: http://www.thelouisvillepaper.com/shakespeare-behind-bars/