Finding a survival job is one of the top three most stressful aspects of pursuing an artistic career. Not only do you feel like you are compromising your time for something that sucks the very joy and life you need to create out of your soul, but if you’re really keeping your time free to audition then you’re probably JUST scraping by as-is working part-time.
This is why it is so easy for people to lose sight of the reasons they moved to New York. They get so caught up in first-world “surviving” that they put their dreams on the back burner. Finding any job is hard, and acting isn't exactly reliable; but if you want to be an optimist, if it’s hard to get any job you might as well try for the one you love the most!
Survival jobs don’t have to be terrible. I am writing this blog at my survival job in between phone calls. Thanks to my survival job, I can submit to auditions immediately because I always have access to a computer. I was always 100% honest with managers at my job interviews about where my priorities were when it came to acting. When I was offered full-time work I declined, but I appreciated the opportunity and their respect to my response that pursing acting was my main focus.
My first job here was working in retail hell: Forever 21. It was terrible. I quit without any job lined up after three months because they had denied every request I made to take off work for booked projects and they straight-up treated their employees like shit. I was unemployed for four terrifying months as I watched my entire life savings dwindle away during one of the shittiest economic times since the great depression. The trickiest part was that I didn't even know where to FIND a job! Websites like monster.com or careerbuilder.com were of no help to me because all job listings on those sites were for people looking to begin their salaried-careers that offer healthcare and paid vacations and all that fancy stuff. So I was stuck looking at craigslist and desperately searching my Facebook newsfeed for any information on temp/part-time work. I had to turn down a large majority of the job interviews I managed to hear back from because it was clear they wouldn't be understanding about my sporadic acting schedule.
The guilt I felt over being so picky about a survival job weighed heavily on me. I felt so spoiled that I was in a position to just decline jobs I desperately financially needed because I knew I would always have SOMEWHERE to call home, even if it meant moving back home to Maryland. I felt like I shouldn't be so picky, but I also felt like why the hell would I bother paying to live somewhere as expensive as New York if I wasn't going to be doing what I came here to do? Things managed to work out exactly when I was about to run out of finances thanks to a surprisingly reliable craigslist ad, and I can’t help but think that that’s just how the universe likes to play the game. I was really being tested on how badly I wanted a career in NYC and I passed with zero dollars to my name! BUT, I did get to keep my self-respect and prove to myself, my family & friends and the universe that I wasn't messing around when it came to doing what I came to New York City to do.
There is a creature that exists that I like to call the faux actor. They are the people who move to New York with some vague idea of pursuing acting, but then literally never audition and allow themselves to be sucked into their day jobs or social lives because they have a certain standard of living they aren't willing to compromise. They become distracted and spend their money on short-term splurges that allow them to fall in love with New York but not necessarily with their own long-term lives. There are a lot of these types of actors, and they are toxic to those who work hard to make an acting career happen. Their ever-present attempts to talk about themselves as a real actor are thwarted by their mediocre attempts to pursue an actual acting career. It’s because of actors like this that often times working actors are made to prove themselves. I can’t blame people for rolling their eyes when I tell them I’m an actor. I mean yeah, it’s rude, but EVERYONE claims to be an actor! If you aren't actively pursuing this as a career, please either change your ways or accept that maybe you just don’t want this enough. That may be harsh, but if your feelings are hurt by it then you should reevaluate what you’re doing with your life or reevaluate how you really see yourself. If you don’t walk the walk, don’t talk the talk.
Then there are the actors who somehow manage to live in Manhattan prime-reality neighborhoods with either one or no roommates. They have super fancy jobs that only require five hours of their time a week and they manage to pour their finances into any project they feel like making. While I am always incredibly envious of the comfortable lifestyles these actors are living, when I take a step back to examine the bigger picture I realize that they aren't any further along in their careers than I am. Money doesn't outweigh kindness, dedication or personality …but it can provide you with a dishwasher, groceries and an elevator building. What I wouldn't GIVE to feel like I wasn't still living in a dorm-room situation. I always knew these were the kind of sacrifices I would have to make, but it doesn't make actually living with four or five people in a three bedroom/one bathroom apartment in my mid-20’s with shitty heat and no AC, very limited hot water, and only buying groceries when I can get a paid gig (or someone sends me grocery gift cards - Thanks Missy/Michael and Mom!) any easier.
That said - the things I stress about can’t even begin to compare to what some people are going through. I have a roof over my head, food to eat and a supportive family. I’m doing ok. I have a passion and a willingness to live in a semi-shitty apartment that allows me to scrape by making less than $21,000 a year in one of the most expensive places in the U.S. Because of this, usually more than 50% of my time is spent doing or pursuing a career I love. The trade-off is SO worth it, and it's available to anyone who is willing to take the risk.
(Also, without my roommates I wouldn't have been able to purchase a 75-gallon aquarium off of craigslist and somehow manage to take it 50 blocks, up four flights of stairs, and set-up with water. My turtle and I thank you!)
There was one good thing that came from my time at Forever 21. It was the advice a fellow co-worker shared with me. I don't remember her name and I only met her the one time, but she asked me what I did. Being new to New York City and not feeling very confident, our conversation went as follows
Me: Well, I moved here to be an actor...
Girl: So, you're an actor.
Me: Well, not yet I guess. I'm working here.
Girl: But you plan on acting?
Girl: Then you're an actor. Call yourself that.
I can't even remember what this girl LOOKS like but holy crap- what a strong bit of advice to share with someone she didn't even know. Since that moment when people ask what I do my response is "I am an actor." Sometimes they want to pry into how I REALLY make most of my money and I of course share that information because I'm not ashamed of my day job, but hearing this stranger basically tell me that my day job did not define me was a pivotal moment.
Hearing me call myself an actor was a weirdly difficult thing to get use to. Up until that point I had just been a student. My life plan stopped once the checklist reached "Move to New York." Now that I was here I had nothing figured out. Thankfully (and fittingly), the first thing I was able to ground myself in was the phrase "I am an actor."
To all of the employers and fellow employees who have helped me make my life in this city work so far - Thank you. And to you, Forever 21 Angel, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
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