Actors suffer from one of the hardest conditions any profession has to offer: free time.
Between auditions, classes, shows, and jobs, it can become very daunting for any actor who wants to make it in this business to simply be still. Stagnation is death to the actor, who so wants to be up and on stage and fretting only about how he or she will make it to the next job in California when her play in New York City closes only the night before.
The truth is that most actors (whether you are starting out or are a seasoned vet) will face moments of stillness, inactivity, and unemployment. Acting is a profession that requires the cooperation of others to exist, so how do you keep yourself from going crazy in the slow periods?
My advice? Read.
I think actors should diversify their interests. Have three things you’re working on or working toward, they don’t have to be huge feats. Staying busy is hard to do when you can’t afford a class or aren’t in a show, but the two things you can always do on your own are reading and writing. Some of us aren’t writers, and that’s fine. Even if you’re not, I’d suggest giving it a whirl. Don’t wait for some playwright to hand you a good piece of work to perform – that could take forever. Write the work you’d want to perform. It may seem daunting, but starting is the hardest part. You may even find that you’re good at it.
The other option, reading, is much easier. It can be difficult to squeeze reading into a schedule that feels like doing anything for pleasure is wasteful, but that kind of thinking only leads to further stagnation – cherry-picking how you spend your time will usually just lead to waiting around.
Don’t just read novels, either. In fact, I’d suggest staying away from them for the time being. Start somewhere you wouldn’t expect. You’ve been reading The Scarlet Letter and Bless Me, Ultima since you were in high school, so let’s change it up. These are three kinds of books I think actors should set aside time to read.
1) How-To Books
Ever wanted to learn how to do something but didn’t have time to study it while you were busy completing your Drama major in college? With Google and Amazon, there are no gatekeepers to knowledge. There are books about how to do just about everything, and many of them come with instructional DVD’s as well. Pick a topic you’ve always had an interest in, even if it’s a small one. Ever wanted to learn how to design websites? How to format a screenplay? How to use Photoshop? Go to Amazon.com (or better yet, your closest bookstore) and find a book on how to do those things. If you give it enough time, you may even learn an applicable skill you can use at work or in your art.
Read a biography. Better yet, read an auto-biography. I posted an article a while back with some books I’ve read and have enjoyed. If you’re an actor, writer, or comedian and there is someone whose career you admire, then why wouldn’t you read their book? Autobiographies are rarely step-by-step guides to success, but there is something to be said about hearing the voice (or at least the ghost-written voice…) of the artist to get a sense of how to be. That’s something to which people could pay more attention.
3) Business Books
Actors are a surprisingly meek breed, and in school and elsewhere we’ve been taught to think that the business model is to try, wait, try, and wait until someone miraculously hands you Excalibur and the whole kingdom of Camelot. That’s all well and good, but I think that entrepreneurship goes hand-in-hand with the successful actor/artist, especially today when the power of publishing and producing has been put back in the hands of the people with inexpensive equipment, software, and crowd-funding. Business books aren’t usually the most eloquent, and there can be a fair amount of fluff in them. (“Chapter 1: Three Steps to Putting PIZZAZZ Back in Your Career!”) But kitschy or not, business is business, and you may always find an interesting new mindset or approach to the career of your choice. I’m not even suggesting you read an acting-business book; How to Be a New York Actor or the like. Read a business book that’s generic, or a book about entrepreneurship. These books contain a career’s worth of advice from business leaders who have made things happen and are, for the most part, pretty happy with their success. In my opinion, the principles of running a good business and making an acting career coincide, and it’s good to get a fresh perspective.
Read, read, read. Learn! LIVE! Few activities are as inexpensive and possible to do on your own. Also, people like actors who have more to talk about than acting. Be an actor who reads The New Yorker or Wired Magazine. Be an actor who loves Stephen King, or who is currently studying how to develop mobile phone apps. Find some new interests. Enjoy your world.