Guest post: Singing the BFA Blues (or, learning to adult and act, year one), by Caroline Aimetti

Note: this piece was originally written in November, 2015.

By Caroline Aimetti

Last weekend, I officially became old. I was at a family gathering, and was being told  by a cousin that all her eight year old talked about was becoming an actress and moving to New York City “just like Caroline.” I think I actually grumbled a little, and then replied, “tell her no.”

If you had told me last November, as I finished up my last few weeks as an undergrad at NYU Tisch, that I would be sounding like a cynical old biddy in just one year’s time, I probably would have run screaming in the other direction, assuming that some terrible disaster was going to befall me during my first year out in the business.  But, as I approach my one year in the real world-iversary, I can confirm that none has occurred. I’m puttering away, trying to establish myself in the New York industry. And I promised myself that no matter how tough things got, I would never become a jaded dream crusher, warning aspiring artists to turn back while they still can. I heard it too often growing up. So who was this grinch I was becoming, telling peppy little eight year-olds not to follow their dreams? Let me explain.

I knew early on that this career would not necessarily treat me kindly. Perhaps because my plan to pursue it has been in place basically since I was ten years old, giving me enough time to hear words of discouragement from anyone who could get my ear.

Remember in the movie A Christmas Story, every time Ralphie tells someone he wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas and they reply with “You’ll shoot your eye out”? That’s what it is like growing up wanting to be an actor. You get a lot of “You’ll starve” or “99% of actors are unemployed at any given time.” But like Ralphie, I wanted what I wanted.

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I bought a book called Making It On Broadway, anecdotes from Broadway actors about everything from survival jobs to winning the Tony. Some of those stories were not pretty, but surprisingly none of them deterred me at all. In fact, I felt very grateful to have received some sort of forewarning of what was to come. That book taught me that sometimes you have to live in closet-sized apartments with mice (check), wait tables (check), and sit for hours at an open call just to not get seen (CHECK).

 

I figured by the time I had my BFA, the world at large would give it a rest with all the messages of gloom and doom. But at least twice a week someone reminds me that the majority of artists who move to New York City to act quit within the first two years, or that I can still go back to school for my Masters in Practical Career X. A man interviewing me for a survival job last week (a miserable human being) felt like he had the responsibility to remind me I had chosen a silly career.

 

But I have survived year one! One more to go before my dreams fall apart, eh? After one year pursuing this career, I see in a deeper way than I could have imagined why people quit. When I was in high school, and even college, I am ashamed to say I quietly judged those who gave it a try and then gave it up. “They must not have wanted it bad enough,” I would think. But now I see that pursuing what you love most in the world means putting your pride, heart, and happiness on the line every single day. Being an actor makes you even more vulnerable- you are selling yourself, and you are doing so in a society that believes art is not necessary, and even that artists do not need to be compensated for their work. That, sadly, can equal not making your rent. Some decide that spending a life giving up day-to-day security and happiness for the small chance of a big “someday” happiness is not worth it. And I understand them completely.

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As any fresh graduate will tell you, the real world can be a bit of an abyss. But what is difficult to learn as a young person with an acting degree is that the post-grad timeline simply does not apply to you. I got hit by this, hard, as I watched friends land paid internships, get into law school, and even get six figure positions within months of graduating, while I continued to nanny in Brooklyn and attend open calls, just as I had been doing before I had my degree.

 

I could go on about the injustice of it all, and sometimes my actor friends and I get together and cannot help but do so- “We graduated top of our class and went to one of the country’s top private universities to work retail and not get to go home for Thanksgiving?!” But I have found dwelling on those passing feelings of self-pity only drags me down, and fast. Which brings me to the very first bullet point of

 

Caroline’s “What I Learned My First Year as a Working Actor” List!
 
  • Stop Complaining. Yes, I vent to my mom and boyfriend and actor friends when I need to, but I discovered that in the larger world there is no sympathy for someone who chooses a career in the arts. So as much as it does not seem right at times that someone with a college degree should be made to feel their work is not work at all but frivolity, at the end of the day the cranks of the world are right: I chose this. So now I need to put up or shut up.
  • It’s All About That Survival Job. As Meghan Trainor tells us it is “All About That Bass,” I tell you your side job will make or break you. Although I am still figuring this one out myself (I am not making enough money from nannying alone), I find that it must at least fit this criteria: be flexible for auditions (or be a night job); pay you enough so that your rent is half your income (in other cities it would be a quarter, but damn you New York City!); not exhaust you physically or vocally (or those early morning auditions will not happen and suddenly you will not be an auditioning actor anymore); not suck your soul away (this one is tough). Though survival jobs are not known to be pleasant, I have found that a soul-sucking job is the reason why actors leave the business almost every time. This is because unlike most professions, your soul needs to be intact for you to do your work. Which brings me to my next point:
  •  Super Soul Saturday Needs to Be Everyday. Oprah was onto something- our souls need recharging. As actors, our souls are flying out in the wind every time we act, so they need some extra TLC. The winter after I graduated was brutal- dark, snowy, and lonely. I started feeling not quite like myself. I was crying a lot, and I had a hard time making to-do lists or getting up for auditions. I went from acting non-stop in college to not acting at all. The thing is, most careers allow you to compartmentalize your feelings to get the job done. If you are an actor and try that route, you will suck the life and humanity out of your acting- I found out the hard way. So on top of feeling low, I was not feeling good about my work. That can make things seem very dark. The day I called my therapist for the first time, I had tears streaming down my face. I see now that I should not have let it get that bad- we need to give ourselves as much of a fighting chance in this business as possible, and that means acknowledging that this career can bring lows. Society often regards self-care like therapy as indulgent; but an actor needs self-care (in whatever form works) simply to get the job done.

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  • It Is a World of Catch-22s. You can’t get an agent without being in something, but it is much harder to be in something without an agent; you cannot get appointments for Equity auditions without getting your Equity card from an Equity show, but you cannot get into an Equity show without being seen at an Equity audition. This stuff can drive you crazy. The way to get around it is think outside the box, and find loopholes. I take classes with agents and casting directors so they can see me work (but another catch-22 is that these classes cost money, which means you must work, but these classes are held at night when you would potentially bartend or wait tables, but I digress). I also solved the Equity puzzle by stage managing for a show I did not get cast in- yes, you can get your card that way! I am trying to get used to the fact that what matters is that you meet your goals, not that the way you meet them is conventional. (Plus a fun fact: Equity stage managers are paid more per week than Equity actors AND I have a new, money-making skill!)
  • It Is All Random. This lesson scared me at first. It worried me that those who work hard and do everything “right” do not always meet with success first. But then I began to see that when a fellow actor gets a role, that was the one meant for them, not me. “Compare and despair” as one of my professors said. But then I began to see that opportunities that at first seem to have little value often lead to great things. I co-founded a theatre company with my boyfriend because we love Shakespeare, nothing more. But the director who directed our first production hired me for the stage managing gig that lead to my Equity card! I suppose You Never Know  and Jealousy Is Useless could also be part of this lesson.
  • Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. Most actors do not celebrate getting a role until they are at the first rehearsal, script in hand. That is because acting jobs can fall through at any moment. A project I was cast in lost its funding; I had a friend get her role re-cast with a bigger “name.” But the craziest part about acting is that even something exciting like a guest spot on a TV show is temporary. All of our work is temp work. So no matter how big a role or production, once the shoot or run is over, it is on to the next, and that next thing is never guaranteed (another reason why Jealousy is Useless).
  • Let It Give You Life, Do Not Give It Your Life. Let me explain this one. I always thought that the noble calling of being an artist meant walking around with a bleeding heart, putting off personal pursuits for artistic ones. I always told my grandma I wasn’t getting married until I was 50 because I needed to focus on my career. But it is things like the recent attacks on Paris that make you realize without family, friends, travel, love, etc., life is useless. Acting fills my soul with purpose and joy more than anything (besides the people I love). But that does not mean I need to hand over my sanity, my health, and enjoyment of everything else the world has to offer. It can be hard, because this business puts an imaginary timeline on your shoulders that makes you feel guilty every moment the business is not occupying your thoughts. One of my professors would say “Relax, you’re playing make believe for a living.” But I am somewhere in between, because I know what art can do for people and what it has done for me. Another professor reminded us every class that in ancient Greece actors were treated like warriors and sages. There is a purpose to what I do that is noble. But I do not need to let that weight crush everything else.
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I have learned so much this year. I could go on about little tidbit lessons like go for the dream audition no matter how big, make yourself a team of people who will have your back, and BE PATIENT (I should get that tattooed on my forehead, I forget it so often). I am learning to be happy without getting up onstage everyday, and let me tell you it is hard.

But what I have surprisingly made peace with very quickly is that this is my journey. It is filled with a lot of disappointments, lots of money spent (someone tell me why headshots cost more than two weeks of groceries?), but also moments of great joy as I get my business off the ground. And though I have amazing support, ultimately it is my doing. I am proud of that. So no matter what anyone has to say about it at the Thanksgiving table this year, I am finding peace.

 “If you practice an art, be proud of it and make it proud of you. It may break your heart….but it will fill your heart before it breaks it; it will make you a person in your own right.”
-Maxwell Anderson

 


Caroline Aimetti is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She has trained at the Atlantic Acting School, Stonestreet Studios, and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. She is a proud member of Actors’ Equity and a lover of coffee, Disney, and all things food. She lives in Harlem with her boyfriend and cat. This is her first contribution to Theaterific.

11 tips for high school play directors

This week marks the start of an extended break for many teachers. Even though this post would have made a lot of sense in September, I know that many plays take place in the spring time, and this break is when school play directors start thinking about their shows. Here are some tidbits of advice that I’ve picked up and want to share. As usual, feel free to contact me with any questions. I’m happy to help – ’tis the season, after all.

1) Choose a play that offers parts that take kids out of their comfort zones. A cast of eclectic characters means that more kids will be able to do this.

2) A play requiring a small cast doesn’t allow enough kids to get the experience, but a cast that is too large (30+) can dilute it.

3) Choosing a play specifically designed for high school kids may be a good idea if the kids are new to acting and theater as a whole; it gives them a good introduction to the whole process. If the kids are experienced, stray away from plays designed for high school kids, especially if the characters are high school kids. Give them a chance to play characters that are very much unlike them. Let them live in a different world, and explore emotions that they don’t get to experience every day in a safe, imaginative environment.

4) Provide context for the play that you choose. This experience should be educational. Give them the historical context of the play. Allow them to discover and research the historical background of the action or the characters.

5) Let them know about the playwright, and discuss possible reasons for the play’s creation. They should come away from this experience with a new appreciation for the writer.

6) If the play has a traceable production history, provide it. Let them know about any famous or established actors that played those parts, which theater it appeared in, how many performances it ran, and the dates. It can also open up conversations about how the play was received at the time, and how your production compares. IBDB.com is a good source for this information.

7) Don’t forget about the kids who aren’t acting. Choose a play with a great set or a variety of props or special costumes. Let them in on the creative process. Part of your job as a school play director is to let the kids fall in love with theater on their own. You hold the reins, of course, but let them decide on a certain color, or ask for their suggestions for the way a piece of the set looks, or if a prop is appropriate. They’ll feel like they made an actual contribution to the production – and not just as hired help.

8) Push the subject matter of the play as far as your school and community will allow. Check with your superiors, of course. But high school kids are smarter, more mature, and more resilient than we give them credit for. Find a play with some meat to sink their teeth into. They may learn something about themselves, or about life, in the process (isn’t that the point?).

9) Emphasize, from day 1, the importance of teamwork. One of my most repeated sayings is “there is no drama in my drama”. Don’t allow the egos of the kids with the lead parts to run amok. Actors are not superior to crew. Lead parts are not superior to supporting roles or ensemble. Everyone works together or the whole things falls apart. High school dramas tend to have a lot of, well, drama. Squash it immediately, or risk ruining everything. This is not an exaggeration. A successful show is a finely oiled machine.

10) Tell them that if they’re on stage, they’re in character. Having zero lines doesn’t mean that a character is characterless. If a scene with 5 people is happening, and 4 of them are committing, but one decides to drop character, where do the eyes of the audience go? Not to the great work of the 4, but the poor work of the one. It’s much easier to spot a bad performance than it is to spot a good one. And it happens much quicker.

11) Call time should be about 2 hours before curtain. Kids tend to get very excited before a show. It’s extremely important that you tell them to save their energy for the stage. If they use it all before the show, they’ll have none left for the end of the show. Give them instructions on how to conserve energy – relax before the show, stay hydrated and well fed, but not full, and get into character. Running around, screaming, and being loud is not a way to conserve energy.

(Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net, Salvatore Vuono)