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Colleenby Colleen Wainwright | The Communicatrix

Act Smart!: Breaking through The Breakthrough Myth

For best results, look at success as a thing you are always building rather than a place you get to “someday.” 

If you haven’t been disappointed by your supposed big break, you’re not in the game.
Bob Lefsetz, music industry veteran, new media pundit

It was an ordinary day, toward the end of rehearsals for a play my theater company was producing. In my capacity as resident graphic designer, I’d dropped by with a rough draft of the program to have the cast and crew sign off on their bios. There was some buzz among the ranks that this was THE show—the one that was going to kick an extra-special amount of ass, breaking through the clutter to gain attention, awards, and acclaim even outside the usual small community who usually enjoyed our plays.

The director sighed as he scribbled his initials beside his note, his bio, and a few other pieces in the program. “They always think that this is the show that will make them famous.”

It wasn’t, of course; it almost never is. And even if one particular thing does seem to catapult someone to fame and/or fortune, it is not the first thing, but #1,008,446 of an obviously long line of other things—including, I regret to tell you, luck, which always and absolutely figures in. So what’s an actor to do?

Keep working.

Your goal is not only to stay in the game long enough for that one lucky break, but to kick ass every single time; to behave as though each and every job could be the one that puts you over.

This doesn’t mean you approach every audition, class work, or job thinking, “THIS COULD BE IT!” (talk about adding undue pressure!), but that you treat each opportunity to work, paid or not, with the respect you would pay a slot that was going to be your mythical big break.

Moreover, this principle applies not just to acting-related work, but to work, period. If you have a day job, treat it, too, with the seriousness and respect it deserves. (And if whatever you do to put food on your table and keep a roof over your head is so distasteful that you feel it deserves none of your good juice, either correct your attitude or get a new job. Seriously!)

One reason for doing this is that it makes you much more delightful to other people, which makes them more likely to hire you, continue to employ you, or recommend you to others.

But the primary reason is that everything is practice. Training yourself to show up on time to a boring survival job also trains you to arrive early for a call that’s already at the butt-crack of dawn—and an hour’s drive away, as the early calls inevitably are. Learning names waiting tables, bartending, or teaching classes trains you to learn names of people on a set. (Clearly, I did not work enough in the food-service or educational industries.)

You might think to yourself, “When they’re paying me to act, I’ll have no problem showing up early, prepared, and cheerful!” Possibly, superstar: when the conditions are all in your favor. But what about when they’re not?

What if the second twin stops crying long enough for one take—will you be zen enough to nail it before the wailing recommences and the kid’s work time runs out? What if you lose light in 45 minutes and the director decides he’s going to shoot an entire :30-spot of rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue between you and five actors anyway? (True story, by the way. We wrapped with seconds to spare—and then, I’m fairly sure, each went home and poured ourselves an exceptionally stiff drink.)

Practicing over and over—in everything, in low-stakes situations—will help you perform when you finally find yourself in high-stakes situations. But approaching every situation with the same curiosity, alertness, and creativity you would if it were an acting job will not only help you become a better actor when opportunity strikes—it’ll make you a better, happier human even on the days you’re not acting.

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BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: With multiple demands on your attention (not to mention the stress of family gatherings, crowded stores, and Mass Holiday Fever), this time of the year can be tricky for reading. My suggestion is not to stop, but to adapt: enjoy a collection of engrossing (no pun intended!) interviews with actors and other artists; pick up a  book of short stories; or re-read an old inspiring or engrossing favorite you haven’t picked up in a while. Just don’t give up—reading makes you smarter and keeps you saner!

Want more ideas? Sign up for my (free) newsletter! Almost every month I send out useful (and specific, and nice) information about how to promote yourself without being a tool, and connect with people in a way that makes them love you. It’s not about acting explicitly, but since you’re a smart actor, that shouldn’t scare you.

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.