Don't Quit Your Day Job

Why that thing you hate may make you the actor you long to be

by Colleen Wainwright

For roughly three years between declaring myself an actor and actually making my living as one, I had my one and only Day Job, as a sort of gofer in the Research department of a large Media Buying company.

I say this neither to brag nor elicit sympathy: plenty of actors have made it with either no day job at all, or much cooler ones, modeling, singing, high-end carpentry. And many, many more work day jobs for their entire acting careers; my hat is permanently off to those diehard, for-reals theater actors who do whatever they have to in order to keep body and soul together that they may serve the muse in their off hours.

No, the reason I bring it up is because I learned more about scene study, about being a good actor, while working that day job than I did in plenty of acting classes over the years. Want to know how to go to school on the company dime? Read on…

Day-Job Acting Lesson #1: Every character, however lowly, has a backstory.

As the lowliest, copy-making-est, coffee-fetching-est nerd on the totem pole, you'd think I'd be  unhappy; as an ex-ad executive doing it at age 34, you'd think I'd be miserable, and looked on with either pity or contempt.

But if you did, you'd be thinking like a careless actor.

In my Stupid Day Job, I had zero responsibility, a veritable vacation compared to the gut-churning stress I'd experience in 10+ years of high-paying copy writing work. And  my co-workers, once they got over the weirdness of a peri-middle-aged errand girl, couldn't have been nicer or more supportive. I was given ridiculous amounts of freedom to come and go; as long as I put in my hours, they didn't care when I did it. Many a weekend, I sat in that office tower, assembling leave-behinds or doing data entry.

Don't make the mistake of assuming, or of projecting your set of beliefs onto a character. Dig deep, if the information isn't explicitly in the text, look for other clues. Or make something up! Provided you're not making really inappropriate choices regarding tone, i.e., compromising the telling of the story, which is your main job, you'll make the show richer for it.

Day-Job Acting Lesson #2: Every character is the hero of her own story.

When is an errand girl more than an errand girl? When she's following her dream to be an actor! When she's going against the grain, giving up a big money job to pursue something she considers meaningful. When she takes a job that's patently unglamorous to provide health insurance and income for her family.

Do you think I walked around every day feeling like a loser? Well, some days, I did. But most of the time, I saw this as a step on the ladder to bigger things. Which (thankfully) turned out to be true.

Here's a question to ask yourself: how are you the hero of your story? How is that Kwik-Mart Employee or Nurse #4 the hero of hers?

Day-Job Acting Lesson #3: Opportunity lies in doing more than the minimum.

Like I said, my job at the media buying company was d-u-l-l. But I did it, and happily, for the money and the insurance. Copies. Filing. Coffee runs. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Then one day, a project came up: an analyst needed something turned into a PowerPointâ„¢ presentation. I had never heard of the program and was barely computer literate, but they showed me a few commands and let me go.

To make a long and tedious story shorter, about two years later, I was making enough money doing presentations on the side that I could have quit on that income alone. Coincidentally, my acting work was also earning me a living by then, but hey, I have no problem with extra money.

Even more exciting for me, lowly PowerPointâ„¢ proved to be the entry point for me learning about real graphic design. Because of the skills I picked up at this day job, and the subsequent exploration I did under the tutelage of a smart designer friend, I ended up doing graphic design for theater, beats building flats for your sweat equity. And 10 years later, people come to me for branding and identity work!

You always want to be the actor that people want to work with. Doing that means more than showing up on time and knowing your lines; it means being open to other ways to make yourself indispensable to the production. And as a bonus, you never know what skills or connections or information you might pick up in the process.

No, day jobs aren't inherently noble. Usually, they're a means to an end. But as long as you have to be there anyway, instead of making the best of it, why not leverage things to make the most of it?

Colleen Wainwright is an L.A.-based writer-performer-etc. who started calling herself "the communicatrix" when she hit three hyphens. As part of her pledge to use her powers for good and not evil, she now helps actors and other cool entrepreneurial types brand themselves via her design business, communicatrix | designs.

She also just started a monthly newsletter with more tips on communicating and other cool stuff, which you can sign up for here.