What are you doing to be a --- today?
Updated: Feb 21
February 14, 2021 By Jennifer Estlin I’ve always found there’s something appealing about doing work that has a clear and fast result. Cleaning: starts dirty, ends up nice and neat. Building something: starts in pieces, ends up assembled and ready to use. Changing a lightbulb: starts dark, ends up light. Work like exercise, on the other hand, requires something of a leap of faith. “If I keep doing this over and over, day after day, I will eventually be stronger and more fit.” I find that working in the career of acting is much the same. It’s difficult to point to any single task that leads to the result of ‘being an actor’. Even auditions, with their call-back and waiting period, make the binary result of ‘got it’ / ‘didn’t get it’ feel less connected to the original task. This gap between the work and the reward can lead to a helpless feeling that this chosen career-path is completely out of our control and that we have little to do with our own success.
Years ago, when I had moved to NYC (with extremely limited funds) to expand my career, I had given myself a very short amount of time – three months – to determine whether or not I thought it was going to work out and if my then-spouse would pick up, leave Chicago, and join me there. Three months. Because I was so under the gun, I made myself a promise that no-matter-what, I would do something, every single day, to forward my progress. I gave myself a mantra: “What am I doing to be an actor today?”
With nearly perfect consistency, I asked that of myself every day. It only took a few phone calls back home to realize that it was going to be a very difficult thing to determine what ‘progress’ looked like. What milestone would I need to reach in order to declare, “Yes, this is working – you should move here.”?
I decided it might be helpful to start a notebook in which I would keep track of the things I was doing every day, and then if anything occurred that I could trace back to one of my tasks, I would note it. It took a little while, but much to my surprise, I began to see a connection between my recorded labors and actual rewards. Some were obvious; a response to a post-card mailing I’d sent, or a step up on the ladder from the receptionist to the personal assistant at the agency I was trying to make contact with. Those that were less obvious were often even more gratifying. A friend of a friend that I had made the effort to contact remembered me in a social situation and was able to introduce me to someone they knew, which somehow lead to a box office day job that could both keep me fed as well as introduce me to more people in the community. Even more obtuse; a book I kept with me to read on the subway and ‘fill my creative well’ ended up being the favorite book of an agent I met with and started off an incredible, memorable conversation. I did not sign with that agent, however, our conversation was what lead to him suggesting someone I did sign with, later.
A word about these “what am I doings…” The purpose of them is to be in the mindset of intention toward that which you want to accomplish.
You can only send so many postcards and make so many calls. I allowed myself to consider the whole world of what it takes to have a career in acting in order to generate an undertaking each day. Creative stimulation, knowledge of history, understanding of human nature, observation of people and situations, character study and development, writing, reading plays, learning dialects, singing…. All these things (and more) could add to my professional progress. The important thing was to choose and identify at least one, every day. In addition to being able to track my progress, it also created an active context within which I was living. Regardless of my day job(s), I was an actress, first and foremost. By seeing myself and allowing others to interact with me in that context, I’m convinced that I was exposed to more opportunities and people, and progressed more quickly than I would have, otherwise. After three months, I felt that I could objectively assess that I was in the right place and that I was advancing on my chosen path. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to anyone that they place that kind of pressure on themselves with a move to a new city, though.)
I still have my notebook that I started all those years ago, and even now can trace connections and work back to my daily efforts back then. Over time, I’ve updated my method and converted my bulky notebook to digital apps. My career goals have expanded and changed to include producing, writing, and other creative endeavors. Regardless, any time I’m stuck, or feel like I’m spinning my wheels, or starting on some new creative path, I still find it helpful to go back to tracking and asking myself “What am I doing to be a (insert role here) today?”
Also by Jennifer Estlin: What to Read? Recommended Books for Actors & Improvisers Must the Show Go On?