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Saturday, February 26, 2011

The "Excuse Cocoon"

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I have a friend in California who is a producer of a festival where new plays are given lively readings by a troupe of actors. Several times per year, she solicits submissions from local playwrights, and hand picks a group of actors to bring each play to life. It’s a short commitment - just 2 rehearsals for the one-night reading - and the actors and playwrights really enjoy the art being created and community being built.

But no matter how many plays are produced, or how happy the participants are to be involved, there is always one actor or another who drops out of the festival last minute. And they almost always use the same excuse, “I’m sorry, turns out I my job needs me that day. I know I committed to the project but I can’t really afford to miss this day of work.” And, as usual, the producer doesn’t argue with the actor and struggles to find a last minute replacement. I mean, seriously, how can you argue with an actor who is short on funds? We’ve all been there. Right?

But 9 out of 10 times, other actors find a way to make it work. So, if most actors can relate to the “short on funds/time” scenario, what makes a small minority of actors bail on their commitments while others remain reliable? This month, I want to talk very seriously about an aspect of our careers that is taboo to discuss, one that makes people feel squeamish because it sheds a not-so-flattering light on a behavior that threatens to kill our industry:

Making Excuses: or What Keeps Us from Being Accountable.

Accountability is defined as, “An obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions.” (Merriam-Webster). More plainly, this means doing what you say you will do -- being reliable, dependable, and someone that others can count on. On the surface, I would imagine that most people consider themselves accountable. We show up for work, we keep coffee dates with friends, we send birthday greetings and call our families on the holidays. We even are accountable for things that are less than desirable: we take out the garbage when it gets smelly, we go to the dentist twice a year, we tell a friend when they have something stuck in their teeth. So, how is it that there’s still a small population of actors who are completely unreliable, even when it comes to something as important as their career?

First, let’s look at the “money” excuse that I highlighted above. Using the money excuse is the fastest way to shut down a conversation. No respectful person would dare challenge someone on what they can or cannot afford- right? So a person shirking their responsibilities can easily use the money excuse and get out of nearly anything. To this, I have a response that is controversial, but in my experience has never been proven false:

We find the time / money / energy for the things we value. Thus, “I don’t have...” is just an excuse.

When we use an excuse like, “I don’t have time,” or “I really don’t have the funds” or “I’m too tired to commit” those are dramatic ways of saying, “I don’t value *xyz* enough to spend my time / money / energy on it.“ Sounds kind of distasteful, right? No wonder we use the money excuse- it’s much easier to tell someone you are short on funds than telling them that you don’t value what they are offering. We even make these excuses to ourselves when we don’t live up to our own expectations: “I would be further along if I didn’t have a day job,” or “I really want to be in a Broadway musical, but I don’t have the time or money to take dance & voice lessons.” It’s like we live in an excuse cocoon, which keeps us safe from all of the risks and benefits that come from taking a stand in our careers.

But the truth is, we DO have the money, the time, the energy. We just don’t want to give up the resources for THAT particular event. Think about it - what is the last purchase you made for yourself, be it classes, an electronic device, a ticket to a play, even that cup of coffee. We made a determination, at that moment, that we valued that item enough to trade money, time or energy for it. We somehow made it work. In contrast, there are other things throughout our day that we pass on, because we didn’t value it enough to spend our hard earned resources on it.

The problem is when we start fooling ourselves into believe it ACTUALLY IS because of money, or time, or energy that we are unable to keep our commitments, rather than looking at the underlying question of value. So, how can we solve this problem going forward, allowing us to be fully accountable in our careers?

Be Clear About Your Values: First, we need to be honest about what we value in our lives, and how those things fall in order of priority. Is making money a priority, or is building your career a priority? They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but you need to know where your priorities lie so that you can honestly look at how you are structuring your life. What kind of career are you looking to have, and how does your behavior either support or refute this value? If you are interested in theater, but find yourself doing mostly on-camera work, your values and commitments are not in line, and can cause problems in being accountable. When choosing projects, weigh them against your values and make sure everything is aligned appropriately.

What Do You Need To Achieve Your Goals: Now that you know what you value, what steps need to be taken to reach your goals? If your dream is to make a full time living as an actor, then a high value needs to be placed on developing your craft, building your business, and having flexibility in your schedule. If you don’t do these things, what are you telling the world about what you really value? Perhaps that you prefer the security of a day job? That you prefer to socialize rather than spend your evenings in class? These are not things to be ashamed of -- you just have to be honest about your intentions and how they relate to your overall goals.

Avoid Over-Commitment: Sometimes, an actor’s eyes are bigger than their schedules -- they think they can handle every project that comes down the pike, then end up being overextended. Being an actor does not mean that you have to do everything that comes your way. Choosing projects & associations wisely will help you maintain an air of dependability, and teach others that they can count on you to do what you say you’re going to do.

Learn To Say No: “No” is one of the most powerful words an actor can have in their arsenal. And yet, not many use it for fear of burning bridges or hurting other’s feelings. When you are clear about your values, and communicate them kindly and clearly, you can avoid saying yes to things that you really don’t want to do. If you’ve committed to only doing paying work, and someone offers you a non-paying role, you are well within your rights to say, “You know, the project seems really interesting and I’d love to work with you. Yet, I’ve made a commitment to only take paying work from now on so I am going to have to decline. Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

Now, some of you might think, “Well, wait. You just told us not to make money excuses, and yet you’re using one as an example of how to get out of a project.” -- Good eye, and we’ve reached the point of this article! What I demonstrated is making a decision based on VALUES (a commitment to having paid work) as opposed to an excuse (“I can’t afford to take the gig.”) A subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference in being accountable.

I invite you to examine your life, and look for the places that lack accountability. Use what I have offered here as a foundation for building a career with integrity and power. If you have any questions about how to apply this to your specific career, leave me a comment below and I’ll help as best I can. Perhaps it just a little pep talk you need, or perhaps your career would benefit from a little bit of coaching. I always offer a free consultation over coffee, so we can get to know each other and you can see if this kind of coaching would be right for you. I would be honored to be a member of your team.

Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has done national tours of plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. To learn more, check out http://www.theactorsenterprise.org.

3 COMMENTS - Click to READ:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. May I point out that accountability goes both ways, and that if an employer (whether it be a theatre, film production, etc.) values the services and skills of an actor, they should also be able to "make it work" by offering the actor some kind of compensation for their work. Having to work full-time while attempting to make time and conserve energy and funds to pursue a performance career is an enormous task; the actor alone cannot be blamed for prioritizing work commitments that keep them fed and clothed over a waiver production that pays $8 per show. Isn't an actor who strives to remain solvent one who is clear about their values?

Erin Cronican said...

Absolutely - I agree that each person, including those outside of our industry, needs to makes sure that they understand their motivations and what they value most.

I don't think that prioritizing is a bad thing at all- I think it is a powerfully important part of running a business. If someone values a work commitment over an acting gig, that is perfectly reasonable. It's the fact that many actors don't express it that way- they say things like, "I don't have the money," (a statement with a negative bias) instead of "I need to focus on making money towards rent," (a statement with a positive bias.) Just this slight shift in perspective can make all the difference in helping an actor feel empowered in their career, rather than at the mercy of other things.

I appreciate your stopping by - thanks for your feedback!

Rhonda Musak said...

Thank you so much for your beautifully thought out posting. Accountability goes such a long way in this business – on all sides of the coin. It's so empowering, indeed, to say a high quality "no" to one thing in order to say a high quality "yes" to something else. On many levels it can be quite a complex question as your commentor above points out, but at the end of the day our word is really all we have to stand on. I recall hiring someone for a project who, unprompted during the interview process, swore that they would never ever leave one project for another. Two weeks later this person let me know that they would be doing just that because they were being offered more money. The question lingered: at what dollar amount is your word no longer your word?

Thanks again for your inspiring and compelling thoughts on the subject.

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