My first legitimate theatre contract paid me three hundred dollars a week. At the time, many of my actor friends were jealous. Never mind that their “day jobs,” which consisted of things like delivering pizza and bartending, paid them almost twice that. In their perspective, which was also mine at the time, being a professional actor was worth the cost of not being able to pay your rent.
Years later, while teaching acting, I would often tell my students that if they were serious about making theatre their career, they had to be willing to forgo creature comforts for the sake of their art. If new head shots are needed and you only have enough money to pay for either groceries or head shots, choose the head shots. If your agent sends you on an audition and your employer won’t let you have the time off, choose the audition over your job. Retirement plans shouldn’t even be on your list of priorities. And I practiced what I preached.
I now preach the exact opposite, especially to my kids. The existential and material cost that comes with pursuing a career in the arts is not worth the rewards.
Please don’t misunderstand; I believe that good art holds a lot of value. I mean, the first time we are introduced to God in the Bible, He’s creating. Good art reflects an attribute of God. But very little art that has ever been produced reflects God in robust and clear enough ways that balance out the demanding ledger. I encourage my kids’ artistic pursuits, just not as a career.
Humans are finite. And the vast majority of humans do not approach uniqueness in reference to abilities and talents. As an extension of that truth, most artists do not have transcendent talent; the art that they produce will not survive past the moment, nor should it. I count myself solidly among that group. It’s not that I lack talent; I do, however, lack transcendent talent. Nothing I created during my theatre career has much, if any, lasting value. This means that I frequently wrestle with the question of what my fifteen years of sacrifice were worth.
Most artists will bristle at the above suggestion that they do not possess transcendent talent. The hubristic belief that they do is necessary in order to keep their noses pressed firmly to the unforgiving and greedy grind. Most artists believe that what they produce is important enough to justify the cost. Except it’s not.
This isn’t to deny the reality that most humans never approach transcendence with their career endeavors. While discussing this article with a lawyer friend, my friend mused that he wasn’t producing anything that would last either. I responded, “Yes, but you’re also not asking your family to make hard sacrifices for the pursuit of a pipe dream.”
We’ve been given only so much time on this planet, and every moment is an exercise in give-and-take. My family is still paying for my theatre career in tangible ways that my lawyer friend’s family is not. To be true, every career comes with a cost. But, for years, my family was asked to sacrifice time with me as well as financial stability so that I could create theatre. I’m still repairing my relationship with my daughter, who basically had an absentee father for the first six years of her life (make no mistake; almost all artists who are parents have that piper to pay). My family, specifically my wife, is bearing the financial brunt that my family still owes theatre. I don’t want my children to reach middle age and wonder if they owe their family an apology for forcing them to be dragged along in the pursuit of a hubristic and mostly valueless endeavor.
Instead, as they get older, I’m going to encourage my kids to spend their talents in ways that provide a tangible benefit to people around them. I would prefer them to use their creativity designing and building schools, hospitals, and affordable housing, for example. Finding ways to help create wealth in order to provide jobs for others would be a much better use for their vivid imaginations than would a career in the arts. In doing so, they get to create and have a good retirement plan.
By contributing to society in measurable ways, my kids may also forgo the high existential cost that is suffered by many career artists. I have dozens of friends, very talented friends, who anguish over their lack of success as career artists. As they settle into middle age, I frequently hear their laments about lost opportunities, perceived snubs from the “gatekeepers,” and bitter denunciations of audiences that don’t appreciate their specific genius.
Like many artists, my friends have bought into the liberal and Gnostic lie that ideas and the creation of ideas matter more than the material world. Because of that lie, they believe that society owes them reverence. Faced with the absence of reverence, those friends have begun to view society as having betrayed them, which has caused them to bitterly withdraw even more.
I look at my kids and marvel at how much they have to offer the world. I don’t want them to run the high risk of wasting their energy and talents pursuing a career that won’t produce anything of lasting value. I don’t want them to reach middle age and wonder “what if?” I don’t want them to end up like many of the artists that I know who are beaten down and bitter. My desire for my children is for them to find ways to use their wonderful imaginations and creativity in ways that serve the community and offer them a good chance to have financial and existential stability.