Flash Back Friday! Starving Artistry: An Actor’s Survival Guide

Once, while working as a teacher for a local theatre company’s educational outreach program, a couple other instructors and I were

Starving Artists Guide

holding a Q&A session. When prompted for questions regarding the lives of professional actors, a student asked the group at large, “are you rich?” and I laughed out loud.

While this was not my proudest moment as a teacher (or a legal adult), financial insecurity is a reality many young actors have to face. I would expand that to include “many old actors,” but dream on, little starlets, dream on.

So. Rather than shattering all of our delusions and ushering in a brand new generation of bitter alcoholics, I feel a much more constructive use of our time would be to break down some tips on being a starving artist. Or rather, how to be a high-functioning, financially-challenged artist.

1. Create a REALISTIC Budget

First, do an honest assessment of your spending habits. You can’t patch up the Titanic if you don’t know where the leak is. Figure out what you generally spend on every aspect of your life. This means the big ones, like rent, bills, groceries, gas, insurance, etc., but also things like medical expenses, commuting, laundry, car repairs, and going out (not what you should spend on going out. First, figure out how much you actually spend on meals, drinks, movies, etc.).

Then, figure out how much you’re making every month. Try not to count your chickens before they hatch—if you’re doing extra work that might not pay for 5-8 weeks, don’t count on it. Just factor in your day job and money you know for sure you will see before rent is due.

Once you know how much money is bleeding out, you can start strategizing. Here are some ways to cut the costs:

Groceries: Groceries are an easy place to start limiting expenditure. It pays to get serious about this. Coupons are your friend. Kroger cards and similar programs are your friends. You know what else are your friends? Rice and beans. Find a viable, cheap staple to form the foundation of your emergency grocery runs. (Ramen is good in a pinch, but neither healthy nor sustainable if you want to preserve the integrity of your soul). But things like rice, beans, eggs, your more nutrition-rich cereal brands, and homemade trail mix are inexpensive, versatile and will get you through the tough weeks.

Pack a Lunch! This one is a big ask, I know. When you’re pulling long days of rehearsals then day jobs, or jobs, auditions, and shows, it’s easy to come home tired to an empty fridge and think “I’ll just buy my lunch tomorrow.” And tomorrow, and tomorrow . . . and then all your yesterdays will light the way to an empty bank account. This is where getting serious about making your lunches ahead of time will save you. Take one Sunday night, stay up late, bite the bullet, and put together lunches for the week so you don’t have to think about it. And be realistic. Pack enough food so that you won’t be tempted to supplement. Bribe yourself if you have to—pack something you’re mildly excited to eat so that you’ll stick to your packed lunch. Don’t waste funds buying midday meals, because you need to save that for:

Going Out: Budget for going out. It’s going to happen, even when you’re broke, because you are a human and you need social interaction to decompress and avoid self-destructive mental spirals (more on staying optimistic here). BUT you can be wily about it. Eat before you go out with friends so you will only order a drink rather than a drink and a meal. Or convince another broke actor to split an appetizer. Or, when you need to be responsible but still crave company, order a hot tea and nurse it for the sake of companionship. We’ve all been there, champ.

2. Gifts: Holidays/Birthdays/Weddings/What-Have-You

Presumably, there are people in your life whom you love and appreciate (if not, there are probably a few other blogs you should be reading). If this presumption is correct, at some point you will probably want to express these emotions of love and appreciation in the form of gifts. But who do you think you’re fooling? You have an aloe plant named Fluffy because thanks to your BFA, you can’t afford cat food! Rest easy, your shower-centric Golden Globes acceptance speech was not made in vain, for here is the way to greatness:

Crafts: it’s time those kindergarten skill sets paid off, ladies and gentlemen. As far as family and friends are concerned, homemade love is still acceptable. But let’s keep it at least a little classy. For friends, do your research and make some exotic-yet-simple food items you can cook or bake. Have people over for dinner. For family, learn a new skill—for $10 on Groupon I was once able to paint ceramic coffee mugs at a local pottery place that my parents still use. Keep your eyes out for deals (Coke tabs!) that can earn you points and lead to gift certificates.

From the Heart: One year for my Dad’s birthday I was flat broke and out of ideas, so I made him a really nice card and had it be a certificate for one long catch-up phone call a month for a year. Sometimes it’s really hard to make the time, but it’s been over a year now and I still try to make it happen because even though phone conversations aren’t really our thing, I want to keep a good relationship going. Being broke isn’t a disadvantage when it comes to gift-giving—it is an opportunity to get creative and figure out what you really want to say to someone.

Honestly, sometimes I just have to remind myself that I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to make sacrifices in order to pursue my dream job. After that, it’s just adjusting your brain to be survival-oriented. It will become habit. If this lifestyle is new to you, it’s a good way to figure out in a hurry if acting is worth it. If the answer to that question is yes, then you will find a way to navigate, because your need for this life will exceed the cost of living it.



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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com