I am sitting on deck on a small French cruise ship, finishing a ten-day gig. I was a featured headline act, performing my original cabaret shows for the passengers on board.
What does it mean to “make it” as an artist? What counts as “payoff” (for all the struggle, training, and sacrifice)?
In the day-to-day hustle as artists, we dream of “making it”: booking a Broadway show, starring in a movie, signing a recording deal, or selling a screenplay. Statistically, the odds of achieving any one of those feats is low. “Almost” booking a Broadway show doesn’t count, except insofar as you know you’re good enough to handle the role. If you were, you probably knew that already.
Seeing my frustration, my acting teacher said to me: “You’re frustrated because there hasn’t been a payoff. You’ve gotten so close and been recognized by your peers, but there hasn’t been a significant reward.”
His words struck a chord. That was exactly how I felt.
So what did I do? Suffer, that’s what.
I dreamed of the next gig longingly, even achingly. I lived in the future, waiting for my “real life” to begin.
I did this from 2002-2016.
Cut to 2019. I’m sitting on the stern of a luxury cruise ship in Tahiti, having spent the past ten days visiting the most exotic, picturesque places on earth with a Pina Colada in hand.
As we sailed away from the island of Moorea (a popular honeymoon destination with the Hamptons set), I thought to myself: “Maybe this is my payoff; maybe getting paid to travel in style to places so few will ever see even once, is making it.”
Was it a Broadway stage? No. Was it wonderful? Absolutely. Am I going to give up my big dreams? Not a chance.
But am I going to sit on this ship and pine for Broadway or a role on a Netflix series? No. I am going to sit here and revel in it. I am going to take a million sunset selfies and drink champagne and enjoy every last minute. Because right now, this is my payoff. This is me “making it.”
I haven’t always had this perspective. In the past, I’ve had equally spectacular gigs but failed to appreciate them. Either I denigrated the work itself or complained about the too long rehearsals (for too little pay) with the subpar band.
Looking back, I wish I had stood in those room/theater/set and recognized that the audition, the rehearsal, and the performance were all part of the payoff. “Making it” includes the whole process, highs and lows alike. The only alternative to seeing it this way is to suffer, constantly wishing things were other than they are.
Eckhart Tolle, the renowned author of The Power of Now, believes that ending suffering in daily life depends upon embracing acceptance, enjoyment, or enthusiasm. These are the only three options. The following emotional choices guarantee ongoing suffering: jealousy, complaining, bitterness, resentment, anger, frustration, self-loathing.
“But what if I’m at an uncomfortable audition or gig and the director is screaming at me nonstop?” You can still choose your thoughts. Choose acceptance. Don’t complain and agonize. Don’t gossip and hate. Maybe you were meant to be in that position so that you make better choices on the next gig. Sometimes you have to take a job for the money; other times, you have choices among jobs. But even a miserable few days can be part of your process and growth. Embrace it as such and then move on.
And if you find yourself singing on a cruise ship to Tahiti, choose enjoyment, for God’s sake. Why would you choose to think any other way. Don’t tell people you’re just paying the bills with this gig, or just waiting for a Broadway show.
Fantasy cruise line gigs aside, this life is not easy. The question I ask myself, and you must ask yourself: Is it all worth it?
When I post pictures on social media of myself in front of a palm tree on a tropical island, I never fail to get comments like: “Geez, sucks to be you,” “Tough life,” “You have all the luck.” I even get messages telling me that my pictures are “mean” and to “stop posting so many tropical sunsets.”
Here’s my response: “Do you want my life–or your own version of my life? Like, really, really want it? Here’s how to get it:
- Spend more hours in a practice room than you can count….for ever (this never ends).
- Give up all thoughts of a “normal” college experience. You will be working as hard as a pre-med or electrical engineering major.
- Let go of having a “normal” life with a spouse, children and family time. Accept that you will spend holidays on the road or at gigs.
- Get used to hearing that you are never going to make it—from teachers, directors, friends, and often, family.
- Accept the possibility of student loan payments for as many as 30 years. You might pay them off in 15 or 20, but don’t expect to be free of student debt in 10 or fewer years the way your pals who choose investment banking or 100-hour-a-week Biglaw jobs do.
- Accept that you will live in shitty apartments in Harlem or far out Brooklyn with six roommates.
- Work 4 part-time jobs just to pay rent (waitress, nanny, receptionist, assistant).
- Make sacrifices in your personal life EVERY DAY, resulting in potential damage to friendships and other important relationships.
That’s just baseline.
So, is it all worth it? That’s what I kept asking myself on the deck, watching the sun disappear over the horizon.
To be honest, I don’t know. It’s an impossible question with no definitive answer. The best I could come up with is, “It has to be.” And if it’s not–if you cannot see past the suffering, if the small payoffs aren’t enough (because the big payoff may not come)–then it may not be worth it for you.
The sacrifices are profound. They’re often painful and long-lasting. The payoffs are fleeting. Some are are barely felt or noticed by others.
And that has to be enough.
I believe in you,
P.S. What’s your idea of “making it” or “payoff”? Are you waiting for the big gig? If so, what is it? What have you sacrificed for your art? Has it been worth it? Let me know!