by R.S. Mellette
When I was a drama student at North Carolina School of the Arts, I remember saying to my young self with great dedication, "If you can't put 'actor' as your occupation on your tax forms, then you can't call yourself an actor." Almost a decade later I was doing garage-band level theatre here in Los Angeles with some of the most talented people I'd ever seen—and I'd seen a lot. I was also working with the worst, least trained, people who ever trod the boards. Neither the best nor the worst were able to pay their bills from their acting salaries, but I definitely called the good ones actors, and reassessed my youthful definition.
I reasoned that, once a karate student earns a black belt they can forever be called an expert. Sure, they might get out of shape. They might get slow. They may never practice their martial art again, but their training and their knowledge will never go away. The arts are like that.
If you can turn words on a page into a believable living character on the stage or screen, then you can call yourself an actor. If you can turn blank paper into a story that resonates, then you're a writer. A white canvas, a hunk of rock, an empty stage, a string pulled tight over a piece of wood, a drum, a horn, a dance floor, a piece of clay, a camera, words. These are the artist's tools—and if you take the time to master them, then you can call yourself an artist.
Being able to put "artist" on your tax forms is a whole different subject, and one worth pursuing, but if you never reach that goal do not hang your head. Van Gogh never did either. If you happen to earn a Beverly Hills mansion with your talents, you will be wise not to judge your scene partners, or directors, or writers, or the struggling musicians who clean your pool by the size of their paychecks or lack thereof. Bill Withers wrote Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone, Lean On Me, and so many other songs while installing toilets in 747 airplanes.
We work in a business with 100% unemployment 100% of the time. Those lucky enough to land a job have it on a temporary basis. When there is an opening, a million people apply for the single position. When you submit that query, or go to that audition, or show your portfolio—if you are prepared, if you have mastered your craft—then you are not a civilian hoping to be able to put "writer" or "actor" or "visual artist" on your tax forms, you are an Artist, period. Yes, you need a job, but because of the hard work and discipline you've acquired, you are the best person for that job.
So if you are just starting out, great. Everyone is an apprentice at some point. If you have been at it for a while, but are still struggling, then welcome Journeyman. Let us learn together. If you are a seasoned Master Craftsman, then please share what tricks of the trade you're ready to let out of your bag, that we might call you a mentor—and if you are truly a master, you'll know there is much you may learn from beginners.
Thanks for reading.