Misconception Series: If you were good enough you wouldn’t need a day job

"If you were good enough you wouldn’t need a day job."

That’s the message I received over and over again growing up – I wanted to work in theatre, and everyone knew that an aspiring theatremaker would wait tables or pull pints for a while before getting the Big Break and never looking back. It all sounded so straightforward – you work hard, eventually, someone notices your talent, and you get the career you deserve. If you didn’t, it’s because you either weren’t good enough or didn’t work hard enough.

Of course, I didn’t know anyone who actually worked in theatre. My perception was shaped by films, TV shows, and interviews – fictional and heavily edited narratives. Drama school reinforced the idea that hard work and talent were what it took and that anything but uncomplicated success was a personal failure.

Once I was out of drama school, however, a different picture began to form. I saw brilliant actors work themselves so hard they burned out and quit. I knew how hard I was working and I wasn’t getting anywhere, so did that mean I wasn’t good enough? I was looking for directing jobs and couldn’t get hired, so I took on more work at my day job to earn enough money to stage my own work. That’s a surefire way to get noticed, right?

Except that’s not what happened. I made my own work, it took a long time to add up to being offered paid work, and I still needed a day job. I won a prestigious award and still needed a day job. Over the past year, I’ve had my first opera performed, I’ve been on international residencies, my first book got published, and I directed a popular Fringe show which is currently booking tour dates in the US and Canada. People look at my CV and website and tell me I have an enviable and successful career, and I agree. But I still teach acting classes. That’s still my money job. I just no longer think it has anything to do with how good I am. It has everything to do with theatre being an industry that doesn’t pay well and where work is sporadic.

Day rates often make it sound like theatre is well-paid – and sure, if you were getting that day rate every working day for 48-50 weeks a year, it would be. But remember that it’s covering you for all the days you don’t get paid for – the days when you’re doing applications/self-tapes, going to auditions/interviews, learning new skills, prepping for rehearsals. The number of days you spend putting in work and the number of days you get paid for are not the same thing.

I’m not telling you this to put you off. I love what I do and I regret nothing. I’m lucky enough to really like my money job, too – nurturing new actors is one of my favourite things to do. I’m telling you all of this because if you’re someone who needs a money job while you find your feet in the industry, it’s good to put some thought into what that will be. You want something that will pay your bills but leave you with enough energy to put into your art. Ideally, you want something that connects to your art rather than taking you away from it, like teaching or ushering or script reading, where you might also meet future collaborators who are also walking the longer path and experiencing the same self-doubt as you. Have faith in each other, and in yourself, and trust that the quality of your work will get you to where you need to be – and that needing a money job is no reflection of anything except many years of the arts being undersupported.

Written by Jen McGregor (any pronouns), director/playwright/dramaturg. Working in theatre since 2011 – making a living at it since 2018!

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