Working Actor Interim Report
Coleman Fellow Interim Report by Sean T. Morrissey - January 20, 2012
Prior to becoming a college professor, I earned my living as a performing artist, or more specifically a chorus boy. I sang and danced in musicals and revues across the country, on cruise ships, in Asia and Europe and ultimately on Broadway. During my 16 year career in the entertainment industry I had experienced many triumphs and made many mistakes, the biggest of which was not fully recognizing the importance of treating my career as a real business.
When I arrived at Millikin University 13 years ago, I found the graduating seniors in the Department of Theatre and Dance had little to no practical knowledge of the world they were about to enter. They didn’t know who the leading players in the industry were, they didn’t know a good headshot from a bad one, they were all but clue-free about how to design a resume that made them stand out, and they all naively thought that talent alone was going to put them on a rocket to stardom. These students had great talent and were very well trained, but their lack of fundamental knowledge of how the industry works meant they would be spending several years making one avoidable mistake after another, each of which would move them further away from their goal of earning a living as a working actor. In an industry that typically posts an unemployment rate of approximately 95% each and every day, minor mistakes can end a career before it begins. Thus, The Working Actor was born.
The Working Actor was designed to introduce students to “the business of ‘the business.’” The course focuses on a number of topics including getting to know the names and faces that drive the industry, understanding trends, identifying target markets, setting professional goals, becoming familiar with industry standards and practices, and most importantly, treating a career in the performing arts as a business. These are all things at which artists typically cringe and feel stifle their creativity. The Working Actor was created to remove the fear of doing business in an competitive industry and translate that which is often looked upon as tedious and unfulfilling into a technique which, when combined with talent and passion, will become part of actors’ daily efforts to move their careers forward.
My knowledge of the New York theatrical market is extensive. After 16 years of navigating both the and non- arenas, I am able to offer my students a comprehensive look at the nuances of doing business in a cut-throat industry while teaching them how to avoid making amateurish mistakes that will likely guarantee them a prominent place in the unemployment line. The problem I face, however, is that not all of my students choose to target the New York market.
My focus with the Coleman Fellowship is to learn more about the thriving theatre communities outside of New York so I can better assist my students in identifying their target markets and offer them tools with which to seamlessly transition from an academic environment to a professional one. As such, my work is currently focused on better understanding the performing arts community in Chicago and what it has to offer young artists. My research has included gathering information about Actors Equity Association’s (AEA) presence in Chicago and how rules vary from those in New York. I have been studying the array of contracts offered by AEA in the various Chicago venues. I am gathering information about the thriving non- market and the many types of opportunities it has to offer. I have visited a number of facilities and continue to research a variety of resources available to performing artists that may assist them in building valuable professional relationships. I have also spent time learning the physical layout of the city of Chicago, familiarizing myself with places actors typically have to visit to conduct business, acquiring first-hand knowledge of how the Chicago Transit Authority system works, and acquainting myself with the people who drive the market trends.
While my research is ongoing, the information I have gathered has had a significant impact on the quality and quantity of information I am able to deliver in this class. As time and resources permit, I plan to add additional markets to my research such as Minneapolis, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia to broaden the scope of information I am able to offer our students. While a traditional definition of entrepreneurship may not fit the typical freelance performing artist like a well tailored suit, the process of thinking entrepreneurially is a valuable tool that can assist a working actor in his/her pursuit of building and maintaining a career in the arts. The Working Actor, I hope, will not only encourage our students to embed entrepreneurial practices into their career building skills, but also allow them to spill out of the classroom and into our departmental culture.