Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com
Actor Rick Moranis at the 1990 Academy Awards, at the height of his career. Moranis’ wife died of breast cancer shortly after, prompting him to quit acting to raise his children. Moranis has released the odd album and performed as a voice actor since, but has never returned to live-action movies. Photo by Alan Light.
“Quitting the business is easy, quitting who you are is impossible.”
– Chicago actor Brandy McClendon Kae
INNER MISSION: Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.
Final Curtain: Knowing When Enough Is Enough
by Bill Harrison, MA, LPC
A couple of months ago my friend Ericka Mac, a talented and accomplished actor/dancer/choreographer, posed a question similar to this on her Facebook page: “If you’re a retired theatre artist, what made you decide to stop doing theatre professionally? What has been your experience after making the decision to quit the biz?”
The answers people posted surprised me by being almost entirely positive. Of course, it’s possible that people who had good experiences were more likely to chime in, but the reasons people gave and the results of the choices they made were fascinating. It was heartening to see how many folks were willing to share their stories about something so personal and that seems to be a taboo subject for many performers. How do you know if and when leaving show business is the right choice for you? When is enough enough?
Why People Quit the Biz
By the age of 30, more than half of American actors and dancers will have given up their professions. The most commonly cited reasons for leaving the business are directly related to the nuts and bolts of the business itself. An individual might stop getting called in to audition or have increasing difficulties getting cast. This often has to do with aging, especially for women (for whom the dearth of good parts for anyone over 35 is widely known). Many performers find that they are simply not able to make enough money performing to sustain a decent standard of living, even if they work consistently.
People also retire from show biz due to quality of life issues. Working in the theatre often prevents people from having a ‘normal’ life. Not only do the hours tend to be long, but performers also work when just about everyone else is not working, primarily evenings and weekends. Actors often have to drive great distances to auditions and inconveniently located theatres. The physical demands (on the bodies of dancers, and on the bodies and voices of actors) can limit what performers can do outside of classes and work. Some people leave the biz as a result of an illness, injury or for other health-related reasons.
Finally, there are the psychological and emotional reasons that performers leave the business. Many people cite the toll that auditioning takes. The anxiety, judgment, arbitrariness and relentlessness of the auditioning process can be psychologically taxing. During my brief tenure as an actor I remember telling myself that as soon as auditioning stopped being fun I’d quit. That took about two years. For some, escaping the shame and anxiety around financial instability drives them to find a different career. For others, leaving behind the bitterness, resentment and disappointment that can accrue from the vagaries of the business is the impetus for letting go. For some, performing itself is stressful. Having to be intensely emotionally engaged for eight shows a week can be quite challenging. One actor keenly observed that it is easy to be blinded by false optimism and naiveté when one is young. With a bit of age and experience, the reality of the true nature of the profession becomes apparent; the harsh reality can cause some folks to choose to opt out.
How People Quit the Biz
Some performers get to a certain point in their careers and actively make a conscious choice to stop auditioning and accepting gigs. Many others gradually transition from their performing life to other jobs or pursuits, either by choice or by happenstance. Sometimes events unrelated to the business cause a shift in priorities, such as the beginning or ending of a romantic relationship, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, having to care for a sick family member, the sudden loss of a day job (or the support of a partner’s job), having to relocate, etc. Some performers find that they become increasingly attracted to a different form of artistic expression or to another career path entirely.
Pros of leaving showbiz
The overwhelming majority of actors and dancers report that the best aspect of leaving showbiz is experiencing financial stability, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives. Receiving a steady, decent paycheck that actually allows a person to meet their financial responsibilities can feel like a miracle. Performers’ minds boggle at the thought of having such perks as employer-based health insurance, paid vacations and sick days. Having a ‘straight’ job makes it far more likely that one might be able to finally pay off those school loans and otherwise get out of debt. Many theatre artists rejoice at the realization that their livelihood no longer depends on the whims of strangers sitting behind a casting table. Financial stability can also help people feel more in control of their own destinies. Performers often have to work at least one non-theatrical job to make ends meet, so the idea of not working 50 or 60 hours a week can be very liberating.
Retiring from show business might be a precursor for finding a different sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Many actors and dancers have been performing since they were young children. Some may have found themselves involved in the theatre more or less unconsciously or involuntarily; they do it because it’s what they’ve always done. It is certainly possible that one might discover aspects of oneself that were previously unknown or dormant.
Cons of leaving showbiz
There’s not only a taboo against discussing leaving show business, there’s also a persistent stigma around actually doing it. To choose a different path can induce a person to feel like a failure. Leaving performing behind can cause a powerful sense of loss. Because so many theatre artists are heavily invested in their identities as ‘actors’ or ‘dancers’, leaving the profession can feel like a real crisis. Who will I be if I’m not onstage? Depression and anxiety are often brought on by this identity crisis. The uncertainties around ‘what’s next?’ can make matters worse if a person doesn’t have much clarity about their next steps.
Some folks really miss the thrill of being onstage. They miss the engagement in storytelling and the collaborations with their peers. People frequently feel uncomfortably disconnected from their former community. Sometimes they envy their peers who are still in the biz or feel resentful towards the younger people newly entering the profession who are getting the gigs they used to land. Some people struggle with guilt resulting from the fear of being judged for being ungrateful for the artistic gifts they’ve been given.
What people do when they quit
Some performers stay connected to the theatre by working behind the scenes. They direct, choreograph, work in arts administration, teach drama or dance. Others develop different artistic skills (writing, music, graphic arts) and find work and/or satisfaction from those paths. Some people are able to go back to graduate school and pursue other professions. In addition to seeking (and hopefully finding) gainful employment, some former professionals practice their craft in school- or community-based theatres. In short, most actors and dancers who leave their professional careers behind find a huge variety of engaging, fulfilling pursuits. There is life after the theatre.
How about you?
If you’re relatively new to show biz, these questions might not apply to you at present. But if you’re ‘of a certain age’, have you considered giving up performing professionally? If so, why? How would you do it? Are you perhaps in the midst of a transition now? What’s pushing you forward or holding you back?
I invite you to comment below or, if you’re interested in discussing it further confidentially, please get in touch with me here: [email protected].
Bill Harrison is a contributing writer for PerformInk who’s past INNER MISSION articles can be found by clicking here.