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What Wall Street Can Learn From Actors

Wall Street workers are stressed these days wondering if they will still have jobs in the coming months. Their fears are valid. On October 23rd, The Associated Press reported, “More than 110,000 have lost their jobs so far this year, and some industry experts forecast it could come close to 200,000 before the year is over.” Certainly, it’s unsettling to lose a job. But for so many other New Yorkers this is a common reality.

New York City is known for being a financial capital as well as a cultural center. Contrasting the wealth seen on Wall Street over the years are the low-income artists living on the fringe. Performers are often faced with problems now felt by workers in the financial sector. Wall Street workers can actually learn a lot from artists during this time of economic instability. Here are a few things actors can teach the suits in lower Manhattan.

First, it’s completely possible to live in New York City for under $30,000. This will come as a shock to those in finance, especially since MBA interns on Wall Street have been paid $20,000 for a summer of work. Meanwhile, the median annual income for an actor is $23,400, according to the 2008 National Endowment for the Arts report titled Artists in the Workforce. If actors with no financial training can get by in an expensive city like New York, then surely the financial experts can figure out a way to make their money go far too. Living on little will mean moving to a cheaper apartment, no longer shopping at Whole Foods, eating at home, and rarely taking cabs. It will mean living more like a struggling artist.

Second, it’s necessary to develop psychological flexibility. Actors are often in between jobs, and they are pros at adjusting quickly to new circumstances. Actors’ Equity Association reports that members of its union work professionally in theater on average 17 weeks per year. With job instability and fluctuating employment, actors regularly find themselves looking for work, and they can easily go with the flow once in a new environment. Actors, after all, are trained at improvisation. The basic rule taught in an improv class is for a performer to say, “Yes and…” to whatever scenario is thrown at them. This training transcends the classroom and leaves actors with the ability to accept situations and shift as needed. Performer and writer Erica Lies, who studied improvisation at the Magnet Theater in midtown Manhattan, says, “Improv gets you into a state of mind where you are much more comfortable figuring things out as you go, instead of having an established framework before you step into something.”

Third, it’s essential to acquire professional skills in many areas. Since actors are faced with unemployment more regularly than workers in other sectors, actors know they need to leverage a broad range of skills. They are savvy at marketing because they constantly have to promote themselves. They have remarkable customer service skills after years of restaurant and receptionist jobs. They are trained to take direction well, which benefits them both onstage and off. And the best actors have good listening skills—since acting is not just about memorizing lines, but listening and responding in each new moment. It’s this wide range of experiences that makes them good employees in many professional environments, optimizing their work opportunities.

Wall Street workers will likely cringe at these suggestions. They’ll say they can’t possibly live differently because they are not accustomed to a meager salary or bouts of unemployment. They might even say they chose to study finance so that they could live a certain lifestyle. But the truth is they will not be protected from the challenges commonly faced by others. An over–inflated belief in the market alone will not pay their rent.

The folks on Wall Street are learning lessons about the job market that actors have always understood: expect fluctuations in employment, shift your strategy before the money runs out, and continually keep an eye out for new work. For Wall Street employees stressing over potential job losses, the answers might be closer than they think. It’s likely the temp-by-day, actor-by-night working down the hall can offer the best advice on how to get by in these tough times.


Tara Bracco

Tara Bracco is a performance artist and the founder of Poetic People Power.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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