I vacillate between thinking I’m a superhero who can leave her phone on the nightstand with the ringer on high to be the first to catch those east coast, early morning ASAPs, and thinking I just want to be left alone. Like, forever. This past year, I dropped some coin and put together a small, fantastic travel case with recording gear that duplicates everything in my booth at home for recording on the road. But what I really want is to get on a plane and spend a week away without my gear. Back and forth, back and forth… Oh, how I vacillate. It’s a conundrum.
You know what I really want, though? Balance. I want a career AND I want a life. And what I’ve learned in my years on this planet is that balance requires boundaries.
We voice actors are bombarded on social media with not-so-subtle messages from agents, managers, coaches, and colleagues from all over the flippin’ globe telling us to:
“Step up our game!”
“Eat, sleep, breathe VOICEOVER!”
“Be available 24/7!”
“If you’re not training, you’re not growing!”
The list of work-shaming memes goes on…
Well, pardon my French, but I call bullshit.
I had a career-coaching session last week with a truly lovely and quite successful voice actor whom I’d never met before. She wanted to cultivate her commercial career, but had so many other types of auditions in her inbox every day from agents across the country and had cultivated so many ongoing corporate clients of her own, she couldn’t see straight. She assured me she was grateful for the work. We actors quickly qualify with gratitude anything that smacks of complaint because we’ve been made to believe we’re “lucky” to do the work we do and therefore must obey the unspoken rule that actors must never complain of the trials of their work. She had lost any sense of joy she once had in doing voiceover and was in such a state of internal overwhelm that her throat had begun to constrict. And she felt guilty about it. On top of that, as is all-too-common in the country at the moment, her spouse had lost his job and she’d become the primary bread winner for her family. Did I mention she was having some serious health issues? It’s no wonder her throat was closing up and she wasn’t finding any more joy.
It goes against conventional wisdom for voice actors, but I’m here to tell you you can’t do it all, or at the very least, you shouldn’t. You will lose your joy. You will burn out. You will become resentful, and both your career and your life will suffer. Left unchecked, you risk losing your marriage and your family. I’ve seen it happen more than once.
How do we remedy this all-too-common problem? We set boundaries. We set boundaries that include caring for ourselves and our families as well as our clients. And for those of you who think your agents will be unhappy about this, you are incorrect. They will applaud and support you, as long as you are forthright with them, keep the lines of communication open, and continue to do good work.
I suggested to the aforementioned client that she do some prioritizing and let her agents know what’s up. Notice I didn’t suggest she ask their permission. If we have agents, we sometimes need reminding that we have a partnership with them. They are not, as our tyrannical toddlers like to say, “the boss of us.” I suggested she prioritize her work and auditions in the following manner:
This may mean she’ll pass on quite a few auditions. That’s okay. Do you hear me? That’s okay. There will always be more auditions in the queue. To quote Scarlett O’Hara “Tomorrow is another day.” You are not abandoning your career if you pass on auditions. You are, in fact, refining your career when you choose the work that interests and motivates you. You are honing your brand. We are not whores obligated to every trick who darkens our door—pardon the unsavory metaphor.
The second part of this is vitally important. Let your agents know your plan. Send a thoughtful, concise email letting them know what’s up in your life and how you intend to prioritize. Ask them to let you know when there are auditions they think you are particularly right for or that they really need you to submit. Sometimes you're on a shortlist right from the start, and you don't want to miss those. Express your gratitude for them. Let them know how much you appreciate their work on your behalf. And if you have something going on in your life – a sick child, parent, or dog, a doctor’s appointment, another difficult situation you are contending with - let them know. Early in 2020 I essentially took 6 weeks off from focused auditioning to help a lifelong friend through her cancer treatment. My agents could not have been more kind, helpful, understanding, and accommodating. But if I’d not told them, they would’ve thought I’d fallen off the face of the earth, and that would not have been good.
You are the one who gets to determine your hours. It’s your career, and it’s your life. If you have children in school (pandemic notwithstanding) you get to make yourself unavailable in the window of time during which you drop off and pick them up. If you have a family to feed at 5pm, get cooking. If you need to exercise (and we ALL need to exercise) you must schedule it for yourself; block the time on your calendar, and book out, so your exercise goes undisturbed.
Let me clarify something here. If you work (or want to work) in promo, which is a genre of voiceover that requires your immediate attention and close proximity to your studio, you have committed yourself to a high-alert career. If you go anywhere, you will need to be hyper-vigilant in your communication with your agents. I have a friend and colleague who works a great deal in promo and affiliate news. She is sometimes called to sub for a major network morning show for a week at a time and, when she is, she alters her schedule to do the work. She does this because it is work she finds worthy of such a choice. She happens also to be committed to her physical health and well-being and often goes on hour long hikes in the hills near her home. Before she goes, she lets her agent’s assistant know to text her if something urgent comes in, as a phone call in the hills will not come through. The point, as illustrated here, is to over-communicate with your agents and/or your clients when you intend to be off-grid.
There will always be work valuable enough to you that you’ll be willing to tailor-make your schedule. You get to choose the work you want to do, and you’ll choose to organize your life accordingly. I get auditions nearly every week for small vo bits in a late-night talk show. I pass on them every single time because I’d have to be within 5 minutes of my studio all day long. I’m not willing to do that, so I forego the auditions. There may come a time when I choose differently, but for now, I’m opting for a different life. By definition, choosing one thing means excluding another. So, will you miss out on some jobs? Yes. Will more opportunities come when you make such decisions? Absolutely. Will you survive? Yes. In fact, once you begin to honor your life and find a steady groove, you will thrive. There is nothing like self-determination and the engagement of your own agency to give you a sense of mastery over your life.
If you work on your own without representation, I’ll bet setting up a schedule that includes caring for yourself will be even more challenging. We humans can be hard on ourselves. We actors can be doubly so because, again, our work is perceived as “fun” and a “luxury” by most outside of our business. So, if you’re among the many who are true vo entrepreneurs cultivating your own work, I encourage you to be doubly mindful of your needs. I find this terribly difficult as I’m not prone to caring well for myself. I’m getting better at it the older I get and when I am consistent, I really do find myself rested, productive, happy, and thriving.
I know 2020 threw us all under the bus in one way or another and wreaked havoc on our way of doing every last thing. But it’s now 2021, and by God, there’s still time to make the choice to own your career and create your life on your terms. It’s paradoxical, but by drawing a clear boundary, you’ll set yourself free.
Trust and Be Brave,