Actor Survival Job – More Than Just the Money


Katie WallackA friend of mine recently booked a series that is shooting out of the country. The bar she worked at had a going away party that coincided with her last shift. It was one of the most loving, heartfelt, fun going away parties that I had ever attended. And it got me thinking about ‘Actor Survival Jobs’ – the stigma, the deeper need and how we’ve been going about it all wrong.

First off the name – ‘Survival.’ It’s dramatic and severe. It reeks of desperation and impending doom. People survive wars. People survive cancer. People survive danger, trauma, their mother… We all know the challenges of pursuing art, is it necessary to needle ourselves further with the term “survival’? When do we use that term? Mostly while defending ourselves. ‘This is just my survival job, I’m an actor.” (Don’t even get me started on the word JUST.)

Google actor survival jobs and you will find suggestions on how to find flexible temp work and gigs; something beyond the grind of the typical actor job like waiting tables. SIDEBAR – when I lived in NYC, I was a waiter for one shift. I am skilled at many things and being a server is not one of them. I did the temp work / gig thing. It was lonely. New jobs all the time, new people. Constantly in flux. Being a working actor is very similar – auditions, new gigs, new set of people for 1 – 4 days, then back to the hustle. It’s hard to hustle for survival jobs AND acting work. It takes too much of the same energy and I felt scattered. The benefit of being a waiter is that you work in one place with the same people. And if it’s the right fit and atmosphere, that is your home away from home, which most of us are. Away from home.

That is what I saw and felt at this going away party. It felt like authentic hometown friends and family sending off their friend with love and luck. It was remarkable and beautiful.

The place was packed with people for the party. The owner of the company was there, what looked like the entire staff whether they were working or not, regular customers and friends. At the end of her shift, my friend held court telling funny stories of their working together and an emotional impromptu speech of appreciation to the co-worker who covered her shift for the audition that booked her this game changing role. The owner was in tears – everyone was in tears. There was an absence of betrayal from the business owner that my friend was leaving, or jealousy from co-workers. Customers came to say goodbye and good luck. There was a genuine appreciation for everyone and the part they played in the relationship – the customers appreciated the service and atmosphere, the co-workers appreciated each other and the work, the owner appreciated the team she assembled and their service to public.

Business owners like this who genuinely support their staff’s artistic priorities get loyalty and excellent employees in return. Talented actors dedicated to their careers are the hardest working people on the planet. Employers that give the space, flexibility and respect to said actors, know that in return for that trust they get an employee that will deliver above and beyond. The trust is invaluable because the stigma is so severe. (Actors are always late, Actors are lazy, Actors are flaky. I’ll get into the weeds if I go into why this reputation follows us so I’ll leave it for another time.)

A quality survival job is so much more than the money to pay for rent. It is a place of stability and support. A place to feel appreciated for a job well done. Validation for positive contribution to our community is a basic need. The relentless ongoing silence after auditions breeds doubt among the most seasoned actors after a while. In the moment appreciation is essential, otherwise it can feel like you are disappearing. And yes, that same consistent in the moment appreciation at the survival job can become so rewarding that it distracts the larger acting goal, but we still need it. Especially when the place we call ‘Home’ and old friends are far away.

It’s tough anyway you slice it. But a job with generous co-workers and friendly customers who help create an environment of mutual exchange under the leadership of a supportive employers can help soften the edges the journey.

We need to find a word to replace ‘Survival.’ We need to give ourselves a break from the war of art. Something softer that acknowledges the honor in working a job that supports your basic needs while on the pursuit of a greater vision. Actors aren’t the only ones in the world who are rising to that challenge. Let’s find an appropriate word to communicate that courage and dignity. Suggestions welcome.

I want to give a shout out to Beer Belly – that’s the bar that supported my friend and gave her the opportunity to take her career to the next level. It’s inspiring to know businesses like yours are out there. I want to thank you and all your fabulous employees for your contribution to artists and craft beer drinkers of LA.


After I wrote this piece I was introduced to the term THRIVAL JOB.

I hadn’t heard of this term before but Ms. In The Biz founder Helenna Santos coined it term back in 2008 after feeling icky about having to use the term survival job. I think we can all agree that “ICKY” is the feeling we’ve been talking about here folks.


/Thrīv’īvəl jäb/


1) The job that helps one “thrive” while being an artist.

And for those times when we need more than the money and the lonely artist grind, a supportive THRIVAL job employer and community can be the thing that keeps you in the leap of faith mindset vs the leap off the Hollywood Sign, RIP Peg Entwistle.

NOTE: if you are looking for some great “thrival jobs” check out Paula Rhode’s list HERE!