Every year many bright beautiful young hopefuls come to New York City to be in “show business”. Many of them are here straight from college or graduate school, some come while still in their 20s. A few are natives to the area and don’t have to move here. They are of all types, sizes and abilities but they share an innocence, an eagerness and a lack of guile about the city and the prospects that being here, chasing their dreams, will bring to them.
It takes about two years to make headway in NYC unless you already know someone “in the business” or you have a lot (read unlimited) amount of money on which to live. Many times the young people don’t last that long. New York will eat you alive if you are not prepared for its gritty nastiness and “show business” will stomp you into the ground, ignore you and then spit in your eye while you lie bleeding in the street. It takes a very specific kind of person to somehow survive and the two years is just enough to get to a place where you know the ropes, have adjusted your expectations and understand what a big, fat ferocious battle you are in.
Each area of show business: music theater, dance, modeling, acting, musician, or singer has its expectations and criteria and its “way in”. All of them are daunting. The theater business has the clearest guidelines that can be learned relatively quickly. The music business isn’t so cut and dry but if you are good you might be able to land in 802 (the musician’s local union) and at least make a subsistence living. If you are a dancer, there are dance companies that you might be able to get into and if you are a model, there are agencies you can visit, but absolutely no one is waiting anxiously for you to knock on their door. For every job there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hopefuls and each individual is no more than another blip on a very big radar screen.
Further, the best of the best come here. At home, you might be up against the few talented, beautiful, well-trained people in your area, but here you up again the best people from every area of the country and the world. Everyone here is good, sometimes very good. If you are not, generally, you discover very quickly that you are not and either leave or change your direction. This spreads out to other areas: photography, design, directing, set design, lighting design, advertising, theater management. Everyone in every field expects only the best but there are so many here who are at the highest level that breaking in as a “newbee” is just plain tough. All of these fields have “agents”, “managers” or “representatives” who can help, but they don’t usually have interest in taking on a new client unless an old one has left.
Personally, I think the hardest thing to overcome is the relentless battle of making enough money to be able to live while trying to do whatever it is you really want to do. Only the very wealthy have an advantage in that they do not have to have what are called “job jobs” (things you do to pay the bills that have nothing to do with your particular chosen career). Some people never get out of those job jobs, they just stay there and do their “art” on the side (evenings, weekends and vacations). Others find several roommates of like mind, find the job that pays the bills, and spend the rest of their time and energy on “getting a break”. This is the same as it was nearly 100 years ago.
If your job job doesn’t kill you (and waitressing or tending bar is very hard work), even if you are working long hours in an office (the computer opened up a lot more jobs), even if you spend hours cleaning house, babysitting, walking dogs, tutoring children, or working at Starbuck’s, you still have to find time to go to auditions (or interviews). You have to have the proper clothing, shoes, and materials. You have to take classes or go to the gym or both. You have to have photos (if you are a performer) or a video of your work or a portfolio or several of these. You have to go the the hair salon, or the nail salon or the barber shop and take your clothes to the cleaners, and, oh yes, sleep and eat and pay the rent. And, you have to network. Socializing matters.
It’s amazing that anyone at all survives this rigorous baptism, but people do. Further, a good many make it into the area of “show business” or “entertainment” that they were seeking to enter and begin to build a fledging career. And a few more actually get noticed and began to get into the echelon of people who no longer have to have “job jobs” – a real mark of success. Along the way, however, there are people who just can’t take it any more. They can’t take the hassle, the struggle, the disappointments, the exhaution, the lack of progress. They begin to see, slowly, that no matter how much effort they will continue to make, no matter how much they long to be in the group that has “gotten started” that time is passing them by. Somehow, sooner or later, many of them will have to face that it isn’t going to happen and that, if they do not acknowledge this, they will spend too many years floundering around getting nowhere and being broke, miserable and alone.
I wish I could say that everyone eventually figures this out but, of course, there are always people who go on long after they should, when everyone else is saying “tsk tsk” behind their backs. But for those that face the fact that their heartfelt dream, the sweet blessed goal that they have seen in their minds for many long years, is rapidly becoming a puff of smoke, there is the crushing reality of having to give up. Nowhere else is this decision as painful and as wrenching as it is in show business and as it is in New York City. There is, after all, only one Broadway. There is only one Met Opera, only one “cover of Vogue”. You could succeed elsewhere, but elsewhere isn’t New York.
What is the solace for those who come here, try as hard as they can, and then, in saddest despair, throw in the towel? Sometimes, it is only knowing that you tried with all your might and you went down fighting. It doesn’t stop your heart from breaking but it allows you to know that even with a broken heart, life can go on. And it does.