As part of my wholehearted commitment as an artist to be 100% where I am, I took a class this year…in production accounting.

If you’d told (Artist) Colleen of the Past that she was not only going to sign up for a class about accounting, production or otherwise, she would have laughed in your face (after she came out of shock). Which is too bad, because Colleen of the Present ended up getting exactly the education Colleen of the Past should have gotten some 25-odd years ago, before embarking on an acting career.

The class featured a number of excellent industry guest speakers, each sharing their unique wisdom and experience with different facets of production accounting. During a Q&A, one of my very favorite guest speakers gave what I thought was the best advice not just for the 3 months of class, but for a happy, successful career in general: “Go be a clerk.”

The question, of course, was “What’s your best advice for breaking into the industry?” And her excellent response, loosely translated, was “Get yourself a job that allows you a 360º view of the business.”

A 360-degree view of production? As an accountant? Absolutely! You see, in production accounting, the clerk is a bottom-rung job. This means that clerks do whatever the key accountant, 1st accountant, or 2nd accountant tells them to: everything from answering phones to making Staples runs to data entry (oh, the data entry!).

But in the course of their 2 or 4 or 6 months on a show, while they’re making runs to the set to hand out petty cash and the production office to collect signatures, they are interacting with everyone from grips to the UPM. More than anyone on a set, the clerk gets a sweeping survey of how a production works, and what kind of job on a production might be best suited to them.

Okay, you say. Maybe that’s great for someone looking to break into entertainment, but without a clue as to what aspect. I have an aspect! I want to be an actor!

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that an actor try to get a clerking gig on a show to learn the ropes, I would absolutely suggest that an actor do whatever they can to familiarize themselves with the various aspects of production in a hands-on way.

First of all, it’s useful to know what goes on between your takes. I’m being sarcastic, but only slightly. When I was an actor, I thought I knew everything about how production worked because I’d spent so much time on commercial sets. I was fluent enough in the roles, the slang, the rhythm of a day’s shooting. I even knew things about prep and post that some crew members wouldn’t, given I was seeing a commercial through from concept to delivery.

But while it’s true I knew more than your average bear, there were all kinds of things I had no idea about when it came to set protocol. The biggest discovery, which only dawned on me in hindsight, was how much a set is like a big family, or a little company. These people are co-workers with a history, either because this is Season 3, Episode 5, or because they know each other from “around the campus” (production is a very, very small world). I came galumphing in as a day player like a bull in a china shop, outing myself for the outsider I was. Looking back, it’s painful to see how clueless I was regarding the nuances of set protocol.

Secondly, developing an understanding of and respect for the mind-boggling amount of talent, energy and resources that go into creating a piece of entertainment is a humbling experience, and actors can always use more of that. If you can take six months out of your life to clerk or PA or take an assistant job, I believe you’ll have a leg up on the actor who hasn’t. Background work can be useful, too, but only if you approach it as a chance to be educated (and of service), not just a chance to get bumped up to principal.

And who knows? You may even discover that life on the other side of the camera is actually something you prefer. I’m happier now in a (very) ancillary entertainment role than I ever was on camera, give or take a few peak experiences.

But whether you end up defecting to crew or remain true-blue to your current craft, you’ll be a smarter, more well-rounded—and probably well-liked—worker. You’ll move with confidence on and off the set, make friends and allies more easily, and better position yourself for longevity. You’ll discover the joys of being a team player, a small part of a bigger whole, making entertainment for the rest of the world.

And that’s the best vantage point of all!


BOOKS OF THE MONTH: I’ve been on a short stories kick of late, devouring two outstanding collections in a matter of days. You Think It, I’ll Say It gives several peeks into the world of white privilege (subset: overly educated) and much more surprisingly, into the minds of its various world-weary protagonists. Curtis Sittenfeld (author of the best-selling novel Prep) is even more gifted in the short form. Lots of terrific character studies bring your so-called dull characters to life. Even more startling are the chewy revelations in Scary Old Sex, a collection from first-time writer (and life-long shrink) Arlene Heyman. You’ll see a new side to older folks if you’re not there yet, and get a schooling from one who knows (a shrink!) about the secrets lurking in hearts of all ages, under all sorts of unusual circumstances.

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “The Communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.

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