To be a good actor, you have to have people skills. You must be a quick study and a keen observer, with a broad, analytical knowledge base. Foreign language skills are encouraged. Organizational abilities are a must. Punctuality is key.
Turns out, that skill set also is attractive to other employers. Which is a good thing, because many actors can’t make a living solely off their craft. They must cobble together side jobs, which not only help pay the bills, but also inform their acting roles.
But all that multitasking can be tiring.
“You just have to take a lot of vitamins,” says Bobby Smith, an actor who teaches children’s tap dance classes and is all too used to running lines in his car on the way to work.
Rena Cherry Brown, an actress who writes children’s books, shares Smith’s pain. “You’ve been working all day, and you have to show up at night and be crisp and be fresh and be sharp, and you can’t miss a line,” she says.
And sometimes you have to make heartbreaking choices.
“I’ve turned down three feature films in the last three years,” says actor Michael Anthony Williams, who is a criminology researcher. “They would have taken me away for a period of time. The university would not have been happy.”
Still, Brown says, actors are not the only professionals who have to juggle projects and passions.
“It’s like any other very busy person who has endeavors that they do outside,” she says. “The only difference is, you have homework. You have to be someplace at a very specific time. You can’t keep people waiting. You have a contract telling you to be there. I think people in theater feel an additional pressure about that, because the show can’t go on without you.”
We spoke with five local actors about the roles they play when they’re not onstage.
Most recent role: Missis in “101 Dalmatians” at Imagination Stage.
Day job: Standardized patient at George Washington University and Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
A woman who carries a plastic baby doll into a doctor’s office and interacts with it as if it were real might be considered a bit unhinged. But for Caroline Wolfson, a standardized patient — an actor employed by a medical school to help students learn how to treat patients — it’s just a typical day at work. The job involves enacting certain scenarios — say, a middle-aged man complaining of chest pain or a woman in labor — to help the aspiring doctors practice their skills in a low-stakes environment and learn about bedside manner.
One of Wolfson’s recurring roles? A new mother having trouble breastfeeding.
“You wear a very baggy shirt, and you have a bra, and it has a fake breast in it,” Wolfson says. “You have your plastic baby, and [students] are supposed to counsel you on breastfeeding.”
Although the set-up might seem absurd to an outsider, it’s an important part of medical training, and everyone in the scenario takes it seriously, treating the doll as if it were real.
“There’s something about it that is just strange and weird,” Wolfson says. “You have to put on your professionalism hat.”
Typically, the schools send scenarios for Wolfson to memorize a week before she’s expected to present them in a mock clinic. As a 24-year-old, the actress typically plays teenagers or college students in scenes that range from the basic, such as being counseled on her birth control options, to the intense, such as portraying a paranoid schizophrenic or someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis. It’s a great gig for performers to practice their skills and flex their acting muscles.
“Every time they deliver the bad news, you have to react,” Wolfson says. “I was always pretty good at fake crying. I think I have a lot of feelings, so it’s easy to set myself off.”
When Wolfson gives the students constructive criticism about their nonverbal communication skills, such as their attentiveness or warmth, she’s teaching them acting skills, in a roundabout way. And Wolfson has picked up an interest in medicine from them as well.
“If any one of my friends or family are experiencing an ailment of any kind,” she says, “I’m like, ‘Oh, how long have you been experiencing this pain? Is it sharp?’ ”
Most recent role: Ernst in “Cabaret” at Signature
Day job: Tap dance instructor.
It has been 15 years since Bobby Smith began teaching children’s tap classes at Stage Workz in Millersville, Md., and some of his students have become his co-stars.
“It’s a lovely thing to see,” he says. “The baby bird flies.”
His former charges may have followed in his footsteps, but the actor/rhythm tap instructor is modest about his role in their stage successes.
“It’s not like I’ve taught them everything they know,” Smith says. “All I did was give them a little seed.”
That seed was planted years ago, when Smith moved back to the Washington area from New York and was looking for a side gig. He began teaching at Stage Workz on Mondays, his only day off from shows, as the dance school was one of the only ones that understood his difficult schedule.
“[It’s] the only place that will allow me to say, ‘You guys, I’m so sick’ or ‘I’m so tired,’ and they’ll allow me to take the day off,” he says. “It’s really hard to desert the students. You’re invested in their lives and their growth as artists.”
Smith also works for the Talent Machine, a summer program affiliated with the school, which stages a big musical every year. Previous productions have included “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Brigadoon” and “Crazy for You,” a show that Smith performed on Broadway.
Smith says he finds the crossover between his professional acting — often in musicals at Signature Theatre — and his educational work not only enlightening for students, but also an excellent way for him to multitask. Sometimes, he’ll teach students the routines he learned that day in rehearsal.
“I will steal people’s choreography in a second and bring it back for [students],” he says. He tells his students, “This is what I’ve learned today. Let’s do 10 counts of eight of this, and see what you can learn.”
Day job: Criminology researcher for George Mason
Before Michael Anthony Williams began his job as a criminology researcher for George Mason University, his interviewer asked him to watch episodes of “The Wire,” the famously realistic Baltimore crime show. Williams didn’t need to — he had had a minor, recurring role in the first season. (He had also appeared on another Baltimore-set crime show, “Homicide.”)
Williams, who has acted on many Washington stages, says he was drawn to GMU’s Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence through his work on crime dramas. For three years, he has been driving to Baltimore to interview former inmates about their experiences behind bars, as well as their drug and alcohol use.
“I didn’t know where this would fit in and how this would help me with my craft, but I trusted that at some point I’d be able to use my work during the day with my art,” the actor says.
Turns out, it has been easy to take what he has learned in his day job to the stage: Williams’s most recent role was in MetroStage’s “The Island,” in which he played a South African political prisoner. (The show ended its run early when Williams and his co-star sustained injuries; he will reprise the role this summer.) Williams also was in Arena Stage’s “King Hedley” this year; he played Elmore, a murderer.
“I was able to use my relationship with some of my clients from that study to put that character together,” he says. “When you spend your life creating other people, you have a heightened sensibility about others.”
Williams estimates that he has screened more than 1,400 people for a program that counsels former prisoners about substance abuse. He says he thinks he’s making a difference in an underserved community, but the work can be grim.
“I compartmentalize everything,” Williams says. “It’s easier to forget about the daytime gig when I’m performing at night. When I’m not performing at night, then I have a bunch of time to sit and think about what I did during the day, and it’s depressing.”
Most recent role: A Holocaust survivor and other characters in “G-d’s Honest Truth” at Theater J.
Day job: Author of children’s books.
It was the sight of a wooden boat that led to Rena Cherry Brown’s second career.
“This little boat was hitched to a dock, and I thought, ‘How did it get there?’ ” Brown says. “It wasn’t always a boat. It was a tree.”
The actress, who has worked with many local companies, had always wanted to write a book, but life got in the way. She finally got her chance in 2009, when she self-published “Where Do I Belong?,” a children’s book about a Loblolly tree that loses its leaves, its bark and its branches, eventually becoming the mast of a ship. She followed up with “Otter Lee Brave,” published by Schiffer Publishing in 2012.
“All actors tend to be keen observers of human nature,” Brown says. “I think I’ve just taken a different step. I’m an observer of human nature, but then I put it into a story for children.”
Brown chooses to write between acting jobs, as she has found it difficult to tell two stories at the same time.
“You keep that play, those lines, up there in the front all the time. You can’t let them fade back. You’d have to relearn them,” she says. “When I’m done with a show, I have to say bye-bye to that, because I have to make room for this other creative energy.”
Brown is now working on a young adult novel about a Civil War-era teenage girl who discovers that her family is Jewish, and some of the many characters she played in “G-d’s Honest Truth” have inspired parts of the book.
“When I write a scene, I write it like I’m acting it,” she says. “[Writing] keeps me in touch with the child in me, which, in acting, you really have to do.”
Most recent role: A Confederate private in “Freedom’s Song” at Ford’s Theatre.
Day job: Dog walker.
Hire Stephen Gregory Smith to walk your dog and you might just see Fido’s personality reflected in one of the characters the actor plays onstage.
“There’s a basic Acting 101 exercise where you have to become an animal essence,” says Smith. “Dogs do everything but use words to tell you what they’re feeling. If you can convey the same thing through a puppet or your body, you’re doing the right thing.”
The dogs Smith walks every day in Arlington for Happy Hounds, including his own, are an inspiration for his theatrical character development.
“I recently played Trekkie Monster in ‘Avenue Q,’ ” the actor says. “Except for the porn addiction, the rest of the character — how he moved, how he tilted his head — was based on my dog, Buddha.”
Inspiration aside, there are other advantages to being an actor/dogwalker. After Smith gets home late from a show, he often finds it hard to wind down. But he doesn’t have to worry about getting to work at 9 a.m. He can stay up late, sleep in and take his charges on their midday walk. And rest his vocal chords.
“If you’re a singer or an actor, you need to pace yourself through the week, because you use your voice quite intensely,” he says. “Projecting at that intensity uses a lot of power.”
Working with dogs also has taught him a great deal about working with actors. Smith, who’s also a director and playwright, says he has found that dog-training techniques work with colleagues as well.
“Honestly, as a director, I’ve found the same principles apply in reinforcing good behavior in animals,” Smith says. “If I’m directing or teaching, I try to be as positive and pleasant and reaffirming as I can be. Negative reinforcement never does anything but reinforce negatives.”