While the rough economy has grounded many careers, it’s motivated countless job hunters to step outside their comfort zones and try something new. It's hardly an easy move. Strong skills, luck and some savings can make the difference between success and a new set of frustrations.
For three New York transplants–Kymm Walker, Rishi Arya and Marie Farrell–the hard times finally prodded them to pursue their passion: acting.
"I moved to New York not with a mind to go all-out being an actor," Walker said, "but was having trouble finding a permanent job and just decided if I was going to be starving anyway, I may as well be a starving actor and pursue what I love."
Arya, trained as an accountant, agreed. "I basically figured finding an acting job was no harder than finding [a job] with lousy pay."
All three budding thespians are now students at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in Chelsea, the incubator of Hollywood legends like Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty and, more recently, Benicio Del Toro and Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard.
With the job market bleak in so many fields, many laid-off workers have turned to temporary positions and volunteer work until the economy gains steam.
However, some waylaid New Yorkers see the downturn as a prime opportunity to bone up on underutilized skills or explore entirely new career paths–a trend that's evinced by the swelling attendance rolls at universities, training schools and acting classes citywide.
Recent applications for Stella Adler's programs have poured in, said Mike Grenham, executive manager of the studio.
"A lot of folks say that if I'm going to go through life not knowing what my job is going to be in the next six months or a year, I might as well focus on something I love, as opposed to something more traditionally thought of as practical," Grenham said.
He noted that one-time Wall Streeters and people in their late-20s and mid-30s have flocked to the studio, which charges $10,000 to $14,000 a year for its two- and three-year programs.
"I think their real-world experience allows them to bring something special to the class," Grenham said.
This year, Stella Adler expects about 650 graduates from its full-time conservatory programs, its theater courses in partnership with NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, as well as its weekly workshops, teen programs and summer programs. Typically, 500 students graduate annually.
HB Studio, a school created by theater artists in Greenwich Village, also said attendance levels have risen, driven by students who've lost their jobs.
To ease the financial burden on them, HB's executive director, Edith Meeks, charges below-market rates of $20 for a two-hour class session, or $180 for a nine-week summer course.
The studio "is set up for working actors dropping in or out of their study efforts as they need to," she said.
Farrell, a 34-year-old native of San Diego, juggles nighttime acting classes with looking for a job. The Kensington, Brooklyn, resident used to work as a preschool teacher, which she said was rewarding and offered some parallels to acting, but wasn't totally satisfying.
"I always needed a survival job," said Farrell, who has a bachelor's degree in theater from the University of California at Irvine. "The recession was a big part of my decision to refocus my sights on an acting career."
That and the fact that, in January, Farrell was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although Farrell is still out of work and dipping into her dwindling savings to get by, she loves her new routine.
"Acting is my life now," said Farrell. "As I fight cancer, I know I have a purpose to keep me going and a goal to reach. I am learning everyday from my fellow students and instructors, and I understand now what it means to work at what I truly love."
Walker, 31, who lives in Astoria, Queens, came to New York after college from Santa Cruz, California. She'd experienced modest success as an actor.
"I went to London and lived with a cousin for six months. I acted in a short film," she said, although it never got produced. Then she hit a common roadblock: "I loved acting, but wondered how to support myself."
In New York, she found work as a temp at various hedge funds and financial firms, but the jobs weren't stable. "I wasn't finding anything permanent and was getting nervous," she said.
In time, Walker managed to find a decent daytime job - with benefits - at a midtown financial services firm. She also signed up for acting classes.
"I'm incredibly lucky," Walker said. "I'm working full time and going to acting school full time in the evenings. At the moment, it's the best of both worlds."
Arya, 25, who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, when he's not staying with his family in Montreal, got detoured on his way to becoming a performer.
He went to school for business and bounced around from job to job, once as a bookkeeper, then a copywriter. He's even received some minor praise as a hip-hop artist, but none of those jobs paid much.
"I was doing this while I was studying acting, but was basically unemployed," Arya said.
Frustrated, Arya came to New York last September to try to make it as an actor.
Straight away, Arya signed up for classes at Stella Adler.
"I'm spending 60 hours a week at the school," he said. "The classes alone take up 35 hours a week. I'm doing more work at school than I was working jobs."
"This is opening all sorts of doors and opportunities," he said, adding that he's gotten some work–acting work.