SCREENSTAGE ON ACTING
THE ACTING PROFESSION
From handling the few first months as a professional, when you're seen as a potential Next Big Thing, to maintaining focus when the work dries up, Screenstage can offer you survival tips for life in the toughest of industries - Acting.
Woody Allen wrote: "Showbusiness is not so much dog eats dog, as dog doesn't return other dog's phone calls." Acting isn't all about feeling the character and being in the moment. If you can't get a job, it's not about much at all. Acting is only possible if somebody's prepared to sit and watch you do it. To survive emotionally and professionally, you've got to both earn a living and nourish your beleaguered self-esteem.
The statistics are terrifying, with something like 92% of the profession out of work at any one time. What the figure doesn't reveal is that the same 8% tend to work continuously while the same 92% never get a look-in. The trick therefore is to be in the top 8%. The big break from out of the blue does very occasionally occur, but statistically it's about as likely as winning the lottery, and the last thing you want to end up as is one of those serially unemployed actors sitting nursing a pint in some dingy pub complaining about why their agent doesn't pull their bloody finger out.
Plenty of people make it without going to drama school. Some never study at all, while some study at university. Oxford and Cambridge supply a constant stream of genuine talent, as do one or two others (Manchester, Durham), but beware courses on offer at minor universities and colleges of further education. Despite their claims, most are a waste of time. Don't kid yourself that two years spent at Uttoxeter Polytechnic's foundation course in the dramatic arts will get you noticed once you leave. It won't. The same, to a lesser extent, is true for drama schools; there are maybe five or six decent establishments that offer superb training and are regularly monitored by those in the profession looking for talent - RADA, of course, Central, Lamda and one or two others - but beyond those you should be wary. A little sleuthing will soon reveal whether these less august enterprises have produced anybody you've ever heard of.
Your greatest asset is your novelty value. When you finally become a professional, for six months or so (or at least until the next wave of graduates and wannabees are disgorged from their training and trample all over you), you're brand spanking new, and this is your best chance of getting a foothold. Everybody - producers, agents, directors - wants to be the one to discover the next big thing, so you'll be paid levels of attention that, however slight, will seem a distant memory even a year later. In the old days the profession allowed a slow, steady approach: a bit of experience in a provincial repertory company (maybe combining bit parts with some stage management and tea-making for the director), after which you could find your feet and advance to bigger parts and bigger theatres. But nowadays only a handful of regional venues produce their own work, and in this novelty-obsessed celebrity culture, getting noticed while you're still shiny and pink is more important than ever. Don't squander this precious resource.
A good theatrical agent is worth their weight in gold, but a duff one (and there are plenty) is profoundly detrimental. You're waiting for them to get you a job, while they're waiting for you to get one off your own bat so they can cream off a handy 10, 12.5 or even 15% of your earnings for doing sod all. Approach an agent like you would any other work interview: your CV should be crisply presented, suggesting you're the real deal rather than a loser. Remember, agents will be receiving tens of supplications a day, so your approach needs to pass muster during their cursory initial scrutiny. Poorly presented or badly spelt CVs accompanied by fuzzy photographs will go straight in the bin. Check out the actors' directory, Spotlight (spotlight.com), and flick through the thousands of entries to see which actors are represented by whom. That in itself should put you off. But if it doesn't, you'll soon see which are the better agencies. If you haven't got much personal experience, try approaching an agent who's small and unglamorous enough to want/need to work for you, but who isn't just a repository of deadbeat clients who can't get noticed elsewhere.
Your initial approach should be concise, with a decent headshot attached. If you're involved in a show, however humble, it's always good to mention because it gives them something to come and see. Don't add lots of pointless credits to bulk out your resume (Baby Bear in Goldilocks with the Beaconsfield Dramatic Society Pantomime in 2005) as it will only mark you as desperate. Follow up with a call a couple of weeks later if you haven't heard anything, but don't pester.
The business is oiled by whom you know, and thus the most likely source of employment is meeting possible employers and future allies in unlikely circumstances. In between jobs, do all you can to put yourself about and keep your skills sharp. If there's a something going on in a pub or a workshop, or even a rehearsed reading, take it - you never know who might be watching or participating.
For those of you in London, The Actors Centre in Tower Street, central London, is a great place to keep your hand in - for a modest subscription they offer a dizzying range of classes, workshops and projects in every facet of acting, from voice, movement, audition technique, working on TV, singing in musicals: plus you never know who you're going to meet in class or in the canteen. The service is open to all. In other words, stay busy. Inertia is the biggest enemy of both your skill and your drive to find work.
The defining difference between amateur actors and professionals is not, as some might believe, talent (I know some fine amateurs and some shocking pros), but that pros are prepared to cope with the nightmare of not knowing where the next pay cheque is coming from. Penury undermines the most burning enthusiasm, so do anything within reason to keep some money coming in. Plenty of actors work part-time in theatre box offices, or as ushers, or even backstage. It also keeps you vaguely in the swim as regards what's happening and where. Any job that allows you time to accept last-minute auditions is worth its wait in gold - temping work, office receptionist etc - so a knowledge of a PC and a winning smile are useful skills in staving off the bailiffs.
Waiting tables and pub work, too, might allow you the flexibility you need to pursue job auditions when the phone call comes. Above all, find out what's going on and where. What productions are being cast? What plays are being lined up? Who's directing what and when? If you know the plays in question and which parts you might be suitable for, you can target your begging letter for maximum impact.
In the meantime, swimming, running, yoga - all the old standbys will keep you feeling good about yourself and give you the energy and optimism to get up the next morning and begin the battle afresh. Go to see plays whenever you can - it can be expensive, but there are always good deals and cheap seats if you know where to look and who to ask. It's also a great source of potential material for your own audition pieces.
Finally, be honest with yourself as to how you're coping. The best rule of thumb I know about dealing with unemployment is how early each day you switch on the television. If you find yourself watching re-runs of Cash in the Attic at 10am, it's time to take hold of yourself.
The only thing you can influence in auditions is your own readiness. So be prepared. Choose your pieces carefully and look for speeches that the casting director won't have heard ten thousand times already. You may think you can do "To be or not to be" more inspirationally than anyone in history, but you will be up against the stiffest possible competition. Learn them thoroughly enough that you won't be stopped dead in your tracks by distractions such as someone's mobile phone ringing mid-sentence. Make sure you know the names of the individuals who are interviewing you. Research the project you're being seen for, so that you can talk intelligently about it if asked. And don't be late. Never, ever, be late. If much of this sounds obvious, you'd be surprised at how many auditionees don't bother with even the most basic preparation.
Most actors don't quit the business: the business quits them. The most common complaint about the acting game is that the profession is unfair. It isn't: but it is indifferent. It gives everything to some, and nothing to others, and it's not going to explain why. There's no point complaining: nobody's listening.
The old maxim still holds true: if you can think of any other career that would give you the same sense of satisfaction or peace of mind, do that instead. You'll get little of either as an actor. But if you really do feel life is meaningless without "shouting in the evenings", as it was once deliciously described, then my advice is to give it a go. No other profession has much security either nowadays, so you may as well try your luck.
A final thought. A circus parade is processing through the town. At the back is an old bloke whose job is to shovel the manure from all the circus animals into a big bag slung over his shoulder. A passer by asks him how long he's been doing the job and how much he gets paid, to which he replies 50 years and £50 a week. "Well why on earth don't you stop doing it and find a better job instead?" asks the passer-by. The old bloke's reply is stark and simple: "What, and give up showbusiness?"
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