Thinking about being a professional actor?
Acting can be extremely rewarding. Many children grow up doing plays at school and as adults take part in amateur dramatics. What actors do most, through their portrayal of various characters, is tell stories and throughout time it’s been a huge part of human existence to enjoy those stories. Almost everyone will experience a story of some sort every week or more likely every day of their lives – be it through word of mouth, reading a book, listening to the radio, watching television, on the internet or at the cinema. Here’s a little known fact: in the UK more people visit the theatre than attend sporting events.
It’s no wonder that so many people want to become part of an industry in which we all have such a huge interest.
Attempting to become a professional actor, however, is a very different ball game. One of the first and most important questions to ask yourself is WHY you want to be an actor. The reason to ask yourself this question is that if you don’t have a huge and unquenchable desire to be an actor then you might as well stop now. Competition is vast. More than 90% of Equity members (the industry union) are unemployed at any one time and that’s not taking into account all of those who aren’t members. Most actors will earn very little from the profession and may spend much of their time doing badly paid jobs while they wait for their ‘big break’.
You need to enjoy being part of the story-telling process; of becoming other characters; of studying the human condition; of learning about yourself and others. One of the best things about acting is that in taking part we learn so much about what it is to be human and that really is fascinating. If you want to become a professional actor and feel that it’s the best decision for you then read on to receive some free advice!
Training: I’m often asked if training is absolutely necessary because we all hear of people who had no training and went on to have great acting careers. That does happen. But it’s rare. If you’re really unwilling to go through some training, to hone your craft and importantly to give yourself a better chance of success then you’re probably too impatient and unlikely to be approaching your career with a long term plan. Acting careers don’t blossom overnight. People sometimes talk about actors suddenly being ‘discovered’ – what that usually means is that they’ve just done a big film or television role but actually they’ve had small parts on TV or have been working in theatre or other areas of the business for years. Look in any theatre programme or dig into the background of any successful actor and you’ll see that most of them did train and that most of the time it was at one of the top schools (members of the Federation of Drama Schools). Click to see the list of schools that are members of the Federation of Drama Schools on this site. Attending one of those schools should be a priority if you’re serious, but obviously there are many other courses available – both part time and full time – and taking part in any sort of course is likely to help you become a better actor. It all adds to your experience, which brings us onto…
Getting Experience: Whether you’ve been to drama school or not getting some solid acting experience is crucial and the chances are that you’re not going to make much money (if any) from it in the early stages. It’s likely that you’ll have done a few school or amateur productions and there’s certainly nothing wrong with continuing to gain experience in amateur theatre until you get a professional job. There are opportunities to get screen experience in student films and short films made by independent companies. If you’re close to a large city there is likely to be a ‘fringe’ theatre scene where small independent companies are putting on plays in pubs and alternative spaces. In all of these case – some productions will be terrible and some will be fantastic. It’s the nature of the beast but you’d better get involved! Of course another alternative is to create the work yourself. Make your own film or put on a theatre production. It’s a lot of hard work – but it can also be great fun!
Where to find work: This will involve some research and effort on your part as you discover what opportunities are available locally. Seek out those small companies close to you, go and see some of their work, speak to other people who are involved in the business, look at other organisations who work with creative people and get involved. As well as looking for work as an actor don’t shy away from other sorts of associated work in the business which might give you new perspectives and bring you into contact with other people. Small companies are often looking for people to help out with administration, marketing, leaflet distribution and other behind the scenes jobs, as well as perhaps being a theatre usher or serving drinks at the interval. The biggest casting database in the UK by far is Spotlight but you’ll need training or professional credits to be able to join (see below). Industry newspaper The Stage has a jobs section and there are several internet based casting sites such as Mandy and Star Now.
Spotlight: This is the main casting database in the UK. Almost every theatre, film and television drama will be cast through Spotlight. Casting directors and directors post opportunities through the site, (although sometimes only to select agents) and then access actors details already available on the site. Actors pay a fee each year to be included although inclusion to the database is only available to those who have training or professional experience. Most agencies won’t take you on unless you are in Spotlight as it’s often the only ways that they can put you forward for particular jobs.
Visiting The Theatre: If you don’t see theatre productions as an audience member then – GO! Theatre is the way that most people get into the industry and even if you have ambitions to be the next big film star you’re first jobs are likely to be in theatre. Even successful actors working in television and film often return to theatre as it’s believed to be the life-blood of the industry. It is the medium in which an actor has most control and can see a performance through from beginning to end without stopping. You need to visit the theatre to broaden your horizons and learn about the sort of productions that exist as well as discovering more about the sort of work you might wish to get involved in yourself. You also never know who you might bump into there.
Promoting Yourself: YOU are a business. As a freelance actor (in this country there is no other sort), you run your business in the same way that a self-employed plumber or plasterer would. You have to see yourself as the product and then go out and market that product. Knock on doors, write to people, see shows, go on courses, build your own website, apply for jobs, get experience, join industry organisations, be innovative. Even if you have an agent you shouldn’t leave everything to them. It’s YOUR life. YOUR career. Nobody will look after it or care about it as much as YOU.
Curriculum Vitae (CV): These differ from conventional CVs which you might see for any other job. They detail your relevant experience and skills but don’t go into huge detail. It’s facts and figures only. The best way to see what information you need is to look at actors CVs of reputable agencies online.
Photos: Some people have a few different photos these days, but the most important and one that you’ll use most often is a headshot. Again – look at agencies websites. The rules are fairly simple for a headshot. Look as natural as possible. Don’t have hands or anything else in the shot. Don’t wear lots of make-up (these are acting photos; NOT modelling shots). For many years standard photos were black and white as an industry standard but most people now use colour. Most people will pay a photographer to do their photos but you might have a friend who can help or you might even be able to do it yourself. The critical thing is that they look professional and the image looks like you. It’s not an area that you should consider skimping on.
Showreels and Voice Tapes: Increasingly actors have showreels (examples of them acting on video) and voice tapes (an audio version of the showreel). In order to stay ahead of the competition you want to make the job of the casting director or director easier by giving them an idea of your work before they even see you. Simply having these items doesn’t mean that you’ve ticked that box. Like your photo, a showreel need to look professional and show you off at your best.
Agents: There is a hierarchy within the world of agents and I’m not going to get myself into trouble here by recommending one over another – although I certainly have my thoughts on the matter. It’s a good idea to get an agent if you can. If they are looking for work for you as well then that’s great – but don’t rely on them fully. The harder it is to get into an agency the better that agency probably is. If an agent takes you on by you simply filling in a form on the internet, speaking to you on the phone or even meeting you in their office for a chat, you seriously need to ask yourself how good that agent is likely to be. Any decent agent will want to see you perform in a theatre show (maybe several), will want to see your showreel or at the very least will expect you to perform some audition pieces for them. Now, beggars can’t be choosers and you’re unlikely to land a brilliant agent until you have a track record and have proved yourself (or maybe come out of an accredited course and you’ve been seen at the showcase). To start with then, any agent is probably better than no agent, but don’t expect them to give you the career that you want and never pay any fees to join an agency (it’s illegal). Any money that an agency makes from you is from commission on work that you undertake when you’re with the agency. If you don’t get paid – they don’t get paid. Simple.
Directors & Casting Directors: If you’re seeing these people on a regular basis then you’re doing well. These are the people who decide whether to call you in for an audition and ultimately if they will give you a job. Ideally you want to make their life easy. A really valuable exercise is to consider for a moment that you have their job. What would you like and dislike about the job and what will make it easier for you? There are thousands of actors out there and although the director wants to get a great person for the role – there are likely to be more than one of those people out there who could fulfill it. Why should they see you rather than someone else?
Equity: Equity is the actors union. Becoming a member of Equity isn’t as difficult as it used to be and I would encourage any actor to join when they can. The union campaigns for the rights of those in the industry and although it’s not a requirement of being a member to get a job, it does show your commitment to the industry and your seriousness about being a professional actor. As well as supporting you in times of employer conflict you also get free Public Liability Insurance included as part of your membership.
Audition Pieces: Ideally an actor starting out will have a number of audition pieces that can be performed at the drop of a hat. These will represent different sorts of theatre so you might have a serious modern and a comedy piece, a couple of Shakespeare or restoration monologues as well as speeches suitable for classical theatre or children’s theatre. You only get a few days notice for theatre auditions and for many television auditions you’ll often be called in the next day (although it’s rare to need prepared audition pieces for TV auditions). The choice and quality of these ‘mini performances’ is crucial. Obviously I can help you with those – in fact you can start by looking at my audition tips. But if you don’t come and see me make sure that you’re making the most of your opportunity at an audition. Getting through the door in the first place is hard enough – but then you have to prove yourself.
Sight-Reading: Most actors under-estimate the importance of sight-reading (which should really be called sight-acting, as that’s what it is). You need to be able to read a short script through once or twice and a few minutes later act out the character as though it were a performance – with the script in your hand, of course. Sight-reading is THE most common tool used for auditioning purposes. In theatre auditions you’re likely to be asked to read from the actual script as well as performing your prepared pieces. For television, film and commercials it’s usually the only thing you need to do. It’s pointless to say “it would be much easier once I learnt the lines”. Everyone is in the same boat and you need to be able to turn on a performance instantly. If you can’t there will be someone else who will and they will walk away with the part. Sight-reading is also, of course, extremely useful when rehearsing a play – you need to make progress in your limited rehearsal time, before you’ve learnt your lines.
Improvisation: I’m not going to go into much detail here but being able to improvise effectively can be very useful to an actor. Many actors are scared of it. If they don’t have the lines written in front of them then how can they act?! Improvising can be a great release from a script and can help an actor to start to feel what it’s like to be the character without the encumbrance of holding and reading a script. It’s often used in rehearsal situations for developing characters and of course jobbing actors improvise all the time when carrying out role play work in the corporate sector – but we’re probably moving away from a beginners guide now, so let’s leave it there.
Finally, here are a couple of other pages for you to click onto that might be of interest:
Good Luck with your endeavours and, of course, if you need any help on a one-to-one basis then please do get in touch.
“Martin’s depth of experience truly shows whilst working with him. He not only greatly improved my audition preparations but he also created a friendly and relaxed environment so people hoping to go into the profession feel very comfortable around him. I would’ve been extremely nervous for my auditions had I not gone to him.” – Harry Byrne (former student)