Or 7 Ways for Actors & Performers to Prove Their Value within Their Industry & Profession
Let me start by saying I love what I do. What do I do I hear you ask? Well, unless you have never bothered reading this Blog or this is the first time you are reading this Blog, I welcome you most warmly. But to answer your question, I am an Actor. I am also a writer (writing my first play), as well as being a Social Media Journalist. A jack of all trades, master of a few – One of them being the Art and Business of Acting.
I mention the “Art and Business of Acting” because it has been my experience in the ten years plus I have been a Thespian that while many actors focus on the “Art”, many do not focus on the “Business” side of things. This topic comes up time and time again. I have even written about this subject and have tried to put forward solutions of my own.
My ten plus years experience in “The Business” has taught me a great deal and lessons have been learned. Some I have been able to parlay into some kind of success, many others, not so successful. Without making excuses, I would argue some of my solutions didn’t work due to how the industry is run in the UK and dare I say it, is overly sensitive to the “Class System” that riddles British Society like a cancer.
One of the arguments that seems to be coming my way all too often from actors from humble backgrounds is The Business is weighted too far in the favour of actors from well-to-do or middle-class backgrounds. This is nothing new of course but in the post 1960s era where some of Britain’s best loved actors such Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Michael Caine, Sir Roger Moore, Sir Sean Connery, Sir Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Bob Hoskins, Lenny Henry, Daniel Craig, among many others came to prominence through sheer hard work. But let us not forget Martin Shaw, and the late greats John Thaw and Richard Burton. All from working class backgrounds, all successful against the odds. Why does or rather, why is the above argument holding water when there are so many examples of people from humble backgrounds achieving success in their chosen field? In this case Acting.
All the above Actors were all formally trained, all ‘Trod the Boards’ – In fact, all worked in Theatre, Television and Film before hitting the big time. So what do our best loved actors have that may be lacking in us less known, less loved British Actors?
While it is true time have changed, some things have not. I mentioned the Class System but the actors I mentioned succeeded against the odds and now the doors of all strata of British Society are open to them. It is also true that we have a Government made up of those born into wealth and/or who are self-made and/or privately educated. A sign of the times and as “The Arts” reflects Society; maybe what we are seeing is a reflection of that in the acting profession.
Despite the above, some things have been constant and remain so. They are:-
- Getting some kind of formal training under your belt. While it is well known that some of the greatest acting talent in the history of Film never took an acting lesson, such talents are a rare commodity. Brilliant to watch but rare. In the UK (again in my humble experience,) if one wishes to have any kind of acting career with any kind of longevity, one (in the UK at least,) is going to have to undertake some king of formal training. In the 21st Century, it doesn’t necessarily mean going to drama school for three years (thought that more than helps,) as there are so many schools and workshops being run at any one time in London or anywhere else throughout the UK. I have known people who came into Acting via doing work as a Supporting Artiste (an ‘Extra’ if you will,) and carved out a career for themselves as actors. This is extremely rare in the UK but I know a few actors who have done this but they had additional skills such as being ex-military for example and became well known to stunt professionals and directors. Again very rare to carve out a career as an Actor this way in the UK. But it can be done but if you choose to go this way, don’t be surprised if you get disillusioned quickly. Not everyone makes it this way.
Entering the acting profession has always been difficult and easy in equal measure. And many of the reasons why are still with us, even if (in some cases,) the roles have been reversed. Let’s look at some of them.
Any form of training is going to involve money. How much depends on the course, the school and where that school is located and of course how prestigious that school is. Competition is fierce (it has always been,) there are only a certain number of places on any one course. But then the UK is awash with specialist drama schools. In some cases, more than any other country. That is why we have the reputation of being Stage Actors with a great deal of depth. I am not saying actors of other nationalities don’t possess these qualities but I have lost count of the number of Hollywood films I have watched over the years where characters of depth and complexity have been played by British Actors. Brian Cox and (Sir) Anthony Hopkins both played Hannibal Lecter. Australian actors fall into this category also. Need I say more? Training is important.
Nothing is free nor should it be. One has to invest in their future. If an aspiring actor embarks on formal training over three years, they can expect (with the cost of living,) to shell out more than fifty grand (GBP,) over a three year period. This is far more than most professionals will invest in their career over the same period. University Students in England are not far behind said drama students – No surprise there given our (UK) Coalition Government has imposed tuition fees on English Students. Like I said, nothing is free, nor should it be free but the rest of the UK Students are getting a free pass via their respective Governments in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Another layer of oppression as if “Class” wasn’t bad enough. Irrespective of the above, anyone wishing to be an actor always had to make a great deal of sacrifice in terms of money, which is why Acting has always been seen as a pursuit of the middle/chattering classes for many years.
Not for the faint-hearted
Acting has always been a hard Business to break into. What has been discussed so far would put many people off but historically once you have made it to drama school, complete your training, your studies, and graduate with flying colours, the fun and games are only just the beginning. The whole realm of what is known as ‘Show Business’ is not for the faint hearted. There are many stories and the best ones, the cautionary tales are always to be found in the realms of ‘Variety’. Some good background reading surrounding the history of ‘Variety’ is required reading. Like I said, the fun and games are only just beginning.
The Union Closed Shop/Equity & The Spotlight
During the days of the ‘Union Closed Shop’, before the Thatcher Government abolished the practice via ‘The Employment Act’, in order to be auditioned, one needed to turn up with their Equity Union Card. If you didn’t have it, no one would audition you for any acting job. In order to get an Equity Card, one had to do some form of professional work. There are many stories I have heard about what people had to do in order to get their Equity Card. I heard one lady say she danced the ‘Can-Can’ in a performance and a union rep was in attendance. Other stories ranged from being someone’s lover through to doing work as an ‘Extra’. For most actors the route taken was joining a touring Repertory Theatre Company (Rep,) and performing and touring in the provinces for about forty weeks before they were eligible for their Union Card. Need it be said, that if one is dealing with characters, honing their acting skills, putting into practice all they learned at drama school, is it any wonder that many old school British actors and those versed in old school training, have so much depth as actors?
In addition to Equity there is also The Spotlight. Spotlight as it is commonly known, is ‘The Actor’s Directory’ of all professional actors based in the UK. At the time of writing Spotlight celebrates its 85th year. They have been around a long time and hold the moral high ground. If you are not on The Spotlight, no one takes you seriously. And this is still the case.
Having said the above, times have changed. When I started out, I was told in order to be taken seriously; I needed to have my Equity Card, Spotlight Card/Membership and 10×8 Black and White Photographs (headshots). I still follow these rules to this day but as I said before, times have changed. There are many people who enter the industry and think they can get by not having any of the above. Most agents will insist on you being on Spotlight before they will even consider representing you. When I came into the Business as an ‘Extra’ I joined the Film Artiste Association (FAA) of the Union BECTU and was surprised how many of my fellow extras couldn’t even be bothered even join and pay the union dues, which was only £5 GBP a month at the time. But this was and is a symptom of something else.
The outlawing of the ‘Union Closed Shop’ while opening up the industry across the board and making things somewhat easier had at the same time made things difficult for those who really want to carve out a career for themselves. I say this because a major casualty has been the drastic fall in the fees paid to actors generally. Unless one is a major name or marginally successful and well-known throughout the industry then one is going to struggle to make any kind of living, let alone invest in your career on a regular basis, unless you go out and get yourself a nine-to-five job. On a personal level and despite the CV/Resume I have, I have struggled to make a living as an actor on any significant level. It is not so much a case of work, (most actors are not continually employed,) it is more about the rates being paid. It in no way represents the fact one is a freelancer, running their own business as an actor. The pay rates in no way represents that. A major reason for the above, is the market is saturated with actors and/or people who want to be actors but believe they can bypass the traditional route and to be fair there are many routes into acting other than the full-tine three years drama school route. In my case, I studied part-tine in the evenings for a couple of years, others may do a full-time one year masters degree course. Others may still do a foundation course or a series of workshops or join an amateur theatrical society. And like myself I have known people who have travelled some or all of those routes. The people I know who travel this route were very serious about carving out careers as actors but were not able to afford the fees or if they could, did a foundation course and moved onto the full-time/part-time masters course. In a nutshell what used to be hard, (access,) became easy and whatever was easy (getting work,) has become that much harder as the market place is saturated and the pay rates have fallen. This brings us back full circle as to the actors from affluent backgrounds succeeding over those from more humble backgrounds.
There have been many stories of working class children going to private school on a scholarship. Bruce Dickinson, Lead Singer of Iron Maiden is one such case and someone who became a world-class fencing swordsman, not to mention having a successful music career as Lead Singer and Solo Artist. So when money/wealth is taken out to the equation, a person from a working class background is just as likely to succeed as someone from a background of affluence. I have already mentioned those British Actors who have succeeded against the odds. Simply put, they worked hard, made sacrifices and were good enough. The problem today is actors (in the UK at least,) are not as valued nor appreciated as they once were. Unless they are at the top of the acting food chain. A professional is good at what they do and in order to be so they cannot treat what they do as a part-time occupation. In the short-term while establishing one’s self is one thing, after all one has to live and pay the bills. What I find worrying is the low rates of pay on offer, worse, being expected to work for nothing. I have been down these roads, travelled them so can say while it is better to be paid, it is far worse not to be paid for your time, skill, energy, commitment, all of which is taken for granted. Reasons why I stopped doing freebies. It cheapens you and what you do.
An actor from an affluent background can circumnavigate the above. While they are having to establish themselves, they can tough things out, while waiting for an audition that will land them paid jobs. They can also afford to keep their skills up date as they are able to afford to keep their skills up to date, as they are able to afford the fees for additional courses and workshops, even if they are doing a day job. A good actor always keeps on learning, keeps on training. Not something an actor with limited resources can do. When ‘Resting’ I used to finance my additional training via temping and contract jobs. The current state the employment market in the UK has put paid to that avenue. Fortunately while I am unable to afford to attend courses and workshops, what I did while ‘in work’ was to buy books and other resources that have enabled me to keep my skills up to date and keep me fresh, rather than stale. And of course I have a couple of agents so manage to get out to casting sessions and auditions. I also make my own submissions for acting work as well as networking and marketing myself via Social Media and the online world. Which brings me to the point of this article or rather, the reason I was inspired to write this article. Proving your value within one’s industry and profession. It is a no-brainer that one should be doing all of the above, but it is still surprising how many actors don’t and if they do, they throw money at the problem, gaining few solutions to their problem, which is getting work (paid,) that will elevate them and their career. Let’s look at seven ways of dealing with the above.
1. The Simple Approach
The British Film Director ‘Val Guest’ once remarked:
If you don’t have money, you have to use your head”.
The Trouble with having money minus the good sense to go with it, is you can spend a great deal of money and get nowhere. The Colin Firths, Hugh Grants, Damian Lewis’ and other successful actors from affluent backgrounds are successful without falling into the above trap fortunately but as my background is the complete opposite of theirs so my approach ‘The Simple Approach’ is to take on Val Guest’s quote and approach the problem from that angle. I have no money but I have a head on my shoulders, grey matter between my ears, so I start using it. What can I do? What is available to me? How can I get my name out there? Let people know who I am and what I do?
2. Social Media
Here is where I break my own rule or rather, it is broken for me. Freebies. Social Media (for now at least,) is free of charge but the various strata of social media make their money somehow. They advertise and gain revenue by having by having a huge database of subscribers (you and I,) to their service.
Whether you have money or not and let us assume you don’t, a great way of promoting and networking yourself is via social media and using it to build your own Social Media Network. The Social Media section of My Blog has articles on the subject of how one goes about this, so I won’t dwell too much on the subject here, as I have written about it elsewhere:-
3. A Professional Website
I was very resistant to this idea as I saw it as a vanity project – Other actors websites seemed (to me at least,) to bear this out. Up to this point I had spend a few years networking myself online and I had a strong presence there so what need had I for a website? As I got heavily involved in social media, I realised the next step was to build a website of my own but how? I was not keen on some of the actors’ websites I had seen online. I was shown some good examples via a Film Director Alex Fodor but at the time I was not convinced. And when I eventually was, I could not afford the fees to have a website built and then there would be the annual fees just to ‘host’ the website on a server somewhere.
So what were my options? There was the expense of doing the job in the first place, the yearly expense of keeping the website up and running, neither of which I could afford. The option left to me was to do it myself. I had a BSc. Honours Degree in Computing and Multimedia – hated HTML (Hyper-text Markup Language,) but there was nothing for it.
Thankfully Web Design has moved on significantly and now Websites such as WordPress.com; Wix.com and Webs.com offer solutions where one can use a choice of ‘Templates’ to build a website of one’s own, which will be hosted on the that same website free of charge until one decides to upgrade. Solution to my problem. I designed two via Webs.com and Wix.com and they can be found at:-
The latter is in need of a major update but you get the general idea.
4. Communicate Regularly
You are marketing yourself. You are your own marketer, and one of your strength as a marketer is communication. Leverage that and communicate your results. At the very least you should be doing this on a weekly/monthly basis though more frequent communication can help you be organise and agile. Share what you have worked on (contractual obligations aside), the experience, the results/unknown and how you plan to improve with your own personal projects, be they writing or filming something of your own. One way of doing this is via ‘Blogging’. This could be a dedicated Blog section of your website. Use every avenue at your disposal i.e. Marketing Channels (blog, email, social etc). Personally, I have LinkedIn, (a good Social Media Website,) evaluating metrics such as:-
- Celebrating the wins
- Admit the shortcomings
- Address how I will overcome the shortcomings in the future
- Share any highlights.
I mentioned LinkedIn rather than Facebook because when I recently began work on my first play, I began a discussion on a Playwright Group Forum and received some excellent help and advice on how I could approach my writing. I have nothing against Facebook as a Social Media tool but have become somewhat disillusioned with it as a marketing tool. I have some great friends and contacts there but in terms of marketing, it just doesn’t work for me any longer.
5. Be Visible
As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” Being visible goes hand in hand with communicating regularly, as both shows you are present, working hard and driving results. Focus especially on being visible to the people that matter: casting people, agents, producers, directors, writers, your peers even. Who knows where and via whom the next opportunity will arise from? They are the ones who matter and the group that historically has the most “beef” with marketing. Keep them updated via all avenues of social media on what you are doing, as they are the ones who ultimately decide whether you have a future and career. From personal experience the great general public really don’t care whether you succeed or not so there is no need to be a PR Guru with them until you are a household name. Focus your energies on the industry insiders.
6. Show Me The Money
Blood is thicker than water, Money as a liquid asset is thicker than both. Especially when the prime objective of any career and business is all about driving the bottom line. Revenue. Speaking in terms of website visits or impressions is abstract and requires trust. Those visits and impressions will turn into something of real value, like, well, revenue. So the job at hand is to translate the above into the language of bottom line results that demonstrate you are actually succeeding in the ‘Business of Being an Actor’ by generating revenue. And revenue means an income and investment in your future.
7. Market Yourself
By now, this should be something of a no-brainer. All of the above applies to your marketing strategy. In building up a marketing presence, this is where having a blog and active social media accounts come into play. An active blog and a large social media following will tell people you are making the right moves and investing time, effort and energy in establishing yourself as an actor.
Nothing is guaranteed to be an absolute winner but the above comes from several years of trial and error, not to mention ten years of personal and professional experience. I am still using all of the above strategies and while I am not rich for my efforts, what I do know is this: The above has got me known across Social Media for what I do as a writer and actor. If one continues, the above will help you personally get known for your expertise, commitment towards your career within the industry. This will increase the demand for your talent and skills. When people start asking for you, one will see the value of being a marketer of their own career.
When you get to the top of the ‘food chain’ have the top agent, manager, then all of the above will be done for you (after all they will be on a percentage,) but until then, you are your own marketer and lobbyist for your own career and future.
So be Stalinist in your career and brook no retreat, moving every forward towards your dreams, aspirations and ambitions.