By Dr. Catherine Armstrong
Finding work in the theatre and performing arts sector can seem impossibly competitive, so much so that many potential actors give up their dreams before even trying. This article will offer some concrete advice on the best ways to maximise your chances of working in theatre.
Why work in the theatre?
Acting or performing, like teaching perhaps, is a job that reflects a real passion or calling. It sounds clichéd but most actors instinctively know they want to be actors. Others discover that they have a love of performing and display a talent for entertaining people and slowly realise that performing is the job they would like to do. The chance to be creative, choosing which projects to work on, and earn money from doing something you love is irresistible to many, and makes the job worth the uncertainty, the insecurity and cut-throat nature of the business. Also be aware that the hours are often unsociable as there will be a lot of evening and weekend work involved.
So you certainly need a strong interest in the theatre and performing arts in general; this is not the sort of job that you will try out to see whether you like it or do simply to pay the bills. If you feel you have that passion, then read on!
How to get into it
Chris Allen, an actor who is enrolled on the MA in Acting at Arts Educational (validated by City University), recommends that initially working for free and gaining experience while making contacts in the industry is the best way to begin an acting career. Vocational experience can be as valued as formal qualifications - if not more so - so do not worry if you have no qualifications yet. The same is true if you would like to work as part of a theatre's technical crew or administration staff. See if you can volunteer at your local theatre, or try to see what opportunities the large festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe offer.
Working on a voluntary basis initially means that your income has to come from elsewhere. Mark Davies, a former circus and mime performer recommends getting a flexible non-performing job that will allow you time off to attend auditions and workshops. Chris agrees, saying that it is important to develop other skills that will help you keep afloat financially, such as writing. Another avenue that Mark pursued when getting his performance career off the ground was busking in popular street theatre spots such as Stratford and Covent Garden.
As mentioned above, qualifications are not essential for becoming an actor or performer. It is possible to become very successful by being self-taught and learning skills from friends. However, there are acting, stage and performance schools that run short courses and workshops in skills such as performing or clowning, and also longer courses such as the year-long Masters in Acting that Chris is doing. He heard about the course through the recommendation of a friend but the selection process was very competitive. After completing a lengthy application form, Chris attended an audition in London including a workshop involving performing, sight-reading and improvisation and then the delivery of two prepared monologues to the course tutors. These tutors, along with student minders who had been with the applicants all day, had a say in the selection process. The final four candidates were selected and then interviewed as a group about why they wanted to be on the course.
Where to find work and what the work is like
Many performers are self-employed, working at festivals, corporate events, cabaret and theatre. The jobs are either sourced by the actors themselves, or through friends or an agency. Having been slow to realise the benefits of technology, the industry is now slowly catching on, so you can search for auditions online. It is also possible to use the medium to market yourself. There are people in the creative arts sector who have made a name for themselves by becoming notorious on sites such as Youtube. And being able to create decent quality paper publicity from home rather than using printers is another bonus of recent technological developments.
In terms of keeping your career going, Mark emphasises the importance of constantly maintaining and developing your skills. Your success will depend on being able to continue to woo the crowd, so training is everything. Patience is vital, if performing is something you love, take your time to develop your repertoire and slowly get your name known. It is also important not to be too precious about your art. Be prepared to take on jobs that you do not necessarily enjoy that much in order to get your name known and survive financially. Chris agrees that it can be hard to maintain your artistic integrity, but that networking is vital in this field to maintaining a successful career. Building up a good portfolio of experience and some good contacts will compensate for having to work in some less than ideal roles.
Other jobs in the industry
Performing is not the only way to get into the theatre or the media. There are many jobs behind the scenes of a technical or administrative nature that can be just as rewarding. In fact actors at festivals are often required to ‘muck in' and move sets and props, or perhaps do some marketing, so the line between the two is not always distinct. Again, it is vital to try to get some experience as early as possible. Stewarding at your local theatre which often pays nothing or very little is a way of getting a foot in the door. On the administration side, if you have a professional qualification (e.g. in marketing) and can display a passion for the theatre, this will stand you in good stead.