An actor communicates a character and/or situations to an audience through speech, body language and movement. This usually involves interpreting the work of a writer under the instruction and support of a director, although some work may require the actor to devise a character or improvise the reactions of a character to a situation.
Work varies enormously, from live stage performances of the classics and community theatre to soap operas, radio work and film parts. An actor's role may also involve education, training or therapy, as well as entertainment.
An acting career inevitably incorporates periods of unemployment, underemployment and alternative employment.
Work activities vary from actor to actor and even for the same actor, depending on the contract. However, activities include varying combinations of the following:
It is essential to realise that, on average, actors spend about 80% of their working life 'resting' (i.e. not employed as an actor), so it is important to have other ways of being occupied and generating an income.
There is no single route to becoming an actor. Experience is an important factor and it is also impossible to discount the importance of talent, determination, hard work and luck. It may be beneficial to join a local amateur dramatics group, undertake work experience at a theatre or on one of the BBC Careers work placement schemes in order to gain a wider understanding of how specific areas of the industry operate.
A number of noted actors entered the industry through working as holiday camp entertainers or taking similar jobs with a tour operator or holiday resort. Others start by joining a local theatre group as a child and gaining small parts in television programmes or adverts.
Although it is not a formal requirement, an increasing number of actors have undertaken some training in acting or the performing arts. A degree or HND in these areas may improve your chances of following a career in acting, largely due to any practical course work involved, but acting is open to all and many successful actors do not have a drama degree. Students of other disciplines may gain acting experience through drama societies.
Courses at specialist drama, dance or other performing arts schools tend to be more vocational and practical and often carry greater recognition within the industry than university courses, which are by and large more theoretical.
Postgraduate study is not essential but is a useful way of gaining more skills, experience and contacts. Entry is competitive and courses are intensive. A number of institutions offer a one-year MA/Postgraduate Diploma in Acting, or there are summer schools or short courses focusing on a particular element of acting, e.g. accent and dialogue coaching, stage combat, Shakespeare. Look for courses accredited by the National Council for Drama Training (NCDT) and The Conference of Drama Schools . There is some funding available via Dance and Drama Awards and possibly through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) , but fees and maintenance costs during study can be considerable. Contact individual institutions for details.
Involvement in drama through school, university, youth theatre or amateur dramatics is essential. Experience as an 'extra', while not the same as acting, offers an insight into work in the profession and could provide a useful network of contacts. Work as an extra can be found through agencies such as Uni-versalExtras Ltd , which specialises in extras work for students. Some extra work can lead to Equity membership - contact them for details.
Candidates will need to show evidence of the following:
Other skills and talents, such as singing, dancing, stage combat or playing a musical instrument, can be a big advantage in gaining employment.
Many jobs are not advertised. When they are, it may be that a director requires very specific physical attributes (e.g. a certain height) for a particular role and so will instantly exclude many potential candidates.
Acting is a highly competitive career. Open auditions can attract hundreds and casting agents may have a very specific idea of the type of person they are looking for and consequently you may not have quite the right 'look'. An actor with a tenacious attitude towards their career progression (actively networking and attending many auditions) may succeed over one with more talent and experience. However, once you have demonstrated you are professional and good to work with this may count in your favour, as recommendation by word of mouth is very common. A reputation within the industry for being 'difficult' can be hard to shake off and a hindrance to gaining work.
Many actors, especially film and television actors, sign up with an agent who helps them to find work by using established contacts with the industry. This increases the number of auditions you are invited to, but the agent will take a cut of 10-25% of your earnings. Equity can advise members on how to get an agent.
As well as signing up with an agent, another possibility is forming a cooperative agency, with actors working together to run the agency and represent each other.
Some people go into acting as a second career through informal routes, but this is not common. If you have been interested in acting from a young age it is likely you have already taken part in a variety of plays through school or local theatre groups. If not, joining one is essential to discover whether acting is something you enjoy. Getting involved locally will also help you start to make industry contacts. For example, volunteer at a local theatre, ask to sit in on rehearsals, shadow a professional. If you are at university, regardless of your course, join the student drama association.
The nature of the work means actors are constantly discriminated against, due to not being right for a specific role. Acting is excluded from the sex discrimination and some other equal opportunities laws, as a job can be offered to someone of a particular sex or race, if it is a 'genuine occupational requirement'.
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After you start work as an actor, it is unlikely that formal training leading to vocationally related qualifications will be provided. Skills are developed on the job, through rehearsal and performance, as you move between contracts and this experience is evidenced on your CV rather than certificates. Sometimes you may need to learn a new skill for a role, such as a specific kind of dancing, and the director will arrange for a teacher to train you for this.
Actors may invest in their own careers by undertaking training in other skills, such as singing lessons or dance classes, but this is unlikely to be paid for by an employer. Performers may wish to join The Actors Centre , which runs classes and workshops to develop actors' skills.
You may also consider postgraduate courses in related fields such as:
These subjects may be useful if you want to branch out into other aspects of the profession or to appear more attractive to small-scale theatre companies requiring all-rounders.
Actors may also undertake training in other careers, such as secretarial work, proofreading, TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) or complementary therapies, in order to access employment opportunities between acting contracts. Many actors do temporary work between contracts, so some office experience may be beneficial.
There is no standard career progression for an actor. Some actors spend their whole career moving from one acting contract to another, performing similar work without gaining extra responsibility or a significant increase in pay. Success with one contract does not necessarily lead immediately to more work and you may move between theatre, television and film. You must be prepared for the ups and downs and the lack of security which is inherent in the profession.
Career progression may take the form of learning new skills and specialising in these or in branching out into different areas of performance. There may also be opportunities to move into other aspects of the work, such as managing theatre companies, scriptwriting or directing. This is more likely in smaller companies, where these skills can be combined with acting. Some actors set up their own theatre or film/television production companies.
Most actors spend time in other types of jobs and so have built up a range of transferable skills, which may help them move into related careers, such as teaching or lecturing, drama therapy or training. Some use positions as marketing or box office staff at theatres to support their acting career while working in the same or similar environment.
Repertory companies employ actors for a season, during which they perform in a number of different plays, each running for two or three weeks.
Commercial theatre companies produce plays or musicals, often for long runs in London's West End, as well as tours.
Fringe theatre companies are small companies on tight budgets. They may specialise in a niche area of theatre or performance, or focus on work from a specific era or by a particular playwright. Some aim to take performances to people who might not normally have access to larger productions. They perform in a variety of places, including venues such as community centres, church halls and public gardens. Some are run as cooperatives.
Theatre in education (TiE) companies tour schools, using drama to educate children. Productions are linked to the national curriculum and include workshops that follow up the main learning points. Children’s theatre companies with a less educational aim also tour schools and other venues to entertain children. An up-to-date Disclosure and Barring Service check is likely to be very important for actors looking to work in this area and a teaching qualification and/or experience may be beneficial.
Youth theatres engage with young people in adult-led theatre activities, outside the formal education system.
Film, television and radio companies employ actors to work on particular productions. Contracts usually range from a day to several months. As few films are made in this country, this type of work is limited.
Actors may also be employed to appear in promotional or training videos or to participate in corporate training events, where they might facilitate role-play activities for staff.
The internet is a growth area for acting, either through 'viral' marketing videos or extra online content related to films and TV programmes. Some video games include acting opportunities using 'motion capture' technology.
Museums, heritage organisations and tour companies increasingly employ actors as living history interpreters, which may involve role-playing a character from history and talking to visitors.
It is essential to be proactive and establish a network of contacts, as few vacancies are advertised. Use directories such as the British Performing Arts Yearbook and Contacts to research relevant companies. You can also use Contacts to research agents and casting directors. For an emerging actor, performing at showcases and major festivals such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can be highly valuable, as directors and casting agents tend to visit these events.
The Production and Casting Report provides information on organisations that are about to start casting roles in theatre, television and film. Equity provides good information on finding work as an extra. Most professional actors have an entry in Spotlight , the UK's most popular casting directory.
It is worth noting that the format of an actor’s CV is different to that for more conventional jobs. As well as a list of the actor’s production credits and details of any special skills (such as languages, horse riding or stage combat skills), it also includes a 'headshot' - a head and shoulders picture, usually in black and white.
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