If you have the desire to perform, determination to succeed and the ability to handle criticism, an acting career will offer you limitless possibilities

An actor communicates a character 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, television advertising and film parts. As well as providing entertainment, an actor's role may also involve education, training or therapy.

Responsibilities

As an actor, you'll need to:

  • job seek and network
  • liaise with an agent
  • prepare for and attend auditions
  • learn lines and rehearse
  • research or undertake activities to help prepare for a part
  • discuss interpretation and delivery with other members of the company and the director
  • perform for a live audience
  • perform in a studio or 'on location' for film, television, internet and radio broadcast
  • do voice-overs for advertisements or record audiobooks
  • manage the performance area, costumes and props
  • undertake activities associated with touring, such as driving a van, 'get-ins' and 'get-outs' at theatres (i.e. setting up and dismantling the performance area)
  • liaise with venue managers and accommodation providers
  • keep records for company managers
  • work as a walk-on or extra for television or film.

Salary

Minimum wages are negotiated by Equity, the trade union for professional performers and other creative workers. Rates depend on the type of employment, location and number of performances.

Equity subscription rates are calculated according to the previous tax year's gross earnings from professional work. With special rates applied for students, children and long-service members.

An agent may be able to negotiate higher wages, taking a percentage of earnings as a fee. Securing an agent is itself a competitive process, involving networking and often inviting agents to see you perform, or sending them a 'showreel' of your TV or film work.

Very few people become wealthy through acting, although for some the rewards can be immense.

On average, actors spend about 80% of their working life 'resting' (i.e. not employed as an actor), so it's likely you'll need to have other ways of generating an income.

Working hours

Working hours may be long and unsocial. While on tour, an actor may be travelling and setting up scenery during the day and performing at night. Television and film work often involve very early starts and late finishes.

What to expect

  • Actors usually work indoors in theatres or television studios, although some contracts will require actors to work outdoors, for example some film and television work and street theatre.
  • Actors are frequently self-employed for tax purposes. Not all employers pay National Insurance contributions. Many actors employ an accountant. Accurate record-keeping skills are essential.
  • The lifestyle implications are considerable. Time spent away from home is an inevitable part of the job. Disruption to home and social life may be unavoidable. Many actors leave the profession because of difficulties finding work.
  • Actors may find themselves working all over the UK and abroad. Auditions are usually held in London or other major cities and actors may be required to attend them at very short notice.
  • 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.

Qualifications

A degree or HND is not a formal requirement for a career in acting. However, you will most likely need to complete some form of study in media, performing or visual arts. Only a few actors are lucky enough to land acting jobs with no prior training; most will hone their craft over many years, often starting at a young age.

If you're a current student, of any discipline, you can gain acting experience through your university drama society. Skills developed in any other performing discipline, such as music, are also helpful.

Courses at specialist drama, dance or other performing arts schools tend to be very vocational and practical in nature.

Postgraduate study is not essential but may be 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 and Shakespeare. Search for postgraduate courses in drama.

Details of accredited courses, assurance about training standards, advice on careers in the performing arts sector and advocacy are all provided by the Federation of Drama Schools. Fees and maintenance costs during study can be considerable and will vary significantly. Contact individual institutions for details.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • good communication and listening skills
  • punctuality and reliability
  • the ability to interpret and analyse roles
  • the capacity to work well in teams
  • the ability to take instruction and criticism
  • confidence to network and follow up contacts
  • self-discipline and stamina to cope with long hours and learning lines
  • resilience and determination
  • additional skills - these may be required for some roles, such as the ability to sing, dance or play a musical instrument.

Work experience

There's no single route to becoming an actor. Experience is an important factor, as is talent, determination, hard work and luck.

Gain acting experience through your school, youth or community amateur dramatics group, or undertake work experience at a theatre or on one of the BBC Careers work placement schemes. Holiday camps and resorts offer good opportunities, working as an entertainer or tour operator. Signing up to an agency and securing small parts in television programmes or adverts, or working as an extra, can also be a great way into an acting career.

Employers

Repertory companies employ actors for a season, during which they perform in a number of different plays, each one usually running for a specified period.

Commercial theatre companies produce plays or musicals, often for long runs in London's West End or other locations, as well as tours.

Fringe theatre companies are small companies, sometimes employing only a few staff and 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 often linked to the national curriculum and include workshops that focus on key 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 may be required 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 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 or longer.

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 sometimes employ actors as living history interpreters, which may involve role-playing a character from history and talking to visitors.

For an emerging actor, performing at showcases and major festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival can be highly valuable, as directors and casting agents tend to visit these events.

Look for job vacancies at:

Agencies such as Uni-versalEXTRAS offer work as an extra.

You'll need to be proactive and establish a network of contacts, as few vacancies are advertised. Use directories such as the British Performing Arts Yearbook. The Knowledge provides information about organisations that are about to start casting roles in theatre, television and film.

Your CV, as an actor, is different to that for many other jobs. As well as a list of production credits and details of any special skills, such as languages, accents, musical instruments played, singing voice, horse riding or stage combat skills, it also includes a 'headshot,' a head and shoulders picture, usually in black and white, taken by an accredited photographer. Testimonials or professional recommendations may also be included.

Professional development

After you start work as an actor, it's 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. Sometimes you may need to learn a new skill for a role, such as a specific kind of dancing or circus skills, and the director may arrange for a teacher to train you for this.

You will most likely need to invest in your own career by paying for your own training. Learning other skills, such as singing and dancing, can increase your chances of success in landing roles.

You may wish to join The Actors Centre which helps actors develop professionally through regular workshops on a range of subjects such as:

  • improvisation
  • sightreading and screen acting
  • voice and movement.

You may also consider postgraduate courses in related fields such as:

  • directing
  • dramatherapy
  • scriptwriting
  • teaching.

Career prospects

There is no standard career progression for an actor. You may spend your 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, radio, 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, or in branching out into different areas of performance.

You may have the opportunity to move into other areas, such as theatre management, scriptwriting or directing; or even set up your own theatre or film and television production company.