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.

An acting career inevitably incorporates periods of unemployment, underemployment and alternative employment.

Responsibilities

Work activities vary depending on the actor and also the specifics of each contract, but will usually include varying combinations of the following:

  • job seeking and networking;
  • liaising with an agent;
  • preparing for and attending auditions;
  • learning lines and rehearsing;
  • researching or undertaking activities to help prepare for a part;
  • discussing interpretation and delivery with other members of the company and the director;
  • performing for a live audience;
  • performing in a studio or 'on location' for film, television, internet and radio broadcast;
  • doing voice-overs for advertisements or recording audiobooks;
  • managing the performance area, costumes and props;
  • undertaking 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);
  • liaising with venue managers and accommodation providers;
  • keeping records for company managers;
  • working as a walk-on or extra for television or film.

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.

Salary

  • Equity, the trade union for professional performers and other creative workers, negotiates minimum wages for its members, with minimum rates depending on the type of employment, location and number of performances. Equity members are entitled to a subsistence allowance while touring. Equity provides a careers information service for members.
  • For some roles agreed minimum rates may be set, whereas for other roles pay rates may vary significantly.
  • The Equity membership fee is payable on a sliding scale as a percentage of the previous tax year's gross earnings from your professional work (including royalties, repeats and residuals). Details of fees are located on the Equity web pages. If you are currently studying on a higher education full-time course in performance, or a related subject lasting one year or longer, you may be eligible for student membership.
  • Many actors sign up with an agent, who may be able to negotiate higher wages, but will take a percentage of earnings as a fee. The percentage taken varies according to the type of work, e.g. theatre or television. Agents vary considerably, and 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.
  • Earnings are not necessarily linked to experience or qualifications.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

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

Although specific training may not be a formal requirement, a very large and increasing number of actors have undertaken formal training in acting or the performing arts.

A degree or HND in these areas may help to 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 and actors often have links with other performing disciplines such as music.

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, Shakespeare.

Details of accredited courses, assurance about training standards, advice on careers in the performing arts sector and advocacy are all provided by Drama UK.

Fees and maintenance costs during study can be considerable and will vary significantly. Contact individual institutions for details.

Search for postgraduate courses in drama.

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.

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 skills such as musical ability for a particular role.

Work experience

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, or 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.

Involvement in drama through school, university, youth theatre or amateur dramatics is essential. Experience as an 'extra' 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 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 or shadow a professional. If you are at university, regardless of your course, join a student drama association.

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 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. To research relevant companies use directories such as the British Performing Arts Yearbook.

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.

Information on organisations that are about to start casting roles in theatre, television and film is provided by The Knowledge. Useful information on finding work as an extra can be found at Equity.

It is worth noting that the format of an actor's CV is different to that for many other jobs. As well as a list of the actor's 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 recommendations by others may also be included.

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Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

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.

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.

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 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.

Actors may also undertake training in other careers, such as 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 or a driving licence may be beneficial.

Career prospects

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, 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 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.