Here is a blast of encouragement, thoughts and ideas for a new actress starting out. I wrote it specifically for one person in the UK, but am giving it a wider audience, because others may enjoy it/find it helpful. Note: I have no links with professional theatre, so this is not expert advice.
Are you willing to serve an apprenticeship in drama?
Malcolm Gladwell in one of his books (may have been “Outliers”) says that if you practice your art form (or interest) enough, you get excellent at it. He claims there is a cold-blooded law that where you spend 10,000 hours at something, you become highly skilled. Any performer who becomes an ‘overnight success’ and sustains a career, will have done those hours. Intensive performance speeds this process up. e.g. the Beatles went for some months to play in Germany, in a club where there was a gruelling routine of multiple long performances daily. This rapidly racked up to 10,000 ish hours and…. then they hit the big time. The important thing to remember is that doing the hours does not guarantee success – that is still dependent on chancey elements of being in the right place at the right time, stumbling across the right people at key moments in their career – but if you have done the hours, you are at least ready for opportunities which come along.
Be encouraged – tomorrow’s world-beating directors, writers, actors are at this time like you – unknown, but passionate.
Passion – can’t be made up. Keep yours, no matter what anyone else says. Writers and directors want someone passionate about drama, and their work, to work with. Imagine you are a comedic writer – a string of auditionees come and go, but one auditionee is aware of your previous work and says she laughed herself sick at Scene 2. You feel that she can ‘get’ your work, refer it to other people’s, so you can talk at a good level. She’s smart, hard-working and looks like she has a good sense of humour. Who do you hire?
Enjoy every stage of your apprenticeship in drama. If other people see that enjoyment in you, they’ll want to be around you, work with you.
Acting is ensemble work – if you get on with folks, listen, have emotional intelligence, that will again make you much more appealing to employ in a company.
I know a wise community artist, who said that he will always choose to work with/employ someone of good character more than ‘talented’ but flakey. Gifted but without character is too much hassle and in the end won’t make something a good – won’t actualize their potential and pull their weight in a team.
Try to see the film “Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” in which a self-doubting young girl (Natalie Portman) is mentored by the whacky but wonderful owner of a magic toy shop (Dustin Hoffman). e.g. quote
“Life is an Occasion; rise to it.”
Life as an artist is not the same as at college. Student work gives you a toolset, but college is all about pleasing your tutors’ personal tastes and, by definition, they’re yesterday’s arts people. They can give you lots of traditional skills and an understanding of what was Big in their day and is current now, but your own classmates are more of an indication of what will happen Next. Art forms evolve and change, where you do that in your work, you’re ready for the Next Big Thing. e.g. bet your tutors didn’t grown up making podcasts – the technology simply wasn’t available then.
Don’t evaluate yourself in big, sweeping ways now, it’s too early in your career. That would be like a seedling digging itself up to check on its roots.
If you really, really want to be in drama, then you can work at it.
Don’t compare yourself to other students – they’re still at the start of who they’ll be. Are they FAT? This is a term used by a church I belonged to in Belfast – they were constantly looking for volunteers who were Faithful, Available, Teachable. Or to put it another way, with sound character and work ethic.
The world around you is full of characters, notice them as you go about. Even take yourself somewhere very public just to observe people and guess what’s going on with them. People-watch. I have a friend who is a podiatrist (expert on feet and walks) and she can literally sit in an airport and just watch how people walk and be fascinated by the variety. Think about the people you see. Could you act them later? Could you do a 1 minute monologue as them? Practise this for the amusement of friends and family. Like charades. Do your piece and say “Who am I?” This is how the comedic actress Joyce Grenfell got her break – doing her party “turn” as a harrassed society hostess, I think it was. There’s a short clip of her ‘doing’ a harrassed nursery teacher on the BBC website:
In turn, Victoria Wood followed in her footsteps, and would sit on a bus and listen to the conversations of characters around her, then extend that into a standup monologue. You can do that too. A wee notebook and pen and you’re away. There is actually a humorous column written in the Guardian on a Saturday, every week, on conversations heard aloud. (The Guardian Guide – Michael Holden “All ears”).
Are you fluent in body language? There’s a book on this called “People Watching – the Desmond Morris guide to human behaviour” by Desmond Morris. Now I haven’t read this, but it seems to be an updated version of his earlier classic, “Manwatching” which has fascinating photos of people in various stances and you CAN read what they’re feeling, instantly and instinctively from this.
Find out about people who have achieved in drama, learn from their lessons. I love it when someone shares their mistakes, because then I don’t have to make them too.
Read/listen to biographies and autobiographies of the best of actors, film-makers, screen writers, radio performers, voiceover artists, playwrights, comedians, theatre impresarios, ballet people, musicians, veterans of variety, film stars, composers of film music/musicals etc. These are your tribe. Get to see whose line of work excites you most. Even tiny libraries have a good selection of biographies and autobiographies.
Radio 4 “Desert Island Discs” is an entertaining programme of autobiography and life lessons. Broadcast Sunday morning, repeated Friday 9 a.m. Recent progs are now available as podcasts – check out the prog website at the BBC. A huge range of voice’s and life experience – a cast of thousands, if you like. Or you can encourage yourself in your career by listening to the life experiences of actors, theatre managers, playwrights etc as you can search interviewees by career.
Watch the extra chapters on film DVDson how the film was made – interviews with the actors and director. You will learn lots of information on working approaches and styles of directors and actors. (DVDs can be rented comparatively cheaply and for a week, from local libraries or purchased secondhand for a few pounds.)
There is a gigantic amount of drama free on TV and radio. Watch/listen to as wide a variety as possible. (BBC i-player means it’s available to hear later, even if shown during your working hours) If you could write better scripts, do it and check out the BBC writers website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/opportunity/index.shtml which is constantly full of opportunities for new writers, in local theatre companies.
Get in with a small, new video production company. They are always looking for free/cheap acting. Who knows whether the spotty youth who can just about switch on the video camera won’t be a bigtime director one day? He’s at the start of his 10,000 hours too.
Small video companies make their own showreel. Collaborate with a few companies so that you get recordings too, so both you and the companies get footage for a showreel. Win-win.
Practise all your friends’ regional accents until you can do them well.
Remember that you are unique. Your character, face, voice, life experience, work attitude are unrepeatable. Be the best, truest you that you can be. No one else can copy you. Don’t fit yourself into a mould, don’t try to be exactly like someone else (except briefly, while acting!). I remember the comedienne Roseanne Barr, who wrote her own v popular TV sitcom, wrote a scene about mums and kids going to see Santa Claus – and was nearly in despair because, this being Hollywood, ALL the actresses had long blonde hair because that was trendy at the time! She had to put hats and scarves on them, to break up the uniformity.
Use modern media to publish your best work. Get a friend to video you, put it on the Net in a way you are comfortable with, not in a way that weirdoes can track you. Record yourself and make a podcast. Write an article about what it’s like to be a new, struggling actor, or what it was like to go to drama classes, send to national newspapers, especially the Guardian, who have a day when they cover careers. (Check their online paper first, that they haven’t recently done an article on drama). Or write an article on 10 funniest things that happen in drama school, 10 worst reviews ever, 10 things that encourage you etc.
Give careers talk at school. Ask your local secondary school/further education college’s drama and careers department if they’d like you to come and give a chat about what it’s like to do a drama course. For your talk, work up a few funny stories about what happens, as well as giving useful info. If it helps, script your talk and learn it. Practise engaging with the audience. (This of course lets you look at teachers and students so you can develop new characters from them!) If this works for you, approach other schools similarly. You will get yearly, repeat speaking business. Unpaid, but it will make you comfortable with public speaking/performing. Maybe at the start, get the teacher to ask you serious questions, but reply as different character each time – can the class guess who you are? Makes it fun and entertaining for all.
Do you know any computer games developers or animators? They need voices.
What do you know about doing voiceovers? It’s big, expanding business. Read the autobiography of the girl who does the voice of Bart Simpson, Nancy Cartwright “My life as a ten year old boy”.
This idea is a longshot – get paid work helping out at literary festivals. e.g. Hay on Wye is now run in various locations, including Belfast. Rub shoulders with writers, whose work may become a play of film. When off-duty, go to their talks. Writers don’t usually have much say in casting, but if you understand their work, you’ve got a common language with directors/producers who are making that book/play/film happen because they love that script/writer.
Use your moment of despair – turn it into comedy. The writer of “Withnail and I” wrote out his despair. It became a massively popular film.
There is something almost magically compelling about Truth. As you delve into people’s life stories, you will see, again and again, that when they wrote/acted/sang what was true for them, it spoke to others.
Another thing you will find in even famous people’s careers, is that life has different cycles when it’s easier to get work and when it’s not. You can learn and be encouraged by their experiences.
All the best,