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Behind the Scenes: how to work when you’re not acting

Posted on 15 November 2011 Written by

Acting is a notoriously tricky business to get into, and most commit to the career knowing that even if they’re incredibly talented, they’re probably going to experience periods when Olivier-Award-winning roles – or any roles at all – are thin on the ground. Actors do not have much job security, which is why knowing how to work when you’re not acting is a useful skill. So, for any actors wondering how to survive in between roles, these few pointers may just come in handy.

Get used to children: It seems like a rite of passage for actors to spend time working with children, so it may be beneficial for an aspiring actor to refine their childcare techniques. International actress Lenka Šilhánová travelled from the Czech Republic to the UK to work as an au pair. She recalls how working with children brought in money whilst leaving room to develop her career: “It allowed me to live in for free, gave me some pocket money to survive, and allowed enough free time to take acting courses, volunteer at The Actors’ Centre and explore how showbiz works over here. Most importantly, it allowed enough time to prepare for auditions at drama schools.”

However, not every actor is seized by an urge to look after kids. Actress Alix Wilton Regan recalls that she participated in “a brief session of teaching drama workshops to children until I realised this was more a babysitting club for overtired parents on a Saturday morning”. Whilst childcare is clearly not a job suited to everyone, it can help actors sustain a connection to their profession. Tristan Pate, who is currently starring in the UK tour of Dreamboats and Petticoats, found teaching kept him engaged in acting even when he wasn’t currently performing: “I was still interpreting Shakespeare and refining my own ideas and methods through directing. It made me feel hungry for the next acting challenge.”

If, like Pate and Šilhánová, you view childcare as an exciting acting challenge, it’s a survival job that can appeal in its flexibility and link (even if sometimes tenuous) to the profession.

Be prepared to do something a little bit humiliating: Whether it’s dressing up in ridiculous costumes or wearing next to nothing in icy weather, every actor has had their share of humorous jobs. Pate recalls a “humiliating experience” when he had to “dress up as an apple core for a police litter awareness fun day and go litter picking with some kids”. He adds, “Costume jobs can be grim. A friend of mine worked outside in full fairy regalia for eight hours last Christmas in the freezing cold.” Šilhánová certainly knows something about working in sub-zero temperatures;  she took on promo work to raise funds for her ticket to the UK. “I was one of the ‘lucky’ 10 or so girls to actually sign with the agency. I did jobs as a promoter at Christmas parties for various companies. It involved long hours for awfully low pay, in high heels and little black dress in winter months, in a mountain region.” Yet even these less desirable jobs can teach actors something useful for future roles. Šilhánová notes that the modelling and social etiquette training she received on the job has since been helpful for various acting roles.

Promoting Christmas parties and litter awareness aside, pursuing a career on stage can be an invaluable opportunity to live out your childhood dream of being a Disney princess, as actor Rod Henderson remembers: “I was laughing with the cast backstage at a panto when the ‘baddie’ grabbed my hand and tried to drag me on stage instead of the princess. Easy mistake to make I guess!”

Keep your head in the game: If you’re finding it hard to relate your job to your acting career, exploring another area of the theatre world can be a way to learn more about your craft whilst making money, too. Henderson advises taking jobs vaguely related to your  field and using these as a way to gain “experience of exactly what it takes to make theatre”. Henderson has worked as a lighting and sound designer, a technician, an assistant, a stage manager, and even as a writer and director, and has found these positions have taught him more about the acting profession: “As an actor I used to be arrogant enough to assume that being on stage was the most difficult part of theatre. Working around the stage, but not on it, has shown me otherwise!”

Alternatively, if theatrical jobs are hard to come by, finding ways to gain transferable skills in unrelated jobs can help you feel that what you’re doing is worthwhile. Actor Dewi Evans has taken on bar work since graduating, and says that although it is completely unrelated to his training it has helped him learn how to deal with customers and run events. Similarly, Šilhánová notes how “working as a receptionist and helpdesk operator helped me with my communication skills.” Even the most dire of part-time jobs can provide useful skills in between pulling pints and working on your telephone manner.

Don’t expect to automatically hit the big time: Most actors admit that the current state of their career doesn’t match the expectations they once held, even if they are making progress in the industry. Wilton Regan admits, “I thought that by now, having been to LA and been signed to some very big agents, I would be much further along the path of ‘rising star actress’, but unfortunately the universe has other plans.” Henderson shares a similar sense of not quite reaching one’s dream, adding, “I had hoped I would be on the London Fringe a bit more, aiming for The National or national tours.”

Yet even these actors have faith in the path they have taken. Henderson says, “Just because I am not on the Olivier Stage or at the New Vic does not mean I’m not making my way there, I’m just on a more circuitous route. There are times when I wake up in the morning and I genuinely don’t know how many different hats I will have to be wearing that day. I like that sort of excitement.” And Henderson’s more circuitous route can have unforeseen benefits, as Pate discovered: “One thing that does surprise me is finding myself in Musical Theatre. I trained as an actor, and although we did do a lot of singing, I barely picked up an instrument in those years – it was only after graduating I realised what an asset musical abilities can be in getting you work. I have surprised myself by ending up on a number one commercial tour. It wasn’t really one of my ambitions but is an achievement none the less!”

Being realistic about the difficulty of breaking into acting is wise, as is an awareness that survival jobs are just a more ‘circuitous’ way to reach your overall goal.

Don’t lose the faith: Even when you keep your goal firmly in mind, spending so much time in survival jobs can be a bit demoralising, as Wilton Regan knows: “You get constant pitying looks from part-time employers along with the words ‘I mean it’s just SO HARD being an actor (pitying sigh). I’ve really no idea how you do it. All the unemployment, no job stability and you’re constantly broke right?’ Yes, we are and no, we’d rather not be reminded of it.”

Whether you’re pouring drinks for other people or teaching their kids drama on a Saturday morning, the key is to make acting your priority and keep faith that it will all work out. Pate advises that “the trick is trying to do things on your own terms as much as possible, so you don’t risk getting into full time employment and struggling to get time off for auditions. I did this was by calling in favours from friends who could get me a few hours work and then trying to make my own opportunities around it.” Evans found a similar tactic was helpful: “Bar work is a great way of earning money whilst being an actor as you are able to swap shifts and interact with the public. I recommend building up a relationship with your managers; if you’re flexible with them when you can be, they are more likely to be flexible with you when you need to take a last minute audition.”

Šilhánová recommends seeing every job as “an opportunity to learn something new… the more interesting life you live, the better actor you become.” Wilton Regan adds: “Use your imagination. It’s the biggest gift you’ve got as an actor, and one you absolutely have to strive to keep alive.”

In other – slightly idealistic – words, even if you’re stuck looking after somebody else’s children or promoting companies knee-deep in snow, trust that the jobs you take between roles will eventually lead towards that elusive Olivier-Award-winning role.

Image credit: Stuart Miles

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