In my last blog post, I addressed my latest acting-related identity crisis and inexpertly thrashed it out a bit. But then I forgot to stop thinking and I realised that I don’t even really know what an ‘actor’, male or female, is any more.

Everyone knows that the industry is about as overpopulated as China, and implementing some equivalent to the one-child policy is probably an inappropriate solution to the problem. This overpopulation is logical, given the attractive lifestyle that comes with being an actor; the constant scraping for money and work, and frequent compromises of dignity, are understandably powerful inducements. So the acting profession doesn’t mean to us today what it meant to Larry, Peggy and Gielgud (they love it when I use their nicknames). To them, it meant learning your lines, being heard right at the back, and bringing an audience to tears with your Julius Caesar. To us, it means getting really good at a one-man-band full of things in the hope that one of them might eventually get us a part in something that’s not even necessarily a play or a film.

The pool of actors is now so full that productions can be positively Verruca Salt with their briefs, often requiring ‘triple threat’ actor-singer-dancers who also happen to look the part. On top of this you may find at the bottom of the brief something like, “trombone players particularly sought”. As if it’s not enough to find an actor able to perform “to be or not to be” to the tune of ‘I Will Always Love You’ and finish with a triple backflip. Of course, this is a good thing for theatre in general because it forces performers to up their game, but I worry that sometimes the range of skills an actor is expected to have is starting to eclipse the value of their acting ability. A friend told me that some casting directors have been advising actors to “brush up on their stand-up comedy”. This gave me a real pain in the thousands of pounds I’d spent on training, so my response was that I’d brush up my stand-up when they started advising doctors to brush up on their dentistry.

Casting websites now list promotional work, modelling work, teaching, and work for tour guides and singers, because no reasonable actor expects to make a living just from acting work. However, actors need to be wary of people who tell them that things other than acting are a way to “get on the acting ladder”, as one recent poster I saw in the British Actors’ Network Facebook group was told about working as an extra. In my experience, most of the time this is simply an exploitative fallacy fed to actors who are at the beginning of their careers and keen to get on, because actors are plentiful and they’ll work for next to nothing. In fact, often nothing. They’d tell you working in an ice cream van would be good for your career if they thought you’d buy it.

The structure of the industry today means that actors often end up working a long way away from what they trained in. The upside of this is that I now know actors who are puppeteers, rappers, French horn players, accordion players, multi-linguists, opera singers, gymnasts and stage combat choreographers. But I have a triple threat of my own to blow them out of the water. All I need is a brief looking for an actor-juggler-spoons-player and I’m made, baby.

Photo by Flickr user randychui under a Creative Commons Licence.