Do you get a buzz from being on stage? Are you a film fanatic? Do you get dazzled by the glitz and glamour of live theatre? Perhaps you aspire to be an actor like David Tennant, Dev Patel or Olivia Colman.
Acting is a demanding career and it’s certainly not easy getting your first break. This article explores the reality, offers tips on how to get going, and gives you ideas for other careers in performance or ‘back-stage’ roles.
What is involved?
Actors can have leading or supporting roles in:
- films – Hollywood or Bollywood may spring to mind, but the British film industry has made a name for itself in recent years
- TV productions – anything from soaps to historical dramas
- theatre – as well as major theatres in cities and towns, including London’s West End, there are opportunities in, for example, regional repertory theatres, touring theatre companies, theatre-in-education and fringe theatre
- radio dramas
- musical theatre – suitable for those who can also sing and dance; this area of work has grown in popularity with shows like Hamilton and Mary Poppins
- the games industry – they may be filmed wearing a special suit with sensors so that their actions can be filmed to create digital characters (CGI is also used in the film industry)
- advertising campaigns.
A good actor can turn his or her hand to all kinds of roles, but some get a name for themselves in a specific genre, such as comedies or romances. Apart from performing, actors:
- audition for parts
- memorise lines and movements
- research and try out different looks, actions and accents
- take part in rehearsals.
For big productions, actors may be involved in promotional work.
Do you have what it takes?
Along with talent, you must be:
- ambitious and dedicated
- hard working with stamina
- reliable – word will get around if you miss rehearsals or don’t turn up on time
- resilient – to cope with rejection and job insecurity
- willing to work long, unsocial hours and travel for work.
You’re likely to need another way to earn an income while you establish yourself and for any periods when you’re not able to act.
How to become an actor
For most roles you have to audition to demonstrate your suitability to act in a specific role. Employers usually look for people who belong to Equity – the union for performers.
The majority of professional actors train at drama school on a diploma, degree or postgraduate course. Getting a place is competitive – you don’t necessarily have to have studied drama as a school subject (although that may help) but you must perform well at an audition and meet any other entry requirements. Some schools are partners of the Federation of Drama Schools or are accredited by the Council for Dance, Drama and Musical Theatre.
Do your research when selecting a drama school course – find out about teaching methods and how successful previous students have been. You need to find a course that suits you and your ambitions. State loans may not be available for courses at drama school, so ask whether they offer bursaries or know of other sources of funding. If eligible, you could apply for a Dance and Drama Award; you must be taking a Trinity College London Diploma at an approved institution.
There are also courses in drama and performing arts at mainstream colleges and universities, but these are usually more academic so you may need to go to drama school afterwards for vocational training. You can find out more about courses by attending a UCAS Create Your Future exhibition.
When you’re ready to apply for professional acting roles, you can find information on castings and auditions through The Stage. Agencies that specialise in finding talent for productions can be found through Spotlight’s Contacts Listings. You can also join Spotlight to market yourself.
How to get experience
Gaining as much experience as possible is vital to develop your skills, and improve your chances of getting into drama school and finding work. You could:
- act in school or college productions
- join a local drama group or youth theatre
- attend workshops
- work with student film makers.
In addition to acting, make sure you take an active interest in the performing arts – go to live theatre productions, join a film club, volunteer with young performers… Being an extra would give you an insight into film and TV production.
There are other careers that involve performing in one way or another. These would make good use of the skills you will have developed from acting. Opportunities include:
- TV or radio presenting
- dubbing and voice-overs
- being an entertainer (e.g. a comedian, magician or puppeteer) or compère/host; you may find work at clubs, holiday centres and on cruise ships, or as a freelancer
- stunt work – along with technical ability, you’d obviously need to be fit and highly skilled in physical activities such as driving, gymnastics, skiing or horse riding! These days, visual effects are often used instead of stunt performers.
There are also lots of back-stage careers that don’t involve performing but would make use of your experience and interest in acting. Here are just a few of the many areas of work you could consider:
- theatre, film or TV production
- stage management
- wardrobe or make-up
- lighting, set design and construction
- teaching drama in schools, colleges or universities
- running acting workshops or youth groups
- arts administration
- dramatherapy – helping people express themselves, address their difficulties and improve their self-esteem through acting techniques.
The qualifications and experience required for these roles will vary. You can find information on careers in theatre on the Creative Choices website, and in TV and film through ScreenSkills. You can also explore a wide range of opportunities through Creative Careers.
Finding regular work as an actor can be difficult. Even if you don’t make it as a professional actor, you can get a lot of enjoyment by taking part in amateur productions and/or working in one of the great alternative careers suggested in this article.
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients including Health Careers, the Royal Society of Chemistry and English Heritage.