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How to Avoid Being a Famous Actor
I'm not an actor - or at least, not a famous actor. And to be honest, I never really wanted to be an actor, which is just as well because I'm not one, really, not even an un-famous one.
Nevertheless, I have been an actor - many times, in dozens of shows, outdoor productions, on stage, and yes, even on the telly, though nothing you'll have seen. Or heard of. Probably.
So if you want to be a famous actor, or even a not-very-famous actor, here's my 1-7 (slightly tongue-in-cheek), non-famous actor tips on how not to do it:
1: Study Drama
Notice I say Drama, not Theatre, Acting, Performance or anything remotely related to getting up on stage and spouting
"Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio..."
Drama is one of those subjects people study when they want to equip themselves with many, many skills. Not just acting, movement, voice, etc (otherwise known as all-the-stuff-you'd-want-to-know-about if you wanted to be an 'actor'). No, drama is what you study if you're more realistic and recognise that even if you get the opportunity to do a bit of proper acting, in order to earn any money while waiting for that big break (which, by the way, will never come), you'll need to be able to do other things:
You'll Need to Know How to
Facilitate drama workshops
Facilitate movement workshops
Facilitate dance workshops
Facilitate mask-making workshops
Facilitate clown workshops
Facilitate facilitation workshops
(See where I'm going with this?)
Set up and operate a touring lighting rig
And Know About...
And so on...
I studied Drama at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle and learned a bit about all of these things. And during my time there, I also did some acting, but the emphasis was on being able to work in The Community (ie The World), which means you have to be a bit of an all-rounder.
2: Be an Extra on TV
Being an extra in a TV series or movie can be a lot of fun. You get to watch proper actors working, see how scenes are put together and often you'll even get paid! However, you won't get to say any actual lines, exchange creative ideas with the director or pitch your sitcom script to one of the producers.
Back in the late 1990's I was in three episodes of the North East children's series Byker Grove, where I played various background roles including a court usher. I was paid £30 a day and given a pretty good lunch, while passing time between takes with the other Extras. It was all great fun watching the real actors and some of them even spoke to me. Not everyone, however, was happy to spend time with the 'background artistes' - when I sat down to lunch one day at the only spare seat, I found myself sitting with the Director and three of the child stars of the series. They all ignored me.
3: Produce a Season of New Plays
Putting on a stage play is an exciting experience. Putting on a series of stage plays is also exciting, but may lead to nightmares, anxiety and unbelievable stress levels.
You won't learn a damn thing about acting, but it's a great way to develop skills such as: booking rehearsal rooms, how to be diplomatic with writers, sorting out copyright issues, meeting print deadlines and persuading actors not to drop out at the last minute.
I've covered the process fully in my Hub How to Produce a Stage Play.
4: Get Naked on Stage
If you really want to be an actor, you'll almost certainly have to do this at some point in your career, although if you do take the plunge and get your kit off, it's probably best to do it in a highly publicised play by a very famous writer in London or Broadway. My first (and, thankfully) only appearance sans clothes, was in a play by one of my mates (the lovely Barry Stone) who thought it would be great if the two main actors were naked at the top of the show.
On the plus side, it was incredibly liberating and having stripped off and strutted round the edge of the stage a mere three feet from the front row of a gawking audience, I felt like I could do anything. On the negative side, if you're at all concerned about how you look in the altogether, it's maybe not the best decision.
5: Tour a Children's Show
Touring theatre is the backbone to many theatre companies and is a great way for a performer to learn how to be professional in dealing with the public as well as with his/her fellow actors. To some extent, it teaches you about acting too, since any show that has more than three performances gives the actors the opportunity to really learn the show and how it works, which then allows them to cope when things go wrong.
There's an old rule of theatre that says if there are more people on stage than there are in the audience, the show can legitimately be cancelled. My first tour was a children's show that I also wrote. It was called 'Shadowsong' and was designed to be performed from Headway Theatre's 'Omnibuzz' - an old single-decker bus that had been transformed into a workshop and performance space. However, our first show (in a country park) wasn't very well publicised and as we prepared, it looked as if we might not have an actual audience at all. Luckily, three kids happened along who we persuaded to watch the show.
An audience of three, however, does nothing for an actor's ego.
6: Work with Amateurs
Over the years, I've worked with amateur actors, amateur writers, amateur stage managers and amateur directors. To be fair, many of them have been wonderful people - reliable, honest, hard-working and talented, and most of them have put a great deal of work into whatever project we were involved with.
Having said that, there are things that amateurs do that professionals seldom do. These include:
Turning up late for rehearsals
Not turning up at all
Pulling out of the performance three hours before the show starts
Promising to do something and not doing it
Not learning lines (a classic)
It's true that some professional actors and performers can be like this too, but they can generally be relied upon to do what they're there for.
7: Working with Children
Many professional actors also have the ability to run workshops. Often they'll do this to earn extra cash, running youth theatre groups or workshops attached to whatever show they're involved in at the time.
Touring children's shows is one of those situations that invariably include a requirement to facilitate workshops with kids in school or community settings. The show I mentioned earlier (Shadowsong) was one of these. After the initial outdoor performances, the play was re-written by me and the cast for performances in schools.
What we ended up with was a much slicker script and an easier show to perform, since it didn't involve outdoor generators, rain, awnings and random people strolling past at any given time. We toured to school halls, with proper lighting and plenty of space. And no rain.
Children can be adorably enthusiastic, but during one performance, we underestimated how much control we had over our audience. During a set-piece where myself - as Vlad - and one of my colleagues - Vblad - (Vlad with a silent 'B'), had got into the habit of improvising, dropping local names and areas into the dialogue. On this particular occasion, we happened to mention a particular football team and the audience erupted into a near-frenzy of shouting and ear-piercing screams.
The show had to be stopped and a suitably dominant teacher was finally able to bring the hoard under control, but for us, it was a lesson in audience participation and, more importantly, the necessity of sticking to the script.
If you're lucky enough to become an actor who gets paid huge wodges of cash, that's great, but remember - most of the really talented actors in the world are not famous, rich or household names - they act because they love what they do.