Some years ago, I was asked by the publisher of a magazine I was editing at the time, Fourthwall & the Drama Student, to come up with ten tips for actors to see them through rough times. Recently I had the chance to review it and edit it for my clients. I post this with my usual warning “advice is only worth the price of the coffee you had to pay for to hear it”
1) Talent Isn’t Everything
At drama school it is easy to spot the talented students and just as easy to compare yourself to them. Don’t. The industry is never, ever just about talent. Yes, the talent you’re born with, to act, to be good at accents, to dance, to play a musical instrument, to sing; those are all great and they are the building blocks of your toolbox, but they are not enough. In the audition room, a director is looking for more than just talent. A director friend of mine says “It’s not about being the best, it’s about being the best fit.” She is looking for someone who fits with the cast she is piecing together, fits with her vision of the character. The best fit might not always be the person the director wants for a role. I once had a two hour audition in the North of England for a tour. It took the form of a long chat between me and the director. At the end he told me I had passed his ‘van test’ – I was the kind of person he could stand to spend five hours a day in a tour van with. He thought I’d be fun to be around.
Talent is just one part of your armoury.
2) The Harder You Work The More Confident You Feel
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation. Most auditions are lost because actors simply don’t prepare thoroughly. Yes, it shows. If you know everything about your speech, or your scene, or your song, then you won’t be surprised by anything the panel can throw at you in the audition room. That’s what we mean by making decisions; Who am I? Where am I? Be committed and specific. Words don’t just fall out of your mouth, they are connected. One thought follows another and you need to know how – what are those connections? If you are unsure on something, even a little unsure about the meaning of a word or phrase, you will be too busy worrying about it to listen to what the panel is telling you. If you are totally prepared, if you have put the work in, you will be more relaxed, more receptive and more open and your performance will be better. What happens, though, if you are not given much time to prepare? Well, that brings me on to my favourite saying;
3) It is Easier To Stay Ready Than To Get Ready
I should get this tattooed on my forearm I use it so often. Auditions can come at any time – are you ready? One of my best friends checked with her agent before heading back to the States for Thanksgiving. All was quiet he assured her, she could go and have a nice family holiday. No sooner had she touched down in LA than he emailed her to come straight back. The RSC had called her in. She dropped her bags with her family, got back on a plane, landed in London and rocked up to her audition, before returning to Heathrow and flying back to the States. As she already had several Shakespeare monologues learned, and set aside time once a fortnight to run them through, she knew she was ready to go.
I trained in musical theatre but as soon as I graduated I never went to another dance class. As soon as an audition came in I would frantically rush to Pineapple. Too little, too late. You have to stay on top of your game, at the very peak of your physical fitness. You will never get in shape in a week if you live on cream buns and takeaways (trust me on this, I know!) – and if that audition comes in asking for a fit, healthy looking guy, and you’re carrying a small tyre round your midriff then forget it.
Don’t forget the brain is a muscle too. Use it or lose it. If you have not worked in six months and you are asked to learn two speeches and a song for the next day, would you be able to?
4) Challenge Yourself
What have you learned recently? I learned to drive in my late thirties. Being a Londoner I never really felt the need. When I started learning it was tough, very tough indeed. Some experts argue that as you get older your ability to learn new things is compromised. You’ve heard the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? It took me seven, yes, seven attempts to pass my test. I can’t say that made me feel great about myself; there were a lot of tears and a lot of wanting to give up, but I persisted and I passed.
You need to be constantly challenging yourself, continually setting new goals. I have friends and clients who suddenly turn their hand to producing, or directing, or who, alarmingly, send me an invitation to see them do stand-up for the first time. The results are varied, but without fail, when they rise to a challenge they find new determination for the next one.
If you are not challenging yourself, then you are stagnating. Scared you might ‘fail’? The only failure is not having a go in the first place. Try something you never dared. You will surprise yourself with the results.
5) Visualize Success
It is not how good you are, it is how good you want to be that matters. If you cannot see yourself improving then you cannot work out how to improve. You have to be able to picture what it means to be good. Who do you admire? What makes them good? What can you learn from them? When coaching individually I often ask clients to work backwards. Imagine yourself playing a leading role at the National – how did it happen? What did you do in the imaginary audition that made them give you the part? How did you get that audition? How did you prepare for it? You need to be able to visualise all the components of success. It is not enough just to imagine yourself successful, you have to picture how you got there. That is the key. If you imagine yourself playing Irina in Three Sisters, surely one of the steps would be to read Three Sisters? If you want to work for great new writing companies like Paines Plough, or Theatre 503, mightn’t one of the steps involve actually going to one of their shows? If you want to be in musicals at the Curve, or Sheffield Crucible, have you actually ever gone to those venues to see what they’re like? Don’t be seduced into simply believing that success will just come to you if you think about it – you have to put in the leg work, and to do that, you have to have a clear idea of what that leg work might actually be.
6) Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy
I used to call this “paying your dues.” For most actors, I believe there is a period of paying your dues, knocking on a lot of doors and being nice to a lot of people before someone finally gives you a chance. Be prepared to do the work and spend the time. It may feel as if you are going nowhere but if you are learning all the time then the time is not wasted. Do not, as a wise friend of mine(writer, actress, producer, director, all-round inspiration) points out, be tricked into thinking that hard work = success. If you fool yourself into believing in that equation you will only be disappointed. Instead, think of hard work as its own reward. You might want to also have a read of my blog on this subject.
Remember that hard work, particularly in this industry, is its own reward – everything you do, everything you learn is beneficial and the hours slaving away on an audition speech for a part you do not ultimately get may seem wasted but you are learning and refining your craft every second.
Do not be persuaded by the famous actor who reveals in an interview that they knew nothing about the Oscar winning character that transformed their life until after they landed the part. It is a peculiarly British thing that we like to pretend that we are not bothered. Be bothered.
7) Work Is What You Make It
If you are not working you should be making work. The industry doesn’t sit around bitching, so why should you? If you’re not getting the roles you want, you need to give yourself the roles you want. Team up with a friend and produce your own show. No-one writes decent roles for women? Here’s a pen. Got a story you need to tell? Grab a camera. I recently worked with a terrifically motivated actor who worked out that if he gave up buying coffee for a year he would have enough to finance a short film. No-one can tell the story that you can tell, in the way that you can tell it. Speak from the heart, and people will listen. Build and they will come. Lots of actors tell me they worry it will take focus away from their career, but in my experience the opposite is true. People want to work with people who are motivated and passionate – people who have a buzz about them. Next time you are in an audition and the panel ask “what have you been up to lately?” do you think it would be more impressive to say “I’ve been working in a call centre to pay the bills” or to say “I’ve been producing a short film that I financed by giving up buying coffee for a year”?
8) Learn To Listen
Throughout your training, your career, your whole working life, people are giving you instructions, tips, and advice. You need to learn to distill all this information into something useable and useful. Years after I left drama school I would often email my tutors saying “Remember that lesson where you said X – well, I never understood what you meant until yesterday in rehearsal.” Just because you don’t understand something that is said to you there and then doesn’t mean it doesn’t have use. It may suddenly come back to you later with clarity and open up a door for you.
In auditions, it is particularly important to listen. From the moment you walk in, the panel are giving you tips – on how to behave and how to perform. Some are spoken, many are non-verbal. Learn to notice them all. It is so simple to miss someone’s name at the beginning of an audition – you’re flustered, you’re worried, it is understandable, but it is rarely acceptable. It is even worse when you are about to cold read a scene, and you are looking over it frantically to see if there are any words you might stumble over, and you miss the director telling you the time of day, or the location, and consequently you muck up the whole scene.
As much as you need to listen to however, you also need to know when to ignore something. Remember, everyone has their own agenda, their own mind. Learn to listen to your own gut; it is often all you have to help you make decisions.
9) Manners Maketh the Man (and Woman)
When you go to a bar in New York, you tip the bartender a dollar each time you buy a drink. It’s a simple rule and everyone knows that’s what is expected. If only professional courtesy in the industry was as clear-cut. Sadly, it is not. Do I send a thank-you card after an audition? How often is too often to contact a CD or agent? In an audition how familiar should I be with that director I went to school with? Over time you’ll develop your own guidelines. In the meantime, here are a few tips;
Be considerate. Never waste someone’s time; if you cannot take a part, do not go to the audition. You may think you’re “getting experience” or “meeting useful contacts” what you’re actually doing is taking an audition slot away from someone. Someone who might be desperate for the job, or someone who might be just right. What about if you think you might not take it? In that case I’d say go along. Time and time again I’ve had actors say they wouldn’t want to do something and changed their minds after having a brilliant audition and hitting it off with the team.
Get in touch when you have something to say, but keep it brief. You don’t need to send your entire life story, but it is worth updating people on your work, reviews, new headshots, screening dates for TV or film etc.
Do your homework. Know who you’re pitching yourself to and tailor your approach. I can spot a standard mail-out a mile off; make your cover letter specific, appropriate and SHORT.
Be on time. If you are late you make everyone else late, and you are putting yourself at a disadvantage right at the start. In my whole career I was late for an audition twice. I would rather be forty minutes early and have plenty of time to compose myself and prepare myself than be rushed and distracted when I most need to be relaxed and ready. An old Mountview saying – “if you’re on time, you’re already ten minutes late.”
Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. You will be in waiting rooms listening to someone give, in your opinion, the world’s worst rendition your favourite song but that is no reason to snigger or mock them. We are judged enough in this industry, we should try not to do it to others.
Trust your director. You cannot see what they can see. I know it might seem strange, or just plain wrong, but if you do not trust the director you really will find yourself lost at sea. All you can do is your best, so do that.
10) Stay Inspired
The worst thing you can do is lose your love for what you do. It is tough, nigh on impossible to stay inspired when all you can see in your future is more and more unpaid profit-share shows, when no-one seems to know you exist, when you’re wondering whether you wouldn’t be better off in an office job with sick pay and holidays. But you need to find some method of maintaining the passion. That burning desire you have, to be good, to learn, to create, to make magic – that is what will propel you on to be the best you can be. Lose that, and you lose the game. What motivates you one day will not motivate you every day. You need to keep igniting that flame any way you can. Act on your motivation and you will be unstoppable, fail to have any and you have already stopped. And remember; genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration – never, ever stop learning.