It is a demanding existence, which is why some give up, says Terri-Ann Brumby, who completed her training seven years ago. Even after working in repertory and appearing in the film Batman and several television dramas, including Minder and London's Burning, she still writes a dozen letters a week to prospective employers.
"You really have to enjoy the work; you have to want to do it badly and not let the rejections get you down," says Ms Brumby, who, like many stage performers, works as a waitress while "resting" between contracts.
Acting has always been as much about finding work as it is about appearing an stage or screen. But as employment generally becomes less secure, graduates entering other occupations are also finding that job-hunting skills can be as important as technical and professional skills.
Charles Jackson, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), says short-term contracts and self-employment are becoming more common as organisations undergo restructuring and job cuts. The idea of employers providing security and the chance to climb up a career ladder in exchange for loyalty and hard work is disappearing. For many, career progression is now a question of building up a reputation rather than moving onwards and upwards.
"The labour market is becoming more fragmented, and the fact that actors were there first means there are lessons to learn from their experiences," says Dr Jackson. "Even in well-established, large organisations where the traditional concept of a career has been most applicable, people must market themselves much more and the jobs they do are more likely to be project based and time limited, so many of the career management skills that actors have to acquire are relevant in those settings."
The IES has carried out a study of careers in drama and dance which found that flexibility and versatility are among the most important of these skills. Most actors who took part in the study had worked in two or more areas in the previous 12 months, with TV, repertory companies and small-scale theatre the most common sources of employment in a list that also included radio, commercials, fashion shows and cabaret.
Branching out into different areas obviously increases an actor's chance of working, but it does not guarantee continous employment. Only 40 per cent of the actors surveyed were working in drama at the time of the study and nearly 80 per cent of those in work were in short-term contracts. More than half the respondents had worked outside the profession in the previous 17 months - mainly as secretaries, shop assistants, teachers and waiters. Others created their own work, suggesting that those operating outside traditional career structures must be good entrepreneurs. IES researchers found many innovative small-scale theatre projects had been started by recent entrants to the profession.
Richard Haddon, who completed his stage training in 1983, has appeared in "bit" parts on TV and in the theatre, working backstage at the London Palladium and doing casual jobs while chasing the next engagement. In the mid-Eighties he began directing, first on the London fringe, then in mainstream theatre. He has also formed a theatre company with other people. Now 33, Mr Haddon says that while having contacts in the business helps, getting work is still a "continuous battle", for which his training had done little to prepare him.
Some 71 per cent who took part in the IES survey were satisfied with the overall quality of their training, but less than half were happy with the way it had prepared them for finding work, or with the careers guidance they had received.
Charles Jackson feels providers of vocational education must do more to prepare their students for the changes taking place. This means helping them to develop the self-presentation skills, flexibility and resilience they will need in a world where no one can count on a job for life.
'Careers and training in dance and drama', a report of research for the Arts Council of England, IES report no 268.Reuse content