Treading The Boards: Make acting your profession

To make it as an actor you need to gain as much experience as you can, says Iain Ormsby-Knox
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The Independent Online

The range of employment opportunities for performers and actors in the 21st century is much more diverse than 50 years ago. The growth of television, film and radio - not to mention video and the internet - means that today's performers need to have experience and understanding of working in as many differing media as possible. Fifty years ago, actors tended to train "on the job" in repertory theatres; observing more experienced actors, learning from them and doing stage management duties and playing small parts during a kind of apprenticeship. This is no longer possible. That's why most young performers need to take a training course where they acquire technique, and experience different modes of performance before they get paid for doing it. Drama schools - whether traditional or university-based courses - offer that opportunity.

It is often said and research by the actor's union Equity backs up the hearsay, that just over 70 per cent of actors are out of work at any one time. This statistic can be a little misleading as it does include very successful actors who choose not to work for parts of the year, as well as actors who have gone into other careers and still retained their union membership. It would, however, be irresponsible to imagine that a life as an actor is a financially secure or easy option.

To combat this, performing arts students on good courses would learn skills in several areas. Firstly, you need to be vocally and physically flexible enough to play a 2,000-seat venue one week and a tiny television studio the next; to take on the complexity and size of a Shakespeare role for a season before moving on to a musical theatre role. In other words, to gain success as an actor, a singer or a dancer, you need to be a flexible and keep your options open: a thinking practitioner who can turn their hand to almost anything. For this you need great technical training and the opportunity to experience those different mediums. Look for a course that includes practical workshop-based learning in areas including technique, voice and speech, movement and dance, musical theatre, improvisation, devising, Shakespeare, dialect work, and acting for screen and radio - to name a few! This should be backed up by training in research skills, contextual studies and professional development.

Secondly, if you accept that this is a difficult industry, you need to know as much about it and where the opportunities lie as you possibly can. You also need to know how to sell yourself, where to sell yourself and what to do if nobody is buying. Some university, college and conservatoire courses offer specific modules and programmes to help you do this, using lectures, seminars and mock auditions given by actors, directors and casting directors from the industry.

To successfully complete a training course in acting and go on to a career in the business, you need to be very determined and open to new experiences. And don't be blinded by glamour and fame! You should have your sights set on the hard work that you need to undertake, rather than on dreams of Hollywood. The more experience of acting that you can acquire before you present yourself for an audition, the better.

You will learn things from all amateur acting experiences, no matter how limited the theatre company. You should also see as much live theatre as you can. Your formal education is also very important and although having qualifications in drama is not essential, understanding the theory behind your work can only be to your advantage.

Iain Ormsby-Knox is head of acting at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts

Independent projects

Peter Howe, 25, studied a BA (Hons) acting (performing arts) at LIPA. He graduated in 2004 Howe has A-levels in English literature (B), English language (E) and media studies (C) from Freeman Hall Sixth Form College, Trinity School, Leamington Spa

"I'd been performing since I was 11 in various theatre groups and youth theatres and it seemed a natural progression to go off and train at theatre school as an actor. I looked for a course that offered interdisciplinary training, which would mean I could develop my acting skills, as well as other skills; singing, writing, dancing and even design. And I found it! On my degree, actors, dancers, musicians, technicians and managers all work closely together to regularly create large performance projects and it's as close as possible to recreating the professional environment you encounter in the industry.

Students are encouraged also to work on self-motivated, independent projects that are performed in front of fellow students. It gives people an opportunity to experiment with secondary disciplines or try things they wouldn't necessarily have the chance to explore.

I consider myself an actor primarily, but on my course, I was able to add "strings to my bow", meaning I also left as a strong musical theatre performer.

I'm currently finishing a contract in Toronto, Canada, playing Sam Gamgee in the stage version of Lord of the Rings. I was also lucky enough to be nominated for the Dora Mavor Moore award for Best Actor in a Musical - the most prestigious award for a musical actor in Canada."

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