On with the show: Career development in an uncertain market

Parvin Ramchurn

With Britain in a recession and unemployment remaining high, Parvin Kumar Ramchurn speaks to a cross-section of actors about their survival strategies in an always-uncertain job market

With the economy shrinking, job prospects for many remain bleak. Figures suggest close to a million people in Britain are classified as ‘long-term unemployed’.

For actors, the challenge of finding work remains a precarious one even when the economy is booming. The fact that actors face long spells on the sidelines is well documented. Indeed it is something tutors prepare acting students for long before they enter the job market.

The current economic situation means workers from a variety of sectors of the economy are struggling to find work. Can they learn from actors, who face uncertainty throughout their careers?

The film actor Kierston Wareing enjoyed a rapid rise to stardom after being cast in the critically acclaimed Ken Loach film It’s a Free World. After gracing the red carpet in Venice, Wareing went on to star in Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold, which won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. However, before entering the big time, Wareing struggled to translate potential into success. She remembers those days vividly.

“I struggled for ten years as an actor,” Wareing admits. “I had a variety of part-time jobs, including working as a receptionist, collecting glasses in a bar and handing out fliers. Sometimes I couldn’t get any part-time work at all. One day I was so skint, I had to count out the money for a portion of chips in 1p pieces. So I don’t take what I have now for granted.”

Although Wareing had an agent and was invited to auditions, she struggled to land plum TV parts. What made the experience more frustrating was that she always made it down to the last few.

With time passing, and without financial security, Wareing qualified as a legal secretary and secured work as a solicitor’s clerk in the High Court. The actor, who also starred in the BBC drama The Shadow Line, admits to more or less giving up on acting. Indeed, she admits to attending auditions just to please her (then) agent.

As it happened, Ken Loach was at this time struggling to fill the lead role in It’s a Free World. After auditioning several times Wareing was finally offered the part. Five years later and she is in the ironic position of having to turn work down, something she hates doing. But what advice would she give to someone struggling to find work today?

“Just never give up, and keep at it,” Wareing says. “You need to find a way to keep going. I still have anxieties today, but acting is something I love. I have been taking acting lessons since I was seven. It is a business, and that is something you have to realise.”

Hasan Dixon graduated from the Central School of Speech and Drama in 2008. He’s already worked in television, starring in the long- running ITV drama A Touch of Frost. The 25 year-old admits the mental challenges associated with being an actor are often difficult to surmount.

“A career in acting can often be psychologically tough,” Dixon says. “A lot of actors find the hardest time is immediately after finishing a job. That’s not the case for me. For the first few days I feel I’ve earned a rest and enjoy myself. It’s a few weeks later that I become more sluggish and find it difficult to get out of bed.”

So how does he cope with the period in between jobs? “My way of getting out of a slump is exercise,” he says. “I love cycling. I make myself go on a ride and that clears my head brilliantly. I also find going to classes is very beneficial – it keeps me on track and reminds me how much I love acting.”

Dixon, who recently starred in The Glass Menagerie at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham, thinks the tough economic conditions are making dramatists more risk averse when it comes to casting parts, making it harder for emerging actors to enter the profession’s top echelons.

Jan Anderson became a well-known face to millions of viewers after playing staff nurse Chloe Hill in the BBC1 medical drama Casualty. Despite the luxury of regular work, she decided to leave the medical drama and chance her arm in Los Angeles. After experiencing mixed fortunes, the Welsh actress impressed Seinfeld creator Larry David. He ended up casting Anderson in his hit comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Anderson says that learning to audition properly improved her chances of success.

“For me, being prepared is such a big part [of the process],” she says. “I didn’t feel like this before I went to America, but when you are one of 150,000 actors in LA, it is a must. I have seen girls who are up for a two-liner role go to acting coaches and dialect coaches, and work on the two lines for 12 hours. So now, when I get an audition, I want to be completely off book and know my character inside and out.”

The hard work has paid off, and Anderson, now back living in Britain, has been cast in Detention, a new film by director Joseph Kahn. Anderson says professional actors should be philosophical about the mixed employment prospects that are associated with the profession.

“On an emotional level, the ups and downs of being an actress and out of work are just something you get toughened up to,” Anderson explains.

“When you are working, your adrenaline is pumping. When you’re not, you get really good at putting on a strong face and trying to find other meaningful things in your life. If everything was peachy all the time, we wouldn’t search inside and bring more of our heart to the table when we get to play the next character.”

Christopher Timothy will long be associated with playing James Herriot in the iconic 1980s drama All Creatures Great and Small. He also spent several years playing Mac in the BBC1 daytime drama Doctors. He says the emotional aspect of being an actor is particularly difficult.

“Being out of work still brings my spirits down, and always has,” Timothy explains, citing scenarios that will be familiar to actors – “an audition that didn’t pay off, a production team who don’t even want to see me, and the basic feeling of not being wanted. What I try not to do is sulk,” he says.

Timothy admits the uncertainties associated with acting can make it easy to stay in a job for too long. But what does he think when he sees high unemployment across the board, and not just in acting?

“When I was at drama school we knew we were training with absolutely no guarantee of work afterwards,” he says. “This was unlike successful university students at the same time. But that was then. It now seems we’re all in the same boat.”

Keaton Makki has endured periods of uncertainty during his acting career. Many of his initial roles, in short films and fringe theatre, were unpaid. But the skills he learnt have proved invaluable, he says. Speechless, a production he starred in last year, was longlisted by BAFTA for the best short film award. He is soon to star in Missing Laura, a British feature film. He says agents play an important role helping actors cope with slow periods of work.

“It’s vital to have faith in your agent,” Makki says. “You are working for them and they for you. If you hear about a casting, call them up and ask if they’ve submitted you. If not, maybe they thought you weren’t right in this instance. If I were an agent, I’d want my client to be active and in the loop of what’s going on.”

He also says making the most of your days off is very important. “If you have time on your hands, try and turn it into a positive. Read, write, watch films. Go to plays. You are always learning and developing as an artist – you have to keep yourself in tune creatively.”

Italian actor Luca Zizzari has recently finished work on a new Ron Howard film. Rush charts the rivalry between racing drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

Zizzari says actors have to remain stoical. “You have to develop a core inner strength over time and keep yourself creatively occupied. I have another job working with kids with learning difficulties, which I find very rewarding. But it does not necessarily feed the acting bug. So I work on projects with friends, take classes and try to create my own work. If you are still active when you are ‘resting’, it is easier to cope when work is slow.”

Actor and singer Dominique Moore is best known for starring in the hit CBBC series Horrible Histories. Currently in remission after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a type of blood cancer), she thinks it is possible to cultivate opportunities from existing employment.

“There have been periods where it dawns on me that I don’t have anything coming up,” she says. “But I have started creating my own opportunities. I was given the chance to write a musical episode of a CBBC show I’m in called Hotel Trubble. It inspired me to start writing more. Not only is it therapeutic to have something to work on, it means I am learning new skills.”

Moore has seen some of her contemporaries vanish from acting altogether. Sometimes ‘a back-up plan’ can become a ‘full-time plan’ taking actors outside of the profession for good, she says. Not restricting the roles you audition for is important in trying to secure work, she believes. But after suffering a health scare, the performer is able to put the ups and downs of acting into perspective.

“Being alive and healthy is paramount to everything,” says Moore. “When I get uptight and stressed about work-related things now, I take a second to remember how fortunate I am to still be here. [The illness] gave me time to refocus. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t wake up and say my prayer giving thanks for my life. Everything on top is a bonus.”

* The Stage Events will be holding a workshop on how to Master your Musical Theatre Audition on July 28, presented by award-winning producer and casting director Danielle Tarento. For more information and to book tickets, go to thestage.co.uk/events. The Stage Events will also be holding a number of seminars at this year’s International Drama Student Festival. Visit nsdf.org.uk to find out more.

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