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Careers Clinic: Why is every TV shoot so different?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I’ve just got home from my second TV shoot. Like my first job, it was a small part in a soap, but other than that it couldn’t have been more different.

The previous gig, a few months ago, was lovely. I was very nervous but the crew members were all so kind. One of the lead actors, quite a big name, gave me some great notes on my scene. I wasn’t even a fan of his, but I am now.

I was looking forward to this new job as it is on a show I watch regularly. Instead, it was like a factory: stand there, say the line, no time to run the scene in advance and almost no interaction off camera with the other actors.

I did just two takes but have no idea whether they worked or didn’t, as I was back in the van and heading for the station five minutes later, without so much as a thanks or goodbye.

Obviously I was there to do a job so it’s not going to put me off, but I wondered which, in your experience, is a more typical example of being on a TV set?

From music albums to live shows, the ‘difficult second job’ has a long history of catching performers off guard. When the first time goes well, we have a natural human tendency towards optimism for the next one. As you have discovered, that isn’t always how things play out in reality.

Actors quickly learn that no two audiences or jobs are the same and, more importantly, learn to live with the unpredictability of this. One challenge of entering the industry is that when you have only done one or two professional jobs, each one seems hugely significant.

When one doesn’t work out as you expected, you may not have had enough other experiences to compare it with and work out whether this is an exception or the rule.

All of that said, and especially when it comes to screen work, it is probably too early yet to decide whether this job was a success or failure in the final analysis. Plenty of seasoned TV performers will confirm that just because a great time was had by all on set, it doesn’t necessarily mean the finished product will be anything worth celebrating. Nor is it unusual for a less jolly ambience behind the camera to produce scenes that you will be very pleased to upload to your showreel once they air.

As has been flagged up by recent events in the news, it should go without saying that actual bullying or harassment on a set is something you shouldn’t put up with no matter how big or important the production.

Your experience on this occasion doesn’t sound like that. It just seems that the first set you worked on was a particularly friendly one, while the second was more of a ‘heads down and get on with your work’ environment. In fairness, there may have been last-minute script changes, technical issues or a hundred other reasons why people were busier than usual on your shoot day.

Building your career as a screen actor in small roles is much like being a temp in any other business – you parachute in for a short period and the warmth of your welcome often depends on ongoing internal dynamics, over which you have no control. What you can control is doing your job as well as you can.

The lesson going forward? Take each job as it comes and don’t harbour too many preconceptions before you get on the set. In the long term, if you ever do get to be a series regular, a producer or a director, make it your business to treat new actors on your set the way you would like to have been treated today.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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