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Survival jobs that won’t kill your acting career

Zachary Cooke and Lolade Rufai at RSVP call centre. Photo: Zachary Cooke
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From Johnny Depp’s time as a ballpoint pen salesman, to Jennifer Aniston’s stints in telemarketing and waitressing, how celebrities made a living ‘before they were famous’ remains a popular topic.

For the vast majority of working actors, though, the need to earn regular income between jobs is less an interesting anecdote for the opening chapters of their memoirs and more an imperative that is likely to continue for the whole of their careers.

Perhaps the only thing they have in common with the A-listers mentioned above is that sales, food service and phone answering remain the most likely areas of work where flexibility to attend auditions at short notice is concerned.

“We are fully aware that our staff would rather be doing something else,” says Louise Roberts, head of resources at RSVP, a call centre that exclusively employs actors. “One of the first things we make clear at their interview is that this is not going to be glamorous work. That said, over the past 28 years we have become very good at matching each actor’s natural talent to the different clients we work for.” Flexible shifts are one of the actor-friendly aspects of working at RSVP that staff uniformly enthuse about.

“In the 20 years since I left theatre school, this is the only job I have found that consistently allows me time off for auditions, let alone to take the job if I get the part,” says actor Dom Baker. “There are so many times I have seen actors with other jobs have to leave auditions before the end in order to get back to work.”

Zachary Cooke has recently had the chance to put the company’s flexibility to the test: “I got an offer to go to Saudi Arabia to perform in The Smurfs Live on Stage. It was a last-minute contract. Not only did RSVP let me go at the drop of a hat, but there are very few jobs that would welcome you back after the show finished with no questions asked beyond: ‘Did you have a good time?’ ”

Freedom to come and go at short notice was what initially attracted Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance graduate Lolade Rufai to pick up a call centre headset, but she has found that working in an environment extensively populated by other performers also has networking value: “I recently had a musical theatre audition and was able to run through my pieces with a pianist who also works at the call centre, which was really beneficial.”

RSVP has recently launched an acting agency, which currently has more than 80 clients, and in addition to occupying three floors at its east London base, opened a branch in MediaCityUK, Salford, last year.

Perhaps the biggest competitor with call centre work as the ‘go-to’ job for actors seeking some degree of flexibility is the catering and hospitality industry.

However, in the absence of a specifically actor-friendly environment, finding a workable day job behind an apron can be a somewhat hit-and-miss affair.

“The best day job I had was working as a waitress at home in Dublin,” says Irish actor Sinead Watters. “I found a really amazing restaurant with a mix of wild and brilliant characters from staff to customers. As I’m a writer too, it was great to get out there and be able to tap into so many different worlds in people’s lives. Then I moved to London and tried to waitress there. Unfortunately, I found it wasn’t paid well enough to survive on.”

Oxford School of Drama graduate and TriForce Monologue Slam winner Rhiann Francis has sustained her acting career with “every job known to man and beast” and can go one better in the worst service job stakes: “Working as a ‘shot girl’ – I would literally go around nightclubs with a tray of shots dressed in the company outfit, which was so revealing I made Pretty Woman look classy, and try to sell booze to drunk men. In-between sleazeballs, I had to contend with paranoid girlfriends. Yes, we have to pay bills, but mental and physical well-being is paramount in this industry. You need a day job that helps you stay focused on your real goal, not something that saps your energy and enthusiasm.”

Business coach Rasheed Ogunlaru, a former professional singer who works regularly with performers, believes that previous training or additional skills can make all the difference in helping actors secure viable and satisfying day jobs, which may even act as points of entry to the industry. “I once coached a singer with an accounts background and was surprised that she hadn’t pursued accountancy work in the music or theatre business – she should, as it is a very flexible role, and always in demand.”

Karen Brace’s previous teacher training has led to a day job that not only provides flexibility, but is rewarding in itself. “In my case my job when I’m not acting is teaching children who have complex physical and medical conditions. Getting the balance right was so important from the outset. For me, being able to use my teacher training to support my acting career was a no-brainer.

“I spent six months after finishing my training at Rose Bruford working out the details of a flexible job share at the school I had taught at for the previous five years. I get to work three days a week, and those three days can be altered and swapped around to fit my acting commitments as they happen. Obviously the game changer will be a job that challenges that balance, an extended theatre run or several months away filming, which would mean taking a leave of unpaid absence. With such possibilities in mind, my boss and I agreed at the start to review things every six months and I keep her updated on a weekly basis.”

While very few actors do not look forward to a time when they can swap their day job for a full-time career on stage or in front of the cameras, the search for the ideal occupation in the meantime is likely to be ongoing. Perhaps there is encouragement to be gained from the experience of Grace Blackman, whose current day job has come as a direct result of her acting ability, rather than the other way around.

“I performed in an award-winning web series Tour Girls, a comedy mockumentary about tour guides. The writer was a previous employee of the bus company I now work for. After playing the part as a comedy role, I applied for the job and now I work as a tour guide for real. It’s great for character inspiration and learning new languages, and it really exercises the voice.”

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