Actors who are between roles or in training often use their performance skills in promotional work. John Byrne looks at some key aspects for this kind of work, which can aid career development both financially and artistically
If versatility is one of the most vital skills a young actor can acquire in training, Jonno Davies’ first term at Italia Conti  couldn’t have prepared him any better. “I’d be learning the ways of Stanislavski, Laban and Shakespeare throughout the week, and then leading kids’ parties as Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Captain America at the weekends,” he explains.
The latter roles were not part of Davies’ formal studies, but were thanks to a sideline in promotional work, having signed up with Boo Productions as a means of earning while training.
The production house and staffing agency specialises in providing actors for marketing campaigns and live events.
Like many actors before him, Davies has found that this kind of work can be a far more positive day job than the ‘handing out leaflets dressed as a chicken’ scenario that comedies about the acting business tend to suggest.
“The flexibility is fantastic and the pay is higher than restaurant shifts. It can also help you develop your improvisation, build your self-awareness and generally give you confidence in your own voice,” Davies adds.
Annina Kaski, an actor and writer who produces her own comedy shorts online, believes promotional work can support career development not only financially but also artistically.
“As a naturally introverted person who loves nothing more than writing or prepping my characters in solitude, promo work is a free improv lesson and confidence booster all in one,” she says. “Interactions happen where you only have the current moment in which to respond, and, if I can approach strangers on the street, I know I can do anything.”
For actor and burlesque performer Fabia Cerra, the side benefits of promo work are both professional and personal.
“If you find yourself promoting in a shopping centre or department store and you have an upcoming audition as a parent with a child, or as part of a couple, you are perfectly placed to research real-life interactions,” she says.
“As a student of people, I love getting to meet so many different characters. Sometimes they are lonely and just need a chat. The thing to remember is that you are not just there to ‘sell’. You are using your talents and personality to attract people and create interest in whatever product or service you have to offer.”
George McClean worked for Boo Productions for more than a decade between acting roles before becoming the company’s head of staffing. Typical projects range from one-off experiential events to ongoing campaigns for clients ranging from the National Gallery and Gap to Wembley Stadium.
“Our team is made up almost entirely of actors supporting themselves between roles,” he says. “We train them, motivate them and help facilitate the ups and downs of their career. The qualities we look for are not just the acting. We want people who are great fun to be around, professional, and who genuinely enjoy putting their communication skills to good use. We also need people who are proactive, flexible, never late, and who pay close attention to details and briefs.”
Kai Coombes, co-founder of specialist events company Mermaid Cove, agrees that personality is the essential ingredient for this work. As the only mermaid performance company in the UK, Coombes’ promotional work features one of the largest portable swimming tanks in the world. It can be set up indoors or outdoors with a 50ft square viewing window and a full cast of strikingly costumed mermaid and merman performers.
“Our shows combine elements of circus, acrobatics, aerial, dance and theatre, but mainly we look for engaging and interesting people. While speciality skills like aerial or acrobatics are a plus, we look for someone who adds that extra bit of spice or magic to the cast with their persona. Other speciality skills can be taught and nurtured in the company.”
While Coombes is enthusiastic about the mutual benefits that performers and promotional companies can bring to each other, he needs staff who clearly understand the realities of the work involved.
“We hear all the time about people wanting to join us for the ‘easy life of splashing around as a mermaid’ or who think we just have fun all the time,” he says. “It is actually very physically and mentally demanding work. The tank dives alone require intense physical endurance. Focus is also important. You are constantly working at 100% for prolonged periods of time whilst at the same time making it look effortless.”
Shalina Serafina, who trained at Rose Bruford College  and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has supported her acting career with promo work long enough to be well-versed in the pros and cons.
“The best experience that I’ve had was in Paris for the Six Nations Rugby final. The atmosphere throughout the entire weekend was just electric. Seeing people enjoying themselves and knowing that I’d played a part in putting a smile on their faces made the job so rewarding. On the other hand, you sometimes have to work in very cold and wet conditions. If you’re doing a gig that you love, it makes the job half bearable. But if you’re not, the day can seem to drag on.”
Despite the flexibility to attend auditions and relatively high wages in relation to other ‘day jobs’ (average rates are more than £10 per hour), Serafina advises actors attracted to promotional work to think twice before completely abandoning their bar work, call centre or other shifts – at least initially.
“Work might be slow at first until you establish a good reputation for yourself. Also, it is not always constant. Sometimes you could be needed five days a week, some weeks they may have nothing to offer you at all. Nevertheless, once you get going, it can even lead to other performing work. Not only have I made some amazing friends, but I’ve met loads of fellow creatives – from film-makers to musicians, dancers and DJs, and of course lots of actors. It’s a great way to feel connected to the arts just by being surrounded by these people in between their own jobs.”