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Careers Clinic: How can I return to the industry after illness?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher

I know you sometimes answer queries from older actors who are coming back into the business, but my own situation is a bit different. I am also ‘returning to the industry’ but in the sense that I graduated from drama school just over three years ago then became ill almost immediately.

Until recently, I was regularly in and out of hospital so focusing on my career just wasn’t possible. My condition has finally stabilised, but I’m worried that I have now missed that period of being a ‘young graduate’, where a lot of opportunities lie. I’m aware that a whole new flood of fresh graduates will be entering the industry this year and, besides being younger, none of them will have that large, blank three-year gap on their CV.

I’ve been in contact with one or two agents just to see how the land lies, but so far I have had no replies. I’m wondering if going into more detail about my story might help. If not, what else would you suggest?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE: I am sorry to hear about your health problems, but delighted to learn that you are ready to get back in the game.

I understand your feeling that you may have missed out, but, without disparaging what must have been a very stressful few years for you personally, do be aware that graduate careers don’t necessarily take off like a rocket once you leave drama school, even when unforeseen circumstances aren’t a factor. Yes, some students secure representation or work almost immediately, but many others will have a longer wait before their first paid work comes in.

Neither situation is necessarily related to talent or lack of it. It is just the way the industry works. A slower trickle of castings when starting out can have one upside if it motivates us to focus on generating our own work as well as getting a day job to pay the bills. Conversely, quite a few actors have had the opposite experience: an early flurry of back-to-back work and then an extended period of ‘resting’, with which they are often unprepared to cope.

It should be part of every decent drama school’s remit to provide support for recent graduates in or out of work. If you haven’t been in touch with your own school recently, you should definitely find out if they can help.

As for my own advice on the gap in your CV: nobody expects graduates to have lots of acting credits. You can certainly start working on filling the gap straight away via scratch nights, monologue showcases, student and independent projects. But when you do apply to agents, if you feel the need to explain the gap, please do it just in passing and without making the story the central plank of your application. The focus should always be on your talent and commitment. Once you can secure credits that show you are proactive and castable, the gap may not be worth mentioning at all.

With that in mind, I would recommend not chasing representation further until you have had a go at finding your own work, updated your headshots if you need to (there can sometimes be quite a lot of physical changes between the ages of 22 and 25) and sorted out your casting profiles.

If you haven’t been active as an actor in the past couple of years, a couple of refresher classes or some audition coaching might also be a good idea. That way, when you approach an agent, you will be giving them all the tools they need to be able to market you. That’s all they can ask from any actor, however recently they graduated.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk [1] or @dearjohnbyrne [2]