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Careers Clinic: How do I move from chef to actor?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I became interested in acting while building my main career as a chef. For 10 years I worked my way up through the kitchens, using my wages to pay for drama classes when I could. I finally reached the point where I was being offered permanent and well-paid work in some of the best hotels. I knew I had a choice to make. My choice was to hang up my apron and enrol on a drama course.

It’s now been 14 months since graduating and while I have had one or two small acting jobs, my goal of ‘playing a lead within a year’ hasn’t happened. Several of my contemporaries from catering school are now running their own restaurants, while I am still temping to be free for castings. I constantly see actors of my age and type securing roles on social media. I’ll probably never be able to catch up, given they have had a decade head start and I’m starting to lose heart. Can you help?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE When I meet with actors who have come to the business later in the game, I am often impressed by how proactive they are, but I hear the same doubts and frustrations you are expressing a lot. This is especially common after the post-graduation honeymoon period comes to an end, and the feeling that ‘anything is possible’ hits the buffers of industry realities.

This rude awakening is guaranteed for all of us, no matter how early or late we enter the business, but there are certain mindsets that particularly increase the pressure on latecomers. Ironically, they often seem to affect the hardest-working and most optimistic actors in particular.

Understandable as these mindsets may be, they are not useful at all. The first is the urgency to ‘make up for lost time’. This is particularly relevant when, as in your own situation, you have turned down promotion, security, and, I would imagine, taken a fairly substantial salary drop, to get your acting career off the ground. None of us can make up for lost time, so we need to be careful about creating an unreachable goal. We should certainly study actors in our own age range and casting bracket who are doing well. But, rather than comparing ourselves to these actors and lamenting our own late start, once we have identified the skills they have learned from longer experience, we can turn our attention to filling the gaps in our toolboxes, either with focused practise or, better yet, targeted training.

I know you have already invested a lot in training, but a by-product of ongoing learning and the opportunity it brings to interact with actors young and old can help us identify unique aspects of our own background and life experience that might set us apart when the right role comes along. An even more unhelpful comparison we often make is with ourselves, in our previous job. After 10 years in any industry it’s likely we will know a lot about what shortcuts and tricks of the trade work best. I’m assuming that when you started as a chef, you followed fairly generic recipes, and then adapted those methods as your skills and confidence grew. Second nature as that knowledge is now, I bet there wasn’t one single ‘breakthrough day’ when it suddenly downloaded into your brain and I bet you had ‘feel like giving up’ days too.

Confidence is gained slowly, as much through setbacks as successes. This industry is no different than any other in that regard. Give yourself the freedom to fail, remove any artificial deadlines you have set yourself, and enjoy the journey. Ultimately that is the only part of the process of which you have control.

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

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