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Careers Clinic: How do I restart my acting career?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I worked regularly as an actor throughout the 1970s and 1980s and, although never a star name, enjoyed every minute. I left acting to become a carer, when my partner developed a long-term illness.

I am now a widower, and, for the first time in over three decades, have some cash from the house sale, and a lot of free time to invest in getting back into theatre. Any agents I knew back in the day are either retired or deceased, so it looks like I will have to relaunch my career from scratch. I’m still confident in my acting ability, but less so when getting my head around this new era in which technology seems to play such a big part.

What are my chances of finding an agent to get me back in the game?

John Byrne’s advice

I meet many actors who started their careers in later life, often having worked in varied areas ranging from the military and the building trade, to nursing and social care as well as in other branches of the entertainment industry such as magic or radio presenting.

In most cases, requests from older actors who are new to the theatre and screen worlds focus on seeking help navigating what they often see as a completely alien world. I remind them that while there may be differences between our industry and whatever field they have come to it from, certain basics such as professionalism and good people skills that have served them well in other professions work just as well in our workplace.

For an actor returning to the business after an extended hiatus there can be an extra challenge beyond those faced by older people who have never acted before: the need to unlearn previous ways of operating that may have once been effective but are no longer suited to the current marketplace.

First, I would avoid making ‘getting an agent’ the sole focus of your comeback. That’s not to say that the right agent wouldn’t be able to help you get back to the level your career was at before or beyond.

As you highlight, advances in technology have made big changes to the industry. Not only is it much easier for actors to do their own promotion, but most modern-thinking agents are looking for actors who are actively demonstrating that they are employable before seeking representation.

You mention one advantage that some older actors may have compared with younger ones still loaded down with student debt: more disposable income. When investing in tools of the trade, such as headshots and showreel scenes, approach things as if you were still on a meagre budget. Spend money where it is necessary, but don’t splash out on expensive photo and video services until you are clear about the image you are trying to present. This might be a very different one from your former actor ‘brand’.

By all means look up old contacts (they may have moved into production or casting) but don’t be shy about interacting with younger creatives too. In my experience, they are often more generous with advice and less competitive than some members of our generation. More to the point, they often need ‘parents’, ‘officials’, and other older characters for their productions and if you are on their radar, some valuable stage and screen time may well come your way.

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

John Byrne is careers adviser for The Stage and is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne

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