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The Green Room: How does an acting career move to the next level?

The Last Ship at Northern Stage, Newcastle (see review, p15) – what is the “next level”, ask our panel, and do you get there? Photo: Pamela Raith The Last Ship at Northern Stage, Newcastle (see review, p15) – what is the “next level”, ask our panel, and do you get there? Photo: Pamela Raith

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​

Albert_Parker

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Peter Quince, 72, works in theatre and television

John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National Theatre and in radio, television and film

Velma Lee is a 32-year-old actor, comic and improvisor

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

 

Albert What are the levels? What level am I on? This makes it sound like floors in a department store.

JonIt’s a question of personal career path rather than a strict hierarchy – everyone’s “next level” is personal. This is about the conversation a lot of actors have about whether their career has “plateaued”, or the worry they’re “not getting into the right rooms”.

Beryll think its down to luck.

Peter The short answer is by getting taken on by one of the top half-dozen agencies. They get to see the jobs others don’t get a sniff of.

Albert Not sure that’s really the case, Peter. Lots of young actors get taken on by one of the “top half a dozen” and end up spending a lot of time sitting at home, doing nothing while the agent is busy doing a deal for their major clients who have already made it.

Jenny I was with a top agent once – it was the slowest time of my career.

Velma A friend of mine is with a top agent and never works, as they won’t put him up for anything less than star-studded.

Peter Some big agencies are unscrupulous. They take on too many young actors and see which ones rise to the top.

Jenny Being brave and making wise choices is the ideal, but that assumes you have choices in front of you, which is rare these days.

Beryl If you’re always looking for the “next level”, I don’t think you’re ever going to be happy doing this.

John There are a few things that may or may not help at all. Try a new agent, something to shake things up a bit. Try getting some new material on your showreel.

Beryl Good work is what you should chase, not career-furthering work.

Albert What gets me out of the door is: “Does it pay my bills?” Or “Does it challenge me?” And on very rare occasions, it may do both. I don’t consider whether it’s a “step up”.

Peter I’ve always taken the work I most wanted to do rather than the best-paid work or the highest-profile work. But I’m single. I can cope with badly paid work better than people with families.

Albert As you get older your needs change. Financial needs, emotional needs – and you have to make sure your work adapts to that. It’s hard to be married in your early 30s with a young child and still do work above the pub on a profit-share basis.

Jenny If you’re feeling frustrated and helpless career-wise, it is a good idea to start writing to theatres, directors, people you’ve worked with previously, asking them to keep you in mind for projects. A letter is never a bad idea.

JonIs it always about adding value? Only going back somewhere if the part is bigger than last time? Not taking backwards steps?

Jenny I don’t think it’s ever a step back if it’s something you want to do. A job has to tick two of three boxes – a part you want to play, a creative team you want to work with, or a great pay cheque. That final box is rarely ticked if the first two are.

Beryl Being proactive and writing to people is no bad thing.

Velma How about taking classes? That always seems to make new connections.

Beryl Classes cost.

Velma But they can take things in a new direction.

Albert Actors who take classes are actors who don’t have work.

Velma Why?

Albert Because working actors are too busy in rehearsals, organising their lives and getting on with living. It’s actors who don’t have any work who take classes to make themselves feel they’re in touch with the world of work. Sometimes it can be a link, more often than not it’s just a substitute.

John Not in LA, Albert, acting classes are very common there.

Jenny The American way is very much to go to classes whether you’re in work or not.

Albert The American philosophy is different. People call themselves actors and all they do is go to classes. They work in a restaurant seven days a week and just go to classes.

JonWell, if someone’s not working then anything that makes them feel part of the business is important.

John I don’t know any regularly working actors who go to classes.

Velma Comedians do it a lot – there’s less stigma and more networking

Jenny I can see the value of classes as something to get you among other actors. Some of the best jobs I’ve done were because I heard of the auditions through connections rather than an agent.

Peter But the whole tradition of the Actors Studio, etc, is American. All those method film stars went to classes.

Albert The point is to stop thinking in terms of levels and start thinking more holistically in terms of fulfilment.

JonOprah says: “If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never ever have enough.” (She probably does have enough.)

Velma But is there a practical answer to this?

Jenny It’s always worth a conversation with your agent if you’re feeling stuck.

Albert And they will recommend new headshots and tell you “there’s not much about”.

Peter I know of few actors who have planned a career. It’s like history – one damned thing after another.

John And don’t think that every job has to be better or bigger than the last.

Albert I’m still interested in how people perceive these levels.

Jenny I don’t know how many there are, but I’d hazard a guess at “Oscar winner” being at the top…

JonIt goes fringe, theatre in education, small-scale tour, rep, larger tour, subsidised theatre, West End, TV, film, Hiddleston.

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