Drama graduates: one year on
I know what you did last summer is not only the title of a schlock horror film from the 1990s, but also my starting point for a conversation with six drama school graduates from 2015. Six young actors who, this time last year, stepped out into the real world.
And just what has happened? How prepared were they? Had their various drama schools merely taught them how to act, or taught them how to be an actor? And how have they coped with life over the past 12 months, which may or may not have included a little bit of paid acting work?
Luke Dale (Guildhall School of Music and Drama), Anthony Orme (Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts), Lizzie Mounter (RADA), Elaine Fellowes (Guildhall), Calum Speed (Rose Buford College of Theatre and Performance), and Jeremy Ang Jones (Academy of Live and Recorded Arts) are all undoubtedly talented actors. I know that personally. But has that talent served them well in the real world?
For Dale, work was a long time in coming. Leaving Guildhall with a good agent, interviews came thick and fast, but nailing one proved more difficult. Other jobs soon had to take priority just to pay the bills. He valued his training at Guildhall.
“The most salient lesson I got from drama school was the skill of listening. You have to listen and take on board everything as soon as you leave drama school, because it’s such a substantial change from how you experience life through the kaleidoscope of an institution. You’re out there alone and you have to quickly learn how to keep afloat.” Dale suddenly found that he had to “cultivate work that isn’t acting, but is still conducive to your life as an actor”.
“We were never taught about corporate acting, for instance, which I find completely bizarre,” he says. Stints as a manny (a male nanny) and barman and usher in a West End theatre followed. Nine months after leaving drama school, Dale was rewarded with a 10-week contract in a new musical at the Crucible Theatre in his home town of Sheffield. He has just completed filming on a video game in Prague. Now he thinks he’ll find the second period of unemployment a little easier. “Have patience, enjoy the little things, and the bigger things will take care of themselves.”
For many graduates focused on getting an agent and work, it’s the total upheaval of their life that causes problems. Mounter had to start her working life by moving home, as the rent where she lived as a student was far too high. She found the Facebook group Hustle Homes a great place to look for accommodation possibilities. Finding work has proved harder with only nine weeks work during the year, but she has managed to get herself a great “survival” job as a tech assistant. Creating her own projects has also been key. “The industry is brutal and will keep going without you, so stop sitting there wondering why. Get up and practise your craft.”
Speed left Rose Bruford without an agent and felt disconnected from the world of work. “It would have been useful to have been taught more about methods of finding acting work for ourselves and more about classes and workshops that we could take part in after drama school. Perhaps the hardest thing has been going from acting everyday to not acting for weeks on end.” Constantly motivating himself, Speed found an agent after nine months, and, while paid work as an actor still eludes him, he’s taken part in a play reading at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. He is also now “a shit-hot cocktail barman”.
Fellowes left Guildhall without an agent, but with lots of other things to think about. “I could have had a better paying job lined up straight away so that rent would have been easier in the first few months. Then I wouldn’t have had to work so many hours and I could have probably spent more time trying to create a path for myself in acting.”
Now working for a pet-sitting agency with some promotional work as well, Fellowes has also used Task Rabbit, an app that allows you to be paid for doing odd jobs for other people such as shopping, cleaning and gardening. This allowed her to give up a demanding survival job in catering, and created very valuable time to perform her very successful solo show Decibels at the Royal Theatre in the Hague. Again, an actor creating her own work to provide opportunities.
She has also really valued the support she has received from her housemates, her family and friends back home in Southport, and the actor mentor she was given in her third year at Guildhall. “She’s become a great friend to me over the past 12 months. She is so wonderful because she has masses of experience and is so honest…. and she buys me a really good piece of cake, which is pretty much the single best thing anyone can do for me, to be honest.”
Orme thinks that the best thing he got from drama school was a sense of durability. “Acting isn’t an easy game. Having the constitution to go long periods without work isn’t easy, but the hours and the stamina we needed at drama school has given me the durability to continue. Also, the get up and go they teach you has really helped me with finding work and creating my own.”
Possibly the most successful of the six, certainly in terms of weeks worked, is Jones, who has worked for at least 50% of the year. Starting off with a job in membership sales at a gym, he still had the opportunity to take time off for auditions. Hard work at his survival job also gave Jones a little bit of financial independence and allowed him to turn down an understudying job that he didn’t feel was the right first step.
Now in his fourth month working on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jones feels that he is achieving a level of confidence that he lacked at the end of his training. “What I’ve learned in the past 12 months is to not be ready to fail. To trust yourself and not beat yourself up. To go into an audition and say: ‘This job is mine’.”
And work breeds work. Even with Jones’ 30 or so weeks work, the group on average has worked for 16.5% of the year. That’s an awful lot of time in which you have to find other things to do, and those other things really should feed back into your acting.
Stepping out into the world, it may seem that it will all be solved by getting a job, but there is so much you can do to make the journey easier. Sort out where you will live. Start thinking about what your other job will be. Nobody acts 100% of the time, and very few young actors earn enough from their work to support themselves for the rest of the year. Try to choose a survival job that uses your skills. Customer service, call-centre work with companies such as RSVP, or promotional work with good agencies such as Kru Live.
Use the Actors Centre and the Actors Guild of Great Britain to keep your skills sharp, and work out what your objectives are for this first year. What work is realistic to expect and what dreams can you have? Dreams are good, but you can’t live on them. Make a financial plan so that you know how much you have to earn, whether it’s from acting or from other work, and remember to check out what’s on offer to you as a graduate. One of the things Fellowes wishes she’d known at the time is that you can have a free overdraft for two years after you graduate. “I was probably the only idiot paying for mine for the first six months,” she says.
Inevitably, you will look at your peers and feel that people are doing better than you. Remember everybody’s journey is different. I know as a young actor that a little bit of me died every time somebody I knew got a job. Even when they were female and older. What I’ve learnt is that those jobs were not for me. Other jobs were.
The learning curve in this first year is probably much steeper than anybody would anticipate. Not in terms of acting skills, but in how to live your life. How to find a way of being an actor everyday, even when there is no acting there for you to do.
Five out of the six young actors I spoke to rated themselves as “not as successful as I’d hoped”. Yet they are all still out there making it work and probably hoping for a little bit of luck to help them along the way – something we all need.
Perhaps it’s wise though to remember the words of Thomas Jefferson: “I find the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
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