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6 things you need to know before heading to New York as an actor

Photo: Stas Walenga/Shutterstock
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Working in New York City is a dream for many. With television shows and films such as The Devil Wears Prada, Gossip Girl and Friends glamorising life in the city that never sleeps, performers dream of walking down the same streets as Carrie Bradshaw or Holly Golightly while appearing on Broadway or filming the next big hit for HBO. Brits seem to view the US as a promised land, where we can earn good money and enjoy life in a foreign country without even having to learn another language.

On a recent trip to New York, I decided to test the waters, learn about the industry and arrange some meetings. I was surprised to see so little information for Brits looking to work in NYC, considering there are so many there right now. Research on the internet proved rather fruitless and I ended up relying heavily on friends’ experiences, both American and British, before heading over.

I have American citizenship – a big hurdle to overcome for most looking to work in the states (I was born in Chicago and spent my childhood there) – but I have always worked mainly in the UK and Europe, so the industry in NYC feels quite foreign to me. Some of the key differences that stood out to me include:

Working with agencies is very different

An actor is able to sign up with an agent in the traditional manner or they may be offered/request to freelance. Freelancing gives you the opportunity to work with an agent or team of agents before committing and signing a contract, which can mean that you are working with more than one agency at a time (I freelance with two agencies in NYC).

Pay is dramatically different

The average ensemble salary for a Broadway show is $1,861 per week. This contrasts with £594 per week in the West End (for a Category B theatre, 800-1,099 seats).

Auditions are plentiful, but big

You are likely to be seen for a lot of auditions, but you’ll often find that many more people are being seen for each role than we are used to in the UK.

Taking class is huge

Taking class is a big part of life as a performer in the US. There’s a strong belief that after your training you should continue to grow and develop in a learning environment, with many acting studios requiring you to audition or interview before being accepted. Of course there are performers who don’t take class but many more do than you find in the UK.

The unions have huge power

Actors’ Equity and the Screen Actors Guild wield enormous power. Membership is extremely expensive compared with Equity in the UK, but comes with additional benefits such as healthcare (which is imperative in the US). Additionally, casting teams are allowed to stipulate that they will see only union members.

There’s no stigma

Actors are able to work in musical theatre, television, film and straight theatre without stigma. Few performers are classified solely as musical theatre artists or theatre actors (and nearly every actor in NYC has been in Law and Order at least once).

There are a number of similarities between the industry in NYC and the UK but anyone considering a move, or even a working trip, should know that the above points are only the very tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even mentioned rent, which is higher than anything that even Londoners expect to pay. New York is an amazing city that has a truly remarkable energy for people working in the performing arts. Is it the promised land that so many expect? Well, that all depends on the individual. New York City is what you make of it.

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