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Phil Willmott: So, your teenager wants to go into the entertainment industry?

Photo: OlegMemo/Shutterstock
Phil Willmott
Phil Willmott is an award winning director, artistic director, playwright, composer, dramaturg, arts journalist and occasional actor. A former Equity councillor and ex co-head of musical theatre training at Arts Ed he is one of the most commissioned writer/composers in the UK and a pioneering director of Greek drama. He directs classics, musicals and cutting edge new writing internationally and has been theatre critic for BBC London, Attitude and Gay Times.
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My brother's wedding. As often on these occasions – it probably happens to you too – I'm introduced to a mum whose child wants to become a performer. She wants advice.

I like to help the genuinely afflicted so, as usual, I offered the chance for the young person to come into rehearsals one day and chat to the actors. This is conditional on said youngster emailing me directly, in person. Nine times out of 10, I will never hear from them; on Planet Millennium, apparently, no effort is required to attain success.

For those that do respond, though, it got me thinking about advice I could offer beyond that rehearsal invitation.

Sometimes, the parent is concerned that the young person is not taking the right path in life. And they may have reason. Perhaps, two years ago, the young person wanted to be a vet. Now, an actor. What's next? There is nothing wrong with taking a while to find your calling and if it's what you passionately desire, knowing all the facts, let no one dissuade you.

But before you consider drama training, consider that you may be too young for such an undertaking. Drama schools are, in my opinion, cynical establishments. I think they'd happily take your audition fee without telling you that your age may count against you. I may be wrong, but if you've been rejected by your first-choice schools, you may be better off waiting and reapplying than spending more money and ending up with worse training.

I went to drama school aged 18. It was too early. What I should have done, and what I'd advise you to do, is get your first experience of living away from parents, and away from home, fall in love and get your heart broken, work out your politics, sexuality and artistic tastes, experiencing all the culture you can afford and hold down a crappy job for a while. Once you've got all that out of the way, are sorted in your head and know who you are, then you're ready to get the most out of drama training.

You could also get your parent(s) to pay for you to go to university, maybe even on a drama course. That, and taking part in student productions, is good experience, but don't be conned into thinking it will equip you to go straight into the profession – unless you have a powerful family or exceptional looks. For the rest of us, virtually the only credible route into stage work is to attend a course at a reputable drama school, take part in a showcase in front of agents and casting directors, get signed up, and be helped towards your first job. Pick the wrong training, and none of the rest will follow. Plus you'll be £30,000 poorer.

You're not stupid. You will have Googled the horrifying statistics about actor unemployment and the pitiful average earnings of those lucky enough to be employed. You may already have been rejected by a drama school or two, and will know that if you were not able to bounce back, a profession of constantly being knocked back is not for you.

If you feel, as I did and still do, that you couldn't live without the elation of being a professional storyteller, you may be able to endure the poverty, hunger, mocking, pity and patronisation that awaits. If you don't care about getting on the housing ladder, or supporting your kids, or the stinging jealousy of seeing others who can, and can live with the soul-destroying frustration and disappointment, a career in acting may be for you. If you don't care about any of that because you have to act and nothing else will do, then please: go for it.

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