Monday, November 03, 2008

Becoming an Actor

In response to my last post, djpaterson asked the following question:

My 17-year-old niece's ambition is to become an actress, and as such she is thinking of going to University (here in the UK) to study theatre and drama. What would you say are the practical steps to becoming an actress if you want it enough?

I thought the answer might be of some help to others so I'm going to answer it now in this blog post.

Fact is, there is no one true tested path in becoming an actress, especially in the world of tv/film - people actually do get discovered on the street.


I have always felt that if your goal was to truly become an actor, as opposed to "famous". If you truly want to play different characters, say fabulous words written by fabulous people, be directed and keep learning every time you do a new production. . . If being in the presence of great directors/actors/writers is enough for you that you would be happy to be second servant on the left. . . then I believe you should have training.

There are so many skills that an actor needs to learn, so many tools to bring to the table. You don't want to go into a production and have your director feel he/she has to teach you the basics. So many actors I see today have no concept how to literally just stand on a stage. To be fair however, learning how to stand on a stage is actually very very difficult.

So. To answer the question.

It all depends of course, but I would highly recommend one of the three year conservatory schools. In the UK, in particular, that would be RADA, LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic etc (there are actually many more than just those three, all of which are quite excellent). The tradition in the UK with theatrical training is fantastic, it is almost a prerequisite and creates, in general, a very high level of professionalism in the acting community. In attending one of these schools you learn about all forms of theatre, as well as have film/tv training. You learn dance, singing, stage combat. You work on your physicality and your voice. It is intense, it requires a great deal of self discipline, but can be very worth it.

However, some find such institutions constraining, too much like highschool. For others it makes more sense to take independent courses, or to learn by watching. This requires in effect even more self discipline to practice on your own. Unfortunately the time of the touring rep companies in the UK is now gone. There was a time where an untested young actor could join a company as a stage hand, learn by being in the presence of great actors and slowly work their way up the ranks. This really doesn't exist anymore.

There is also the option for those who while very devoted to acting, still would like to attend University and study other courses as well. This is actually the option I took. I went to a University where I got an Honours BA in theatre. It was intense, though not quite as intense as a conservatory programme, and to be fair mixing academics with the arts is VERY time consuming. After I finished at University I did a one year programme in classical theatre in London at LAMDA, which was just perfect for me. This in fact is another option, attending a University, studying the subject of your choice, and THEN going to a conservatory programme with a bit more maturity behind you.

In the end though, there simply is no true path. After all the training is done, no matter how you did it, you all still have to get an agent, still have to go to auditions. Going to these schools does give you an advantage in that you will also meet very important people in the industry, you'll make some great contacts. But even that might still not be enough. At the same time some people find that they did horribly in drama school and then flourished upon leaving it. It truly depends on your upbringing, your personality, how best you work. You have to understand yourself and what you need to get where you want.

However I will say after having gone through auditions now as a director casting a show, I will tell you that training makes a world of difference. So many people came in who might have had some nice raw material, but there was simply no way they were ready to stand on a stage and do Shakespeare.

It would be really nice if prospective actors saw their future careers as a real art form. Dancers work hours everyday to perfect their technique, what on earth makes actors so different from that? The problem is so many people look to television and see people desperately seeking their 15 minutes that they want to fast track the process. If all you want is to be on television, then apply for reality tv. But understand that to have a career with longevity you are going to have to have skill and abilities beyond looking pretty in front of a camera. And don't think being a host for a tv show is a quick easy way either, I have many friends who are on-air hosts, and I can tell you that takes a great deal of ability as well.

There are quick ways of getting your 15 minutes, but if you want that 15 minutes to extend to a lifetime, you need to put in the effort. Heck, even Paris Hilton keeps working out new ways to keep herself in the public eye.

It ain't easy, is the point. But man is it worth it when you finally do get that job.


djpaterson said...

Thanks, Adrienne for a really useful post!

As usual.

Erin said...

Thank you so so much for this post, I loved it and also the interview you linked to earlier. They were both very helpful/thought-inducing for me as I try to decide my course of study after I graduate high school this year...

You are one of my heroes, you author-actress you! :)

ChristaCarol said...

Hey Adrienne, I finally got around to stalk--er--finding your blog. ;-) Great post. I did some acting in my early years, it was what I wanted to be for so long (I seriously saw no other alternative). I think I stank as an actor then, but I do some corporate training video's every now and again and apparently am not that bad now. I guess life experience is a great training tool.

I look forward to keeping up with your blog. This networking thing takes a lot of time, you know! I'm not sure how I'll ever fit in reading a book on top of all the blog reading, not to mention NanoWriMo!

Devon Ellington said...

As someone who's spent over twenty years working on Broadway and in film and television, I agree.

Training, training, training.

When I'm casting, if the actor can't handle a Shakespeare monologue, the actor immediately goes in the "no" pile, even if it's contemporary.

Because if you can handle Shakespeare, you can stretch to contemporary without sounding bombasic, while if you can't -- well, most of them just sound like valley kids. And the truly well-trained actors can sound like a valley kid on stage while still bringing much more depth to the overall character.

Also, as someone who's worked on the technical end, well-trained actors also have some experience in all the factors that go into a production. They understand what everyone else does, are easier to work with, and, therefore, get hired more often.