What if there's no bike?

By Chris Tester

I listen to podcasts, and as an actor, three have recently stood out.  Honest Actors (including Katie’s contributions!), Two Shot Pod and The 98% have all endeavoured to explore the reality of the profession beyond glossy magazine and film interviews.  Though the formats vary widely, frank and honest discussions about how and why people entered the profession, the difficulties they’ve had and the attitudes and values that have shaped them.  The insights I have gained from all of these has been invaluable, reassuring me that a lot of my daily struggles are shared throughout the industry.  But the one common trait that comes across all three is that the interviewed actor tends to be getting auditions.  They might not be getting a ton, they still have to cope with overwhelming rejection - but when the ‘r’ word is raised, it’s typically in the context of having gone for a meeting and not booked the gig (or even heard back - Danny Lee Wynter’s particularly articulate and forthright on that issue, which I believe shows a basic disrespect to an actors’ mental health).  As Denise Gough said, “Stay on the bike and enjoy the fucking ride”.

But as I’m sure at least 98% of actors are aware, the mundane reality is that they can’t even get in the room, or on that fucking bike.  I’ve had four agents since graduating, and the most auditions I’ve had in one year is five.  I’ve had two TV auditions ever.  And one for a feature film.  That’s it. 

The obvious question this prompts, is what to do?  If you don’t get that big break, or simply don’t have the opportunity to get rejected in the first place, how to you constructively work towards a solution?

You can work on getting a better agent, obviously.  But unless you belong to a particular casting niche, they need to see you in something.  So you can prioritise screen work, battle to get decent material and forge together some sort of showreel.  This will almost certainly have issues with production and/or writing standards, but you may strike it lucky and get some brilliant footage you can then approach agents and casting directors - the gatekeepers - with.  Half of my showreel is made up of one independent project I did which was actually well written and had me alongside someone ‘of profile’.  I got it through consistently reaching out to casting directors and film directors and getting a little break. It’s an ongoing project that’s in an actor’s power to change and improve.

You can do rehearsed readings or collaborate on projects with friends to keep sharp.  Occasionally you may even get the opportunity to use such endeavours as a showcase too - though if it’s not in a reputable venue within zone 2, the chances are slim.  A lovely example of this is The Factory, where a bunch of like-minded actors work on classical text and where everyone learns multiple parts, so if someone books a job they can drop out without a problem.  But that’s valuable work for the sake of craft as opposed to designed for getting you in front of potential employers.

You can pay to do ‘workshops’ with casting directors.  Yeah… well, I’ve tried them and find the whole experience quite upsetting.  Everyone in the room desperately trying to impress while all pretending that they’re learning something.  There are a few notable exceptions to that rule, but some are definitely borne of casting directors papering the cracks in their diaries.  The best thing to do is ask other actors who have attended these which session’s they’ve found useful and go from there.

Increasingly, there is a call for wrestling back your autonomy by creating your own work.  This is crucially important on a whole number of levels, but it also necessitates funding it yourself; or that you are able and willing  to wear multiple hats.  I’ve done this myself, producing and performing in a one man show that played in both Edinburgh and London.  It sold out both runs and got fantastic reviews - but cost be £3000 and not one of the 150 industry people I invited came.  So, glad I did it artistically, but not a template I could afford to return to.  

If you’re an actor who has no interest or talent in writing material themselves, you’re necessarily dependent on others to collaborate with - which is tricky in it’s own right, and a skill set you need to cultivate.  Should actors be taking courses on producing their own work?  Almost certainly.  Generally, I think drama schools are starting to encourage this approach more as the market gets more and more saturated.  David Williams Bryan is a great example of someone who is trying to take control for his career back by producing his own solo shows and documenting the whole process on social media.  This helps him build a narrative which people follow and buy in to,  resulting in more collaborative opportunities and increased ticket sales because he has an online audience already invested in the show.  But his model is based on doing one person theatre shows, which is not a format for everyone.

And so….

The profit share model is abused regularly - I wouldn’t dispute that.  Some advocates for such work abuse the model routinely and are consistently profiteering from young actors desperate for a reputable name on their CV.  Higher profile fringe venues pulling that shit I have a real problem with, and the work of Equity to get them to take more responsibility and secure additional funding is vital.

But the crux of the matter comes down to collaboration.  The perceived wisdom is that if the room is hierarchical, and you have someone calling themselves a director conducting rehearsals and giving call times, then that’s not truly collaborative and you MUST be paid as a result.

If someone believes that with no wiggle room, then I fully support their choice.  I also disagree with it.  Five of the low paid projects I’ve done over ten years have been open book.  I’ve been aware where all the money is coming and going, I’ve been given a rehearsal schedule that is flexible to accommodate my day job.  I feel that I need to do at least one show a year providing the project and part are sufficiently exciting, otherwise I feel like I’m stagnating.  These projects have felt collaborative, and I have created work that I’m extraordinarily proud of.  But I also know, having done the sums, that a sold out three week run of a 50 seater theatre isn’t going to pay anyone a living wage on the current model.  You need external funding for that.  

I keep asking people where this funding comes from.  I appreciate that private funding can be secured for projects, but it’s a HUGE long game - I’m six months into organising the run of a show at a sufficiently reputable venue that it will attract high profile industry and reviewers alike, but it’s going to take me a year or two to raise the 50k I need to pay everyone properly… so do I just not do any acting over that time?  

It’s an honest question.  I’m white, male and middle class.  I’d fully agree that the industry isn’t crying out for any more of my demographic.  The reason I’m able to keep afloat and be selective about the projects I do isn’t because of any family or saving support, but because I’ve managed to build a living from voiceover work.

But I want to keep on the bike.  The journey doesn’t involve many auditions for me at this stage, but I’m constantly looking for work I can stretch myself in and have no intention of quitting.  If people want to dismiss a third of my CV as amateur because it’s low paid, then that’s a problem I can’t solve.  I keep methodically writing to people in the industry whenever I have news for them.  But I do get a bit tired when all low/profit share work is lumped into one category and written off.  “Professionally made, professionally paid” is a catchy and commendable slogan, but shouldn’t be used to brow beat those actors who decide to peruse forms of work with shoe-string budgets.  We as actors can only deal with our day to day reality, so looking for viable alternatives and models to keep going in a saturated industry is what I’m all about.  I’d fully admit the current status-quo is imperfect and subject to exploitation. But as long as I keep my sites about me and make informed decisions, I’m not willing to quit either.

To conclude, all I can recommend is that actors evaluate such projects on a case-by-case basis, do their due-diligence and not be afraid to ask about the funding of a project.  That’s not harassing anyone, it’s a question of professionalism and respect.  Get savvy about what venues and casting directors and agents are likely to be willing to visit if that’s your aim - there’s no point in doing five weeks in St Albans and hoping anyone in London is going to come.  But if there’s an opportunity to work with exciting material, alongside talented people who you trust and are willing to accommodate your other commitments so that nobody starved during the process - don’t immediately dismiss it.  It may or may not give you ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’, but try to be clear about what you do  need at this point in your career, and whether any low/no paid option could help facilitate that.

Chris is an actor and voice over from Somerset, based in London.  All that stuff can be found at christophertester.co.uk.  He's also blogged about VO work at naturallyrp.co.uk.  He's mainly active on Instagram @chrisnaturallyrp but plugs stuff on Twitter @CGTester too.