The Business of Being an Actor

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An actor is a person who acts, or plays a role, in a dramatic production. The term commonly refers to someone working in movies, television, live theatre, or radio, and can occasionally denote a street entertainer. Besides playing dramatic roles, actors may also sing or dance or work only on radio or as a voice artist.

An actor usually plays a fictional character. In the case of a true story (or a fictional story that portrays real people) an actor may play a real person (or a fictional version of the same).

Actors employ a variety of techniques that are learned through training and experience. Some of these are:

  1. The rigorous use of the voice to communicate a character's lines and express emotion. This is achieved through attention to diction and projection through correct breathing and articulation. It is also achieved through the tone and emphasis that an actor puts on words
  2. Physicalisation of a role in order to create a believable character for the audience and to use the acting space appropriately and correctly
  3. Use of gesture to complement the voice, interact with other actors and to bring emphasis to the words in a play, as well as having symbolic meaning

Getting an agent is probably the single most important thing a professional actor can do for his/her career. Although you can book professional jobs yourself, it is the exception to the rule.

What an Agent Is
An agent is an actor's representative. Once an agent represents you, you are his or her "client." They will submit you for roles and try to get you seen by casting directors. They will take 10% of your gross pay once you book a job. They will negotiate your fees and your contracts, and are your greatest professional advocate.

Agents represent lots and lots of wonderful actors. They're busy, and they may not even be looking for new clients. Getting any agent is hard enough, so how do you go about getting a great one?

Getting An Agent
There are three basic ways an actor gets an agent. They are:

  1. The agent sees your work and calls you in for an interview.

  2. You are recommended to the agent by a casting director, director, producer or fellow actor who is a client of that agent.

  3. The agent calls you in for an interview because of your P/R (photo and resume), which he or she received in the mail.

Getting an agent to see your work is the best way to get representation, because they really need to get to know your work before they can represent you to the best of their ability. Even if you get an agent interested via another route, they'll probably want to see you in something before they'll represent you.

The following are some of the ways to get an agent to see your work.

Scene Nights
Scene nights are events in which actors try to be seen by industry people. Rather than putting on a play, a group of actors will put together scenes that show them off. Hundreds of invitations are sent out to agents, casting directors, and directors.

Many times schools will have these nights as a wrap up for a course of study. If you can get into one of these scene nights, they offer good opportunities for up-and-coming actors to show off their best work to industry people.

It's important to note that you may not get agent interest by doing just one scene night. You may have to do lots of them before someone calls you in. Don't get discouraged. If casting directors also come to these evenings, they may see you and call you in without representation.

Scene nights, just like any other kind of production, have to be well organized to be effective. The evening should feature a limited number of actors (fewer than 20) with short scenes so the evening runs no longer than 70 minutes. That's even pushing it.

Scene nights are not about putting on a play, they're the equivalent of doing two-minute monologues for a mass audition. As an actor, you want to be featured in at least two scenes that show you off well. In a perfect world, those scenes will also be contrasting in style (comic/dramatic) so you can show a range.

All actors present need to put together their own "press kits" which means their P/Rs (photo and resume) and any reviews or notices of upcoming shows that are appropriate. All P/Rs should then be collated and put into folders, one for each industry professional.

After the show, actors can take a bow and say their names in sequence. This will allow the industry people to jot down any final notes they may have about a particular actor. A sheet should be provided in the press kit with a list of actors' names for any interested agents to indicate which actor(s) they have an interest in. They may want an actor to call them, or they may indicate that they'll call whomever they're interested in themselves.

You should have a director work on all the scenes performed, and make sure that each scene flows quickly into the next. This is not like a scene study class, in which you can take five minutes to set up each new scene. Agents will get fidgety and want to leave. Rehearse scene changes, and use minimal sets. The work should be about your acting, not your props.

If you've worked with a theatre company, see if other actors in the company would want to organize a scene night. Or get a bunch of friends together and rent a space of your own to do one. The more respected the company you've worked for, the better. Try to band together with a name that will attract attention in order to advertise your show effectively.

There are a number of theatre companies that say they are seeking company members. They will also mention dues that members will then be expected to pay. Tread very carefully when considering these opportunities. More often than not, they are scams. Companies like these often take your money before you even join. That's not cool.

As a rule, you should be getting paid to work as an actor, not vice-versa. If you're working for free, then you're volunteering your professional services. That choice is up to you, but paying to act is an insult to you and your craft.

Agent Workshops
Some classes offer an industry night as part of their curriculum. They boast that many agents and casting directors will show up to see your work. Be wary of these boasts. More often than not these classes will be very expensive, and there is no guarantee that a lot of industry folk will show on any given night.

That said, there are workshops that are reasonably priced and feature wonderful industry professionals as guests. Actors pay a small fee to hear guests speak, and then the actors perform and get critiqued by these guests.

They will send you a list of upcoming speakers and events. Speakers include agents, casting directors and directors. If you want to meet a certain individual, call to reserve a slot right away because spaces fill up fast. Prices are fairly reasonable, anywhere from $15 to $20 per session.

The benefit of this type of thing is that you get to be seen by great people who you pick yourself, but be aware that some people are more informative and open to actors than others. It's a numbers game, just like anything else, but it's worth a try. The drawback is the cost, since even reasonable fees start to add up, but don't forget: tax deductible.

For other services like this one, check out the usual suspects - trades and Internet sites. Talk to lots of actors before you pay any money for any service like this one. You want to invest in a studio that will advance your career, not just sugarcoat it.

Learn more about how to become an Actor

Actors have the NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) code of 711510, Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers. The NAICS definition of this industry is "independent (i.e., freelance) individuals primarily engaged in performing in artistic productions, in creating artistic and cultural works or productions, or in providing technical expertise necessary for these productions. This industry also includes athletes and other celebrities exclusively engaged in endorsing products and making speeches or public appearances for which they receive a fee."

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