With around 750 predominantly young people attending the Surviving Actors Convention in Manchester, the atmosphere was one of aspirational optimism. This was the third annual convention to be held since Felicity Jackson founded the organisation and the first to be held in Manchester. And as she explained “the aims and objectives of Surviving Actors are to build a community of support for actors in a notoriously difficult profession”.
“We want to encourage, support and educate talent on how they can turn their passion into a business”, she added. And certainly there was passion aplenty coursing through those attending.
At the one day event were exhibitions, services offering headshots, taxation advice as well as a wide range of seminars on the art of acting, networking and audition techniques.
An extra frisson of excitement ran through the convention due to the unexpected opportunity to audition for an upcoming film.
A Sword before Me
For all fully paid up, red blooded geeks Roger Bartlett’s stage and screen combat exhibition was an absolute must. Amongst an impressive assortment of broad swords, rapiers and cutlasses, Roger explained the services his organisation can offer to budding Erol Flynns. The British Academy of Stage & Screen Combat is now celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Roger has just completed filming Hammer of the Gods and the recent Viking series for the History Channel, meaning he can speak with some authority. “Essentially we are a training school for the art of fighting, but there is much more to it than that”, he says.
“The key”, he added, “is to keep actors safe while at the same time putting on the best visual display and the impression of a real sword fight; it is a difficult balance”.
Video 1: ADVICE ON AGENTS
A Force of Nature
Next up was Joel Kern, founder and one-man whirlwind of theatre school Make Believe. Established in 2004 as an extra-curricular activity offering training to students aged between 3 and 18, Make Believe now has an impressive 20 schools with just over 100 staff.
Not content with this, 24 year old Joel has expanded into production, a talent agency, an events division and a full-time performing arts academy.
However impressive as are the aims and the charity work of Make Believe, as well as the opportunities on offer to 2,500 kids a week, I was positively exhausted after talking with the man himself.
Setting up Make Believe when he was just 14, he had previously earned close to £4,000 as a 12 year old DJ. Investing the money in the theatre led to him becoming a fully-fledged impresario to rival the Bill Kenwrights of this world.
“I love the theatre”, he explained, “I love the things we do. It’s wonderful to see a shy youngster who’s maybe never sung in their life come to us and six months down the line they’re up there on stage”.
An Actor’s Life for me
Wandering around the convention talking to people, the phrase aspiring actor seemed increasingly clichéd. It seems to do little justice to the almost overwhelming difficulties facing, well.. an aspiring actor.
Want a steady income? Forget it, unless you have an understanding boss who would let you drop everything and dash to London for that audition. Get a mortgage, no chance; and as one person said with a weary shrug, forget maintaining a relationship either.
With around 5,000 people graduating from courses in drama, musical theatre, performing arts or theatre studies each year, the marketplace remains intensely, insanely competitive. Taking in the room, the question frequently came to mind; why on earth would anyone want to be an actor?
Again people reach for the lazy clichés of fame, money and ego, but these seem to be, well clichéd.
Take Nadine Halliday, 22, bright as a button with a warm sunny smile. She has a BA in Performing Arts, a Foundation Degree in Theatre Studies and attended the Northern School in Contemporary Dance in Leeds. In no way could she be described as egotistical or driven by money, rather a genuine creative urge to perform that she said she has had since the age of 5. As she simply explained, “you’ve just got to go for it”.
This could have been the motto of the day’s event.
Better to be Lucky than Talented?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the majority of aspiring actors will fail. Astonishingly around 92% of the profession will be out of work at any one time. What is not though, always appreciated is that the 8% who are working tend to be the ones working continuously, with the 92% in effect very rarely getting a foot in the door.
This means that in reality, trying to gate crash that elite 8%. Ironically, you have a better chance at the beginning of your career simply because everyone is desperate to discover the next big thing.
Being rejected for any job in any career hurts, but rejection is in the DNA of ‘showbiz’. Harvey Keitel auditioned for the Actor’s Studio eight years in a row before being accepted.
If you believe in yourself, the only question is how long are you willing to do the menial jobs to get by, to forgo a normal life until the big break, which of course, as the industry keeps telling you is extremely unlikely.
As young aspirant Rachel Logan-Stott, freshly minted from Edinburgh University remarked, “Luck is the core to success, not necessarily talent”. She mentions the recent auditions for a mouth wash advert as an example. “All the courses in the world are not going to get you that gig, just pure luck that you look the part”.
Show business is not cruel, it’s just indifferent.
Those at the beginning of their careers know this. No one I met was naïve about their chances. However, following that dream is still rooted in reality, and that’s where organisations such Surviving Actors are vital. As Felicity explained, “the reason why I set up Surviving Actors was that I saw a huge gap where actors were leaving drama school without the business edge on their acting career”.
What was heartening in these grim austere days was that there is a world of creative, artistic people willing to give up the comforts of life to pursue their passions and dreams, against all the odds and with little chance of success. To all those at the convention I salute you and go break a leg.