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April 30, 2009 8:41 PM   Subscribe

What are the next steps for a Theater major going into her Senior year of College?

My younger sister, a college Theater major, will be starting her Senior year this upcoming Fall. I would like to help her transition, over the next 18 months, into the working world as a well prepared thespian. The catch? I don't know the ropes.

Here's the background: I am in business, my father was in business. My older sibling is in health care, my mother was in health care. Myself and my older sibling had graduation/senior year/interview/job world questions answered by Dad and Mom. Our parents provided us guidance on everything job related such as "how do I interview for jobs my Senior year... should I choose job X or Y... what steps should I be taking now... how should I market myself?".

Our parents still have good advice for our Theatrically inclined younger sister, but they can't provided her with the same type of intimate industry knowledge that I received.

I'm turning to the hive mind for answers! What are the do's and don'ts? Should my little sister be attending job fairs, create a portfolio, apply to the Screen Actors Guild, hire an agent? What am I missing? Please be honest, I can take it (remember I'm in business, the truth no longer scares me ;). She is open to my advice but I have two left feet when it comes to keeping her in the lime light after the curtain closes on college (o boy, maybe she and I should do a comedy/acting routine).

The end goal is to make sure my little sister doesn't miss her que when it comes to the next steps she should be taking in her upcoming Senior year to ensure she has a job, or is in a viable position to market herself to parts in plays, movies, etc.

Thank you in advance!
posted by thankyoumuchly to Work & Money (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is she an actor? A dancer? A technician? A designer? A director? An admin type? I'm kind of getting actor, but you never state it explicitly.

All these will greatly affect the answers I have for her. (Mostly, if she's a technician, I can totally give advice, otherwise, I'm lost.)

Location also matters. Where is she located?
posted by mollymayhem at 9:01 PM on April 30, 2009

Response by poster: Please offer any afterthoughts or hindsight you may have had if you were in the same situation in the past. All "I wish I thought of that" or "a-ha" moments are welcomed!
posted by thankyoumuchly at 9:04 PM on April 30, 2009

Response by poster: Her focus within her Theater major is in acting. She also has a minor in voice (soprano). She has been in most plays that her college puts on, many roles were the lead.
posted by thankyoumuchly at 9:23 PM on April 30, 2009

My favorite uncle was a high school and collegiate theater darling the early 60's. Well reviewed in the local papers and school press. Upon graduation, he commenced upon a twenty-two year career in theater and film that yielded four starring roles in "little theater" and three bit parts in film amounting to a total of 49 seconds of on screen time. Set building and freelance carpentry put food on the table, when it did that much. I assume from you mention of S.A.G. that her goal is the Silver Screen. This means that she will be competing with a pool of around 120,000 actors for perhaps 200 available principal roles in any given year. That's long odds. (600:1 against.)
Realistically, your sister is going to need a skill set that pays bills and allows her the flexibility to jet off to auditions and cattle calls with very little notice. (Sometimes only a few hours notice.) Ideally, these skills put her on the set every day and in constant contact with the people and pulse of the industry.
Create a portfolio: YES! Join S.A.G.? Not yet... The Guild is for working actors, in a very tricky sort of way. To join, you must prove work on a S.A.G. project. To work on a union set, you need a card... Hire an agent: absolutely.
But do a reality check every day. Acting is a tough profession in every conceivable way. Hard to get into and then difficult to get by on, even for the stunningly beautiful and brilliantly talented, those few still need amazing luck.
(Which I formally hereby wish her.)
posted by EnsignLunchmeat at 9:56 PM on April 30, 2009

Best answer: A lot of schools do industry showcases in New York, Los Angeles and (sometimes) Chicago for their graduating classes. Does her school do this at all? I don't have much West Coast experience but I know that, at least in New York, it's one of the best ways for new graduates to get an agent or manager.

Just some random thoughts from a casting professional:

Two things that could make her appealing to agents: her ability to do musicals as well as plays and (hopefully) her youthful looks. If she can pass for a high school student, so much the better. There are more roles for young people than there are actors who can play those roles skillfully while passing for someone that young. If she's doing a showcase (or even just looking for monologues), tell her not to try to age herself up. That's a mistake that a lot of young actors seem to make. If we're casting a role that's mid-late 20s, we're invariably going to look for someone with more experience. So her best bet is to aim for the roles that those mid-late 20s actors are too old to play. (This is provided that she doesn't already look older than her age.)

If she is interested in doing musicals, she shouldn't be in a hurry to join the stage actors union (Actors Equity Association) since there are a lot of non-union tours going on. The pay is not bad, and it's a good way to build experience.

She doesn't need to join SAG right away either. Most resumes that get sent to us from agencies don't even specify union affiliations anymore. It's just assumed that actors are either in the union or willing to join if they have to. But with little professional experience, she's more likely to be cast in non-union stuff. Until she gets an offer to do a SAG project and the pay is more than enough to cover the joining fees and dues, she should stay non-union.

If there's a film department at her school, she should try to get into some student films. She'll need those clips to put together a reel for any potential agents and employers who'll want to see how she handles herself on camera. If there's no film department at her school, Mandy.com is a good site for finding casting notices for student and low-budget projects.

She should try to do an internship at a casting office or talent agency in order to demystify this side of the business. It's a great lesson in self-marketing and would give her the opportunity to see the kinds of mistakes that other actors make as well as the best ways for them to stand out. Moreover, it would introduce her to a lot of working actors who aren't famous and sometimes have to hold down other jobs, but who also work as actors pretty steadily. There's that reality check for you.

She should be nice to everyone she meets. Word gets around. And if she has a reputation for being extremely pleasant to work with, everyone will want to work with her more often. It doesn't matter if it's a shitty little play deep in the heart of Brooklyn. Most success stories I've heard have been about bad work leading to less bad work leading to good work.

If she's not getting into projects at all, encourage her to create her own projects.

That's all I have right now, unless you have more specific questions. There's no guaranteed employment for actors; and people who choose acting as a career tend to come from privileged backgrounds. So it'll probably freak her out at first to see how hard it is to get anywhere. The most you can do is help her stay positive and excited about her choice.
posted by zerbinetta at 10:38 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: She try to get some non-union work and an agent. Here's how:

Have a headshot taken. Not an expensive one. It should be a clear, in-focus colour shot of her face, with a pleasant neutral expression, natural head position, not too much makeup, and a bright, non-distracting background. Here are 3 good examples: 1, 2, 3.

Make a resume. This format would be fine.

Start looking for jobs on Mandy, Craigslist (in the "Talent", "Gigs", and "TV/Film/Radio" sections) and whatever other similar sites there are in your area. Submit a PDF of her resume and a jpeg of her headshot.

If she books any film or TV gigs, get copies of the footage and make a demo reel. She can find an editor on Craigslist if you don't know how, but it's not that hard to figure out. YouTube has a million examples- watch a bunch to see what style you'd like to emulate. Shorter is better: 2 minutes is plenty. Don't put tapes of theatre gigs on a demo reel. Footage from a camera class is OK for your first reel but as soon as you have real footage, lose the class stuff.

Send packages to agencies in your city. A package would be: a friendly/professional cover letter, a resume, a headshot, maybe some photocopies of any good reviews she's gotten, and a demo when she has one.

No rush to go union. In my opinion, taking 2-5 years to go union is totally fine. As a trained actor, she's already light years ahead of many non-union actors, so might as well compete against them for roles instead of going SAG and competing against experienced professionals.

See lots of shows, perform in readings, showcases, festivals, Fringes, etc. Volunteer at theatres and theatre festivals to meet theatre artists.

Say yes to any gig you don't find downright offensive for the first couple years. When you're more established, you can afford to be more choosy. You never know who'll see you and remember you.

Similarly, be nice to everyone. Not a schmoozing fake idiot, just respectful and friendly and interested. And never backstab another artist- you never know who knows who! A few weeks ago I met a young actor and asked him about the show he was working on. Before I even finished my sentence, he launched into a 10-minute rant about how much he hated the show and the creative team, particularly the director and AD. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was a bridesmaid in the AD's wedding last year. I sure told her about it, though.

Keep taking classes- I'd say at least 3-4 per year for the first few years. She'll meet other artists who may well end up becoming collaborators, plus brush up her skills. Take classes in camera, different styles of acting like Meisner, physical theatre, dance, improv, writing, etc.

Try to meet young writers and directors- they're the ones who'll cast you in indie projects. She should work to befriend any writers & directors affiliated with her project. Participating in lots of script workshops and readings is good, too. Whenever she sees an indie play or film she likes, she should attempt to talk to or email the director to tell them she liked their work. Again, I don't mean be a fake schmoozer. I mean go out of your way to contact people whose aesthetic speaks to you and sincerely connect with them about it. Those are the people who become collaborators.

Audition for everything- never turn one down. You never know who's in the room and might think of you for their next project. Also, remember that the goal of an audition isn't "to be cast in that specific role". Only one person can attain that goal, and if that's your goal it's way too easy to fail. The goal of an audition is "to make a great impression on the auditors, so they'll think of me next time they have a role for me- or maybe even custom-create a role for me in their next project!" That goal is attainable and will help her cope with rejection by re-framing auditions to make more of them feel successful.

Get a well-paying, flexible part time job. The best possible actor job, in my opinion, is bartending- you make a ton of money and the hours don't conflict with auditions. Other good ones are: server, office temp, or corporate improv instructor. Working at theatre festivals, cinemas or theatres (box office, front of house, etc) doesn't pay super-well but you can meet other like-minded people and the jobs tend to be flexible and laid-back. Good luck to her!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:09 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

If your sister has plans to move out to los angeles to pursue a career in film and television, and perhaps wants to continue study acting, I recommend the mfa program at USC, their acting showcase this year was impressive.

Here's the bottom line. If your sister has a great look, graduated top of her class or if you truly believe she is a knock your socks off actress (and if you have any tape to back that up, that's better), then it's worth trying to seek representation - either in the form of an agent or a manager. If somebody in the biz sees talent in your sister worth developing right off the bat, it can make a world of difference in the long run. Otherwise you grind it out on your own and good luck to you.

Good advice above, although i would say on the west coast there is less emphasis on musicals.
posted by phaedon at 12:39 AM on May 1, 2009

context: I'm thirteen years out of drama school, living in NYC and doing theatre part time.

People I graduated with have fallen into one of three categories:

-- 1%: working full-time as actors.

-- 80%: couldn't get full-time acting work, soon got discouraged and dropped out of theatre.

-- 19%: found non-acting work that they liked and which could sustain them. They are still acting, while keeping a day job.

By the way, I've seen no correlation between talent and which category people fall into. I have seen a small correlation between good looks and categories, but I know plenty of hot folks who didn't make it. Most of 80% were big fish in school. They graduated and expected to be big fish in the wide world and their first rejection destroyed them.

Then there are those people who say, "I can't do anything except act. I have no marketable skills." (As if people are born with marketable skills.) Drama-school culture encourages this. If you develop secondary skills, you're "selling out." Drama-school also encourages the romance of the starving artist, which is romantic until you actually are a starving artist.

I encourage your sister to develop a marketable skill. NOT so she can sell out and quit acting -- so that she can sustain herself and CONTINUE acting. If she hates everything except acting, then she should work on whatever other skill she hates least. If she winds up waiting tables to support herself (or doing office temp work), her chances of dropping out of theatre are great. She will drop out when she gets fed up with waiting tables.

I suppose this isn't a bad thing. Actors are always out of work, meaning that all their jobs are temp jobs. And they get tons of rejection. Maybe it's good that some people drop out early. They are the ones not cut out for the lifestyle. But as someone who loves the theatre, I'm saddened by seeing so many TALENTED friends quit.
posted by grumblebee at 6:31 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

All of the above advice is good.

I'd also prepare her for the idea that it's going to be really, really tough. I'm not a performer. I have a degree in playwriting and currently a steady job in theatre admin. The first year after I graduated from college I worked three jobs and could not make ends meet. Part of that was my own choice. The jobs I took were in the business so that I could stay involved and see plays for free.

Which brings me to a point, if she wants to be in theatre, she needs to see as much of it as possible. Right now, she has a student ID, which provides access to all sorts of discount tickets. You learn so much by watching others. Theatre people who don't see theatre drive me crazy.

However, besides helping brace her for the harsh reality of this life, I'd ask her what her measure for success is. An acquaintance of mine, who is a very talented Equity actor, went to NYC for a while. He could not find work. He came back down to Florida, and here he makes a living by his acting. He's constantly in demand, and decided that he'd rather constantly be working in Florida than not working in New York. And even his story is a rare story. Grumblebee is right. Only about 1% of the people I know in this business make their living entirely off their art.

It's a hard profession. You have to be in it because you love it. And even then, sometimes it's trying.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 7:02 AM on May 1, 2009

Grumblebee is right on.

I have a degree in Theatre and I'm amazed at how little schools actually prepare you for the reality of this life.

She needs to have a way to support herself. Whether this be family money, a day job, what have you, but she absolutely needs a way to cover costs as she tries to make her way.

And as her loving family you all need to prepare yourself for the life she's chosen. She's going to need all kinds of support, financial, emotional, etc. The life of an actor makes no sense at the best of times and she's going to need a strong foundation of family and friends. Adjust what you think is success. Adjust what you think is a living wage. If there's family money make sure she knows it's available to her. It's financially impossible and any help she can get will make it that much easier.
posted by miles1972 at 9:04 AM on May 1, 2009

I'm still figuring this out--I graduated from acting school one year ago, and I'm doing okay. I'm pretty pay cheque to pay cheque, and I occasionally work at a restaurant, but I'm currently making the majority of my income from acting work.

But you have to have MANY things going on to make a go of it. You can't just focus on stage, or film. You have to do voicework, motion capture work, commercials, commercial theatre, indie theatre, industry films/events. Everything and anything.

I have an agent. Through him I've been getting voicework and audition for film/tv. Not all agents do voicework, she should decide whether that's something she wants to try and get into. There's not a ton of work, and it's hard to book, but when you do, the pay is excellent for the time involved.

I audition for anything I can. The experience is useful, and sometimes I land a gig.

I also do RANDOM stuff. Like being a patient for medschool exams, or a model for art classes. I know actors that do stand in work on sets when they can.

You can't always do random things or indie theatre when you're in a union, so that's an important decision. I've have the opportunity to join the union and turned it down (in Canada you have different options--probationary, apprentice, etc. There are probably similar options in the states).

Keep Busy. Every yoga class, dance class, unpaid show, random gig--everything is a learning/networking opportunity. Even if you're not making money as an actor, you are ALWAYS an actor--no excuse to sit at home and wait for paid work to show up.

Make. Your. Own. Work. A lot of kids out of school these days write shows, or pick something, find a cheap venue, market like crazy, get an audience in, and do a show. Sometimes it is the only way to get work. At some point in their careers, nearly every actor I know has done this. It's how you get noticed, how you keep creative. For some, this will be how they lead their whole careers.
posted by stray at 1:40 PM on May 1, 2009

Encourage her to brush up her camera & voiceover skills. Take classes and don't buy into the theatre school mentality that says real artists don't do commercials or movies of the week. The pay for TV, film, commercial and animation work is so so so so so much better than for theatre that even sporadic camera & voice work might be enough to sustain her.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:52 PM on May 1, 2009

It looks like people here have given you extremely useful advice. I'll give you another piece of advice, but I'll be darned if I know how you could implement it without alienating the fuck out of your little sister.

The statistics of the profession are profoundly against her. So my advice? She needs to be constantly examining the depths of her heart to think about what other alternatives will make her happy. Otherwise, she may take a "day job" simply out of reaction and find it growing to be an unchosen career.

In all honesty, I say that because that is what happened to me. I graduated with a B.A. in Theater in '96, and because of my insane typing speed, I became a legal secretary. I'm dealing nowadays with the decision of, Okay, so, what do I want to be retiring from doing at age 65-70?

It's a period of time that's had some positive effects and make-a-difference moments, but overall, I wish I had given weight to a more thought-out "alternative career" decision at your sister's age. Not just what would be tolerable, but what would be something I'd look forward to each morning. Sit your sister down with The Pathfinder, or Po Bronson's What Should I Do With My Life?.

She'll almost certainly be heavily resistant — "what if you don't make it?" is perhaps the worst question you can ask someone wanting to make a living as an actor, no matter how many layers you disguise it with. But it's a question, and a set of preparations, she really needs to be making at this particular time of her life, not later.
posted by WCityMike at 7:01 PM on May 1, 2009

Response by poster: These responses have been overwhelmingly helpful, thank you all for your thoughtful and informative responses! Please keep them coming :)

Out of curiosity, can anyone offer more detail about working on the casting/staffing side of things (as mentioned above)? Was anyone in the casting business, sitting on the other side of the camera and passing judgment? What advice can you give? Big mistakes, lessons learned, etc.?
posted by thankyoumuchly at 1:16 AM on May 2, 2009

Best answer: Something I would like actors to know is that we, on the other side of the casting table, want to like you and we want you to be The One. Most casting people don't sit there picking you apart; instead we're thinking of adjustments to give you so that you become exactly what our clients need. So I don't want any actors to come into the audition room feeling intimidated and judged. Someone in that room is on your side.

I'd also like actors to know that they shouldn't talk too much to the casting panel before and after the audition itself. It's completely fine if you have questions about the sides/role or if it's brief small talk, but we only have so much time allotted for each actor. You don't want to use up your time chatting.

Most important, be performance-ready when you're auditioning. Sure, you'll be able to glance at your sides, so you don't have to memorize the lines. But come in making strong choices. If the choices aren't spot on, we'll at least know that you're a smart actor who gave it a lot of thought, and we'll give you an adjustment. (Usually, anyway.)

It's hard to really impress upon actors how prepared they should be by just saying, "Be prepared." That's why we always tell actors that they should try to be readers for auditions. (Readers play all the other roles in the audition scenes with the auditioning actors.) That way you'll see first hand the difference between an actor who rehearsed the sides a few times and one who read the script, really thought about every specific moment and transition, and rehearsed it a few different ways before coming in.

Finally, the person who said upthread that the goal of auditions is to make a great impression is right. Sometimes an actor gives a great audition, but isn't exactly right for the role. Perhaps we needed someone older, or blonder, or who could read blue-collar more believably, or any number of things that an actor can't control. It doesn't mean you weren't great. Sometimes it just means someone else was a little more right. Out of about 30 people called in for a particular role, we could narrow that down to about 6 callbacks, and, from there, 2-3 who would make the director perfectly happy. It's probably no comfort to know that you came in second or third, but you still made a great impression and it'll be that much easier to remember you the next time that we're casting something.

The good thing to know is that casting people, directors, etc. have great memories. After a particularly great audition, an actor could send a thank you card to the people who were in the room, reminding them of who you are and how interested you would be to work with them in the future, become a reader for future auditions, etc.

Just don't write too often. There was an actress who e-mailed every single day to "remind" me that she was interested in anything we were casting. I finally had to (politely) ask her to stop.
posted by zerbinetta at 11:05 AM on May 2, 2009

I've cast theatre shows and I've seen tapes of auditions for film and TV.

I've often thought how useful it would be for actors (or their agents) to see what they are doing in there and why certain people get work or why a role went a certain way.

Be prepared. Know the material. Make strong choices. Be attractive and charming. Don't give a crazy vibe in any way. Give your best under pressure. Take direction. Be clear.

Casting is an awkward messy emotional kind of process, but the actor has to come in, make the part their own and nail it.
posted by miles1972 at 1:44 PM on May 2, 2009

Response by poster: In regards to seeing what it's like on the casting side of the table, what's the best method of obtaining an internship/co-op position? Would pursuing this type of opportunity be an option on a job search portal (i.e., monster.com), or would there be a better way you could suggest finding an open position for a summer/semester/etc.?

Again, tremendous responses thus far, thank you all for the considerate insight!
posted by thankyoumuchly at 7:42 PM on May 3, 2009

A lot of NYC offices post their internships on the job board of Playbill.com. Offices on both coasts sometimes use EntertainmentCareers.net as well as about a dozen similar sites.

But the absolute best approach would be for her to call casting offices herself and ask them if they're looking for interns and if she could send her resume. The Casting Society of America has a list of casting offices on its website and would be a good start. Also, some schools have relationships with casting directors through their acting programs. If there's a CD who works with her school, she should definitely go to them first.
posted by zerbinetta at 8:34 PM on May 3, 2009

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