In the article I have just read on the subject of ‘Writing a Killer Guest Blog’’ the main ‘killer’ point appears to be to keep your top tip for your own website so you attract traffic across. Sounds a bit Machiavellian for a contribution to the Honest Actor blog so I’m going to share my top tip for a successful arts career right here: if you wish to stand out from the crowd make absolutely sure your name isn’t ‘John Byrne’.
Take cartooning (my original professional)-already well sown up by my British/American namesake via his work on X-Men, Superman and other Marvel and DC big hitters. Fancy being a Fine Art painter? Sorry-John Byrne from Glasgow got there first. How about writing plays? Not only is there a John Byrne at the top of that Tutti Frutti tree, too, but it turns out be the same JB that rules the world of painting. (And to save you the trouble of checking IMDB, yes, there’s a John Byrne actor who is not me either!)
Fortunately having spent the first twenty years of my own career steeling myself to the fact that making a name for yourself is a bit difficult when everybody else seems to have made the same name first, The Stage newspaper decided to institute its first ever agony column under the title ‘Dear John’.
Cometh the hour, cometh the extremely relieved Irishman.
In nearly two decades since, I having interviewed upwards of a thousand working performers for that column (and more recently for its Careers Clinic successor). I would love to be able to tantalise you with some top secret hidden knowledge as a result, but in the spirit of honesty, the key pointers that emerge are probably very similar to your own if you’ve been in the business more than five minutes: ‘Don’t sit around expecting work to come to you’, ‘Don’t ever pay money upfront for representation’ and most importantly, ‘Take any advice anybody gives you-including me-with a large grain of salt’ because while planning certainly helps, timing, individual circumstance and sheer dumb luck play as pivotal a role in our world as they do in any other business, despite what many coaches and gurus would have you believe.
I still think columns like mine and blogs and podcasts like this one have a valuable role to play in restating common sense advice (after all it has been learned the hard way by lots of us) but I often feel the greatest benefit for people already in the game is simply in allowing one actor to read the detail of how another actor’s career is actually going behind the Facebook and Twitter updates where most of us present the ‘’Hollywood’’ version of ourselves.
And yes, I agree that ‘our often lonely profession’ is probably one of the biggest clichés of all when writing about this business-but in the fifteen years of letters I have read and conversations I have had with my agony uncle/career advisor hat on, I have been persuaded that it is not just true, but true for people at every level of experience and even success.
Not only are we ‘only as good as our last job’ but for many of us who work freelance in the arts, no matter how many good jobs we do get, once they come to an end it can be quite hard to shake that sneaky feeling that the next job may never actually materialise.
So if the insecurity of the job hasn’t changed in 15 years (or indeed in the several centuries before the Careers Clinic or The Stage existed) what has-at least in the view I get from my side of the Career Advice desk?
These days queries arrive almost exclusively via email and social media. In the early days, handwritten letters, telephone calls to the office and (occasionally) faxes were the norm. Hard copies of headshots and CVS would often accompany the letters for advice on what could be improved-often leading to a difficult conversation when, as sometimes happened, the headshot looked nothing like the actual subject but the query had been sent in just weeks after the Spotlight book deadline had passed and would therefore remain the actor’s primary and only marketing image until the following year whatever advice was given.
Showreels-on VHS of course-were an expensive rarity back then, and very much seen as an ‘extra’ to the headshot and CV rather than the fundamental casting tool they are today. Content wise it was perfectly normal for an actor to include clips dating back ten years or more, not only because in world with far less screens and broadcast channels, an appearance, however fleeting, on any of them had a whiff of stardust about it, but also because editing and duplicating a new showreel was an expensive and time consuming task that few actors outside a top tier agency could afford.
It goes without saying that any advice sought on headshots, CVs and showreels was almost obsessively focused on the goal of ‘getting an agent’ since the concept of performers being in direct contact with casting directors without the divine intervention of a representative would have been a very alien one to many.
Probably more than anything else, it was the advent of the internet that changed this scenario. I remember doing my first column on the topic sometime just after the millennium, looking at how email might be a useful tool for actors. The week after I got an email from an actor who had specifically gone to their local library and set up an email account for the sole purpose of telling me that they had no interest in email, didn’t believe any other actor did, and that I should stick to writing ‘proper theatrical stuff’ in the future.
I often wonder if that actor still believes that-or indeed if they are still acting. What I do know is that our current world of multiple headshot options, DIY showreel uploads and constant interaction with castings via social media and meet the casting director workshops, the current landscape for the working actor is very different, and with not just increasing change but increased rate of change in technology in as little as five years from now it may be very different again.
Different doesn’t necessarily mean easier of course: I’m just as unable to share any definitive ‘magic formula’ for ‘nailing’, ‘smashing’ or ‘owning’ every audition as I used to be when it was just about ‘doing a good audition and securing the part’. I’m as committed as always, though, to helping actors find the best and most workable plan based on their individual circumstances, and still very grateful to actors who take the time to share their own challenges (anonymously if you like) via firstname.lastname@example.org or at my own site www.performingcareers.com.
If there are two linked qualities that I have noticed more than any other in the beginning actors I interviewed when the column was young who are still working and thriving today they would be perseverance coupled with the ability to embrace change and uncertainty. I hope this blog will become a thriving hub for honest sharing. Hearing about the issues you are wrestling with today, might just be the encouragement some other committed actor needs to persevere knowing they are not alone, and sharing a solution you’ve discovered to something another actor is struggling with may help them make the change that keeps their career going …at least till tomorrow.
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