I’ve decided to run a series of posts on the crazy life of an actor in the UK.
Sometimes when I stop and look at my life from the outside, or try to explain it to people with “normal” jobs my daily routine (or lack of it), I realize it sounds and look quite odd. Most people have an idea (or a fantasy) about how stars like Angelina Jolie or Johnny Depp might live, but very few have an understaning of what it’s like being a jobbing actress, trying to make it despite all…
Most of my friends and readers don’t really understand what I’m talking about when I mention Spotlight portfolios, showreels, showcases, casting reports… ( my mum: is great as she just admits she doesn’t get it: what is a SHOWCASE Lara? What does it mean???)
Also, a foreigner who’s worked in more than one country Ithought I could pick up on the interesting peculiarities of the British showbiz, which is totally different in its mechanisms from the Italian or the American.
Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, here’s an insider’s view of the magical world of showbiz, equipped with some fantastic tips for whomever would like to become part of it or live with somebody who is already part of it.
Part one: SHOWCASES
Last night I did a showcase. What’s a showcase? A desperate attempt to prove you exist. Therefore a very metaphysical concept….
Ok, seriously… Unless you’re one of those very few lucky actors who’s offered paid theatre and film work all the time without any effort, in order to keep existing in the universal consciousness of the British scene at a time when you haven’t been in a play for years and your showreel (see future post on SHOWREEL for details) features you looking like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan because last time you were in a movie it was 1988, it might be a good idea to appear in a showcase.
Sure, it’s not compulsory, one could as well curse the world and eat a pot of Nutella in front of the TV, but that is depressing. Most actors prefer to pay big money to enroll in a course to “brush up their skills” promising a showcase at the end. I don’t know why, but unlike other professionals, actors are always convinced they’re not good enough and that the reason they can’t find a job isn’t the recession, the narrow-mindness of producers, the sector being overcrowded, no, it’s their poor technique.
Don’t get me wrong, some actors ARE very bad, and I must confess a few people in last night’s showcase did lack in technique; a couple in fact were embarassingly bad and talentless beyond rescue. But there are useless thick morons in every profession, so let’s forget about them and focus on people who are good: they still think they need a course. They might have done years of drama school and appeared in countless plays, they still believe there’s something wrong with them. The easiest thing is to persuade excellent stage actors they’re crap on camera while all they need to do is just to turn down their intensity a bit (unless they’re Eve Best, who is incredibly good on stage and appallingly bad on camera. But let’s stop focussing on the exceptions). Hence the success of casting seminars, film workshops and audition technique sessions in which casting directors who can do with some extra cash get up early on a Sunday morning and pretend to give you some unvaluable tips on acting technique, trying to look like they care while fight off sleep. At the end of such courses there’s the famous showcase, ie a show made of a series of short numbers (monologues or dualogues) in which each actor tries to show their best.
A showcase isn’t a play. It doesn’t display great ideas, interesting direction, or original performances. No, a showcase’s only goal is to give each actor 2 minutes to perform and desperately persuade the audience they’re worth it. The single pieces aren’t linked,there’s no thread, no story, nothing. It’s a sort of cabaret, but without music.
Young, less experienced actors are terrified of industry showcases and do complicated and funny warm-ups before going on stage, breathing heavily like a yeti climbing a mountain and then going TATATATA-TITITI-TOTOTO-RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR-PTPTPTPTPTPTPTAAAAA. Oldies like me read the newspaper knowing it’s just another showcase, we’re not on trial for murder so there’s no need to be terrified by the audience/jury out there. (Insider’s tip number 1: Actors often make funny noises. Don’t panic, it’s just to warm up their voices. And please don’t laugh. Yes, I know they look totally ridiculous but they need to reassure themself that they’re going to be ok. And please don’t point out there’s no point in warming up the voice when one isn’t not performing at the Globe but in a 50 seat studio as big as your sitting room. It won’t be appreciated)
In industry showcases the audience is supposed to be composed solely of people from the industry (agents, casting directors, directors, producers) who could potentially be interested in the actors and give them a job. In reality only half of the audience is usually filled with people who are REALLY working in the industry, the rest of the seats being occupied by boyfriends called at the last minute to fill the theatre, brothers posing as producers trying to chat up girls and actors friends who’ve come to make sure you haven’t become better than them.
The brochure sent to such “industry people” tries to sell the show as an unmissable opportunity to discover exceptionally useful talent. The truth is “industry people” know that they probably don’t need any of the actors on display and just come for the free drinks. They disappear at the end of the show as quickly as possible so that they won’t have to interact with the performers.
But let’s go back a step, and explain better. For the past two months, for the joy of my boyfriend, every weekend I’ve been attending a film course (insider’s tip number 2, ACTING IS UNSOCIABLE, so make sure you don’t get partners who expect you to stick to a routine, who think you can be available when the rest of the world is and who freak out when you start talking to yourself saying things like “I hate Iowa” or “what good is reason in a world like this???”)
To be totally fair, the course WAS good. We met very important casting directors who asked us to act in front of the camera and gave us feedback. A couple of them were clearly not bothered but most of them seemed genuinely interested in giving useful advice. The great promise at the end was of course the showcase and its possibilty for NETWORKING in the bar after the show.
(Insider’s tip N3: It doesn’t matter how good you are, but if you can NETWORK you’re a step ahead.) What’s networking and how do you do it? I wish I knew. I’m terrible at it. I’m the one who at parties ends up talking to the nerd everyone has been avoiding. But good networkers always manage to chat to the most important person in the room for half an hour and by the end of the evening are calling them by their first names. Good networkers convince you they’re good, they’re really good, even when everyone knows they’re not. Good networkers tell funny jokes – I forget jokes one second after I’ve heard them – and always carry business cards. Good networkers buy you a drink and tell you your dress in nice. They’re the one you want to hang out with because they’re fun. Good networkers don’t end up like me, talking by random chance to an agent without knowing who she was and too shy to ask her whether she was an “industry person” or somebody’s aunt – she did look like the typical aunt I must say…
The turnout last night was also good. Some very big agents, and a couple of decent casting directors. Pity they all left (except one), as if on cue, as soon as the lights went up (having consumed their free wine at the interval) and the very few ones I caught a glimpse of made sure to avoid eye contact.
I thought my performance was very good but such people made me feel invisible and I hate them for this. It’s as if my performing for them was forgettable, worthless. And I know it’s not personal. This kind of behaviour isn’t just reserved to me. They don’t want to engage with actors, full stop. They don’t even want to make the effort to smile and say “well done”. After all they’d just been treated to a free show by a group of professional, experienced performers, they could at least say thanks. But no. For them we’re beggars and they treat you exactly how I treat people asking me “spare a change, please?” I quickly walk past them looking straight ahead and pretending not to see them.
Only one agent stayed after the show and, as I said, I ended up chatting to her by pure chance. Did she say well done, I liked your acting? No, she said she liked my wardrobe and asked me where I got my 40s skirt from… When, after another actress had started chatting to her, I finally realised she was a big agent and not somebody’s relative, I decided to drop my fears and try proper networking for a change. The agent was being quite patronising, saying things like “it’s hard, girls, it’s so so hard… And especially for foreign females… But one day the right job will turn up. Hang on there, please! Please don’t give up!” Suppressing the urge to say, “honey, I’ve been working for 17 years, the right jobs have turned up many times even without your encouragement thank you very much!!!” (insider’s tip N4: don’t bother being honest with such arrogant types. They think they’re gods. You must look like you’re an even bigger god, some sort of Jove Almighty.) I have a friend who every time she meets a casting director, director or agent she tells the truth – I haven’t worked for years, I have another job to support myself, my past agent dropped me, nobody wants foreigners… EERRRGGHHHH!!!!!!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!! Insider’s tip N 4,5,6,7,8 and 9: Never sound like loosers!!!!!!!!!!!!! No potential agents wants to hear it’s hard finding you work!! And nobody’s interested in knowing how hard you find this business!
I believe actors are the only category who gladly accepted to go through such humiliating processes so often. It’s because acting is an addiction more than a job, and we can’t do without. Most of us would do anything in order to be on stage or in front of a camera and people exploit that. Thet take advantage of our passion to rip us off, to make us work for little or no money, to sell us courses, showcases, voicereels, showreels…
Imagine to tell a dentist “hey, we have a fantastic course to brush up your dentistry skills, at the end of which you’ll perform a cavity filling in front of a selected audience of potential patients…” I’m sure they’d think you’re taking the piss. In most professions if you’ve trained, and you’ve worked professionally for a while, you don’t need to prove what you can do every five minutes.
In acting you do.
Yes, most showcases are a depressing waste of time. Still, we continue to do them because we need to be acting, because we’re masochists who’re always exposing ourselves to public judgment and besides we’ve all heard the story of that actor friend of a friend who landed a job in a major movie thanks to a showcase… And that other actress, who’s the wife of the cousin of your nieghbour who got a big agent after a showcase and is now at the National Theatre…. Such stories are probably urban legends but we choose to believe them because we need hope. It’s part of our survival strategy – not to mention our therapist said it was a good idea and this year is supposed to be a good one for Gemini and if you wish upon a star you’re dreams come true…
Insider’s tip N 10: Don’t suggest to an actor they should perhaps consider finding another job. Acting isn’t swappable with another career. It’s not just a profession, it’s who we are. It’s something either you feel you MUST do or you don’t. And if you have the bug, you’re done. There’s no cure for it…