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June 27, 2013 / Amy Bradney-George

What Do Actors Do? Part Two

For a while now I’ve been exploring what an actor is and what actors do. I previously wrote about the craft itself, particularly how important it is to be emotionally available and find connections with people. Now I want to look at what I could and should consider “work” as an actor. A big part of it (and the part most people, and maybe most actors focus on) is a production. If you have a show in rehearsals, on stage or in some part of production for film/television, well that’s work.

But last year I started to think that it might be more productive to think about the other things an actor does that count as work. There’s not a whole lot of roles up for grabs and competition is high, but does that mean actors stop working when they aren’t cast in something or going to auditions?

At the Shakespeare Under The Stars production of "Romeo and Juliet" in 2013.

At the Shakespeare Under The Stars production of “Romeo and Juliet” in 2013.

The way I see it, auditioning and/or getting a role is just the top layer of what an actor does for work. Because we have to keep our instruments sharp no matter what.

That means doing activities to stay emotionally open, finding and preparing monologues or scenes for auditions, taking classes, reading plays, watching films, television shows and live theatre, talking to other actors, directors, writers, producers, agents…the list goes on.

Then there are the other practical things an actor has to do. We should work with our bodies (whether that means working out, doing yoga, dancing etc), stay on top of our finances (particularly superannuation, which can be erratic for actors not on a long-term, contracted role), maintain and update our headshots and regularly re-edit our showreels…there are so many things that can and should be considered part of the work for an actor, and they are often overlooked by actors and observers alike.

Acting is an interesting career choice, to say the least. Actors often have “day jobs” to help pay the bills, and I suspect we spend a lot more than people in other industries when it comes to training and development. But it is a labour of love. I don’t think anyone truly committed to being an actor would invest so much time and money otherwise.

Redefining The Term “Working Actor”

Traditionally, a “working actor” is someone who has a current gig or gigs in some shape or form. Someone who has got their break and is making the most of it.

As a result of this perception, and our own inherent insecurity and self-criticism, is easy to get caught up on the roles you miss out on, or the fact that you haven’t been in production for a while. But it is also counter-productive and often short sighted.

Some of the best work I’ve seen actors do has not been in any production at all. I remember a moment during the Howard Fine Master Class I audited last year when one of the actors had just had a breakthrough about their prep for the role in the scene. Hearing the actor talk about what they’d just realised, seeing their elation and the exhaustion that came after doing such great work made me realise THAT is the work. That’s what we do, whether it’s on set or in a classroom.

Howard Fine outlines this further in his book Fine On Acting: A Vision of the Craft (written with Chris Freeman), arguing that people who are not prepared to do all of the work rarely have a sustainable career.

“Let me be clear,” he writes, “this is a process and a lifetime of hard work.”

“Acting is a comprehensive art form. You have to know so many things in order to play a wide range of roles…You really have to think about a career, because what are you going to do if you have a little splash of success? Are you going to go back to waiting tables after you’ve been famous? It’s a very interesting thing that I have seen time and again, where somebody had some initial success and they just weren’t prepared for the long haul.”

What I take away from this perspective is that it is not about whether or not you get a break (though that definitely helps), but what you do for your career. And that can come in many different forms, because acting is about being human.

Explaining Acting Work To Other People

So here is the part where it can be a struggle for other people. If all of this – performing, auditioning, rehearsing, training, reading plays, learning lines, auditioning, keeping fit, getting photos done etc – is work, why don’t we get paid for it all? Other people in other jobs get paid for all of their work, right? So if you spent more money than you make on acting (or close to 50/50), doesn’t that make it more a hobby?

The truth is there is never enough money in this industry for us to get paid to work on ourselves. There are very few companies willing to invest in our professional development, so we have to do it ourselves. But the actors who are committed to their craft 100%, they are not doing it as a hobby, as something “on the side” from their office job or hospitality and retail work. They are doing it as their chosen career and profession.

I sometimes struggle to explain this idea to people, so I like to use an analogy to help convey how I see the acting profession. Last year I watched a documentary about elite athletes training for the Olympics. Many of the individuals and teams spend years and years training. Some, like female gymnasts for example, have spent most of their lives training for this one event.

Often they have to pay a fortune for their training, the costumes, the meets and the qualifiers that help them on the road to the Olympics. And then only a few go on to the actual event that the whole world can see.

When I realised all of this about Olympians, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels to acting. We spend so much time and money training, go to hundreds (thousands) of auditions and then one day get to do something that our friends and family (and many strangers) finally get to see.

Backstage at Metro Arts theatre for a Griffith University production I acted and produced in 2008.

Backstage at Metro Arts theatre for a Griffith University production I co-produced and acted in (2008).

Not every actor will get the role they want when they want it, just like not every elite athlete qualifies for the Olympics. Some athletes end up as coaches or commentators on the industry, just as some actors may teach or become critics at some stage of their careers. But all of the work we do to get there still matters.

I was recently lucky enough to go to a workshop with the very talented actor, producer, director and teacher Ted Brunetti, who is a faculty member at the Howard Fine Studio in LA and Melbourne. During his time in Australia, Ted held a workshop in association with Equity called “Be Prepared To Work – Not Audition”.

One of the first things Ted said to us that night was that “every appointment you get is an opportunity to work,” including auditions. He said one of the biggest problems actors have is treating auditions as a stepping stone to “something else”. What I took away from him was that the expectations can hinder the preparation.

“Auditioning is working for free,” he said. “Working leads to payment”. We just don’t know when we will get paid. But as Ted put it (with an apt analogy of his own):

“Most of the work to get a rocket to the moon happens on the ground. Once you get the bastard up, the energy is negligible (in comparison).”

Ted Brunetti has been applying and teaching this philosophy for years and a quick chat with a few of the other actors in the room suggested we all felt instantly better thinking about every individual task as part of our work. It makes it so much easier because you can apply the same standards and value to every thing that you do. In turn, that takes the pressure off feeling like every audition or interview or networking event you go to has to have some kind of outcome. It doesn’t, because it is the work and you can get out of it whatever you put in.

Since that class with Ted (which was around the start of June), I’ve avoided using the word audition at all – partly because it sometimes frustrates me to have people ask “How did the audition go? When will you know if you got it?” and partly because I probably have some judgement around the word that could influence my actions before, during and after the event.

So on Ted’s advice, I’ve tried to refer to everything I do for acting as “work”. And something interesting has happened. I work harder regardless of the job at hand, I don’t feel as down if one gig doesn’t lead to something else straight away. I’m enjoying myself more and I am giving 100% all of the time.

I think the lesson I’ve really learnt in the last year is that as an actor, it is not what you are working on, but what you are doing for your career that matters. If that’s a gig, great. If it’s reading, teaching, watching movies, documentaries, television shows, learning about the industry, researching funding bodies and theatres or developing an arsenal of characters, shooting a showreel, shooting an ad, getting an agent, signing up to the union, organising finances, training, teaching, devising, networking, writing…well, all of that can be just as fun.

I know not all actors will read this and agree with what I’ve said, and I know that not everyone will get it, but it is working for me. And what I keep coming back to, whether I am motivated and inspired or feeling disheartened and frustrated, is a particular line in Howard Fine’s book that sums up exactly how I feel about acting:

“This is a journey worth devoting your life to.”



Leave a Comment
  1. theapostrophe / Jul 24 2013 6:48 pm

    Amy Bradney-George. How is it that you hit the nail on the head again and again. This has been sitting, waiting for me to read for almost a month and it applies to anyone involved in freelance type work. The truth of work for an actor or other freelancer is that you work for yourself, for no-one else. You work to achieve your dreams and it just so happens that every now and then someone with money aligns with those dreams and is willing to contribute to your work. I’m about to embark on my own freelance, poorly paid career with a reasonably paid daytime hobby.

    • Amy Bradney-George / Jul 24 2013 7:39 pm

      I’m glad you read this as you start your own freelance career Dan. I agree, a lot of what I wrote applies to any type of freelance work.

      It is about working for yourself and I’ve learnt some very important lessons about that over the years too – that might actually be the topic for a whole other blog post.

      I hope you’ll write more about your freelance career too!


  1. Michael Roud Photography 10 BEST AUDITION MONOLOGUES - Michael Roud Photography

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