The job of an actor or actress is to bring to life characters created by playwrights and scriptwriters. They interpret their role with guidance from a director and either perform in front of a live audience in a theatre setting or for a TV, radio or film broadcast.
The main difference between acting in a theatre and in a film, radio or television is that a live theatre performance has to be accurate every time, while in pre-recorded film, radio or television productions, performances can be redone in numerous takes.
A lot of an actor's working life is spent rehearsing and preparing for performances. In the theatre, actors may perform the same role for weeks or even months. They also need to research their characters, learn their lines, and prepare for and attend auditions. They attend costume fittings and also spend time in make-up.
Teamwork is a major part of the work. A successful actor or actress must be able to work well with other actors and all the technical members of the production crew.
Most actors, even very successful ones, spend time out of work, and they have to work hard finding their next job. It helps to be versatile. Skills such as singing and dancing can make finding work easier. Stunt performers, variety acts, comedians and mime artists are also part of the acting profession.
Theatre actors in smaller companies may be involved in administration, staging the performance and liaising with the audience.
An actor's working hours may be long and irregular, and may include evenings and weekends. However, there are strict rules on working hours and rest periods.
Actors or actresses may work indoors in a theatre, community centre, concert hall or in TV, radio and film studios. Studio and stage lighting can make indoor locations hot. For film and TV, they may also be out on location, which could be anywhere in the UK or overseas - and could mean working in all kinds of weather conditions.
Outdoor filming can be very uncomfortable and usually means a lot of sitting and standing around, waiting for lights, props and sets to be organised. Rehearsal facilities and dressing rooms can be fairly basic in small venues.
In some roles, actors may have to wear uncomfortable make-up, prosthetics or costumes for long periods.
Supporting actors and walk-on artists (extras) may earn around £80 a day, while actors in the West End earn at least £360 a week.
Most acting jobs are short term. Even experienced actors can find it hard to make a full-time living, and many people find they need to do some other part-time work to supplement their income. A survey way back in 2005 found that nearly half of those working in the UK performance industry earned less than £6,000 a year from the profession.
Most jobs are based in large cities - close to theatre, concert, studio and audition venues. However, there are opportunities throughout the UK and overseas, for example in regional theatres, in touring productions or on cruise ships.
There are opportunities in:
Most working actors are represented by an agent. Finding an agent willing to take on a new performer is often the first step in an actor's career.
Drama schools offer actors the opportunity to be seen by potential employers. People can look for work through the Equity website's job information section, and The Stage weekly newspaper and website. A number of websites, some of which require a subscription fee, allow actors to upload their details and showreels for casting companies to view. These include www.castcall.co.uk, www.stagejobspro.com and www.film-tv.co.uk.
Actors have many routes into the profession and do not necessarily require any formal qualifications. Some may start in stage crew jobs, others may simply attend auditions. However, most have some experience in school, college or other amateur productions, and, in reality, nearly all professional actors have trained, often in specialist drama schools.
The National Council for Drama Training (NCDT) accredits drama courses, including three-year full-time acting and musical theatre courses, and one or two-year postgraduate courses. Equity offers full membership to people who successfully complete an NCDT-accredited course.
Getting on these courses is very competitive - on average, only one in 20 applicants is offered a place.
There are no formal qualifications for many drama courses. However, some specify five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), and a few require two or three A levels/three H grades or equivalent qualifications, such as a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts or an SQA National Certificate in Drama, Performing Arts or Theatre Arts.
To get on a drama course, all candidates go through one or more auditions.
Most drama schools set a minimum age of 18 for three-year courses, and 21 for one and two-year courses.
There are also university degree courses in drama, but these are usually academic rather than intended to train performers. Some graduates of these courses may do a postgraduate course at a drama school.
Students on drama courses learn how to project their voice and how to move. They may learn singing, stage fighting, improvisation, mask work and stage make-up. Courses may also teach acrobatics, tumbling and dance. Students may study social history, and history of drama and the visual arts.
They also take part in a wide range of productions and practise audition technique. Most importantly, they are required to demonstrate their skills throughout the course to an audience, including agents and casting directors.
It is important for actors to continue to develop their skills throughout their careers. They may take further voice, dance and music training.
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An actor's prospects depend on talent, self-discipline, the right image, contacts and luck. They are able to win more important roles, or pick and choose their roles, through hard work and consistently good performances.
Some actors move into directing, producing, writing or teaching.
Arts Council England, 14 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3NQ
Tel: 0845 300 6200
Equity, Guild House, Upper St Martins Lane, London WC2H 9EG
Tel: 020 7379 6000
National Association of Youth Theatres,
Arts Centre, Vane Terrace, Darlington DL3 7AX
Tel: 01325 363330
National Council for Drama Training,
1-7 Woburn Walk, London WC1H 0JJ
Tel: 020 7387 3650
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA),
62-64 Gower Street, London WC1E 6ED
Tel: 020 7636 7076
Scottish Arts Council, 12 Manor Place, Edinburgh EH3 7DD
Tel: 0845 603 6000
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.