Saturday, 7 September 2013

Job Juggling - finding a complimentary career

How far do you go when adding your special skills onto your Spotlight CV?  Horse-riding – tick (Sat on a horse at Margate once and didn’t fall off,) Aerobics – highly skilled (does doing it at the gym count?)  Juggling – tick.  Juggling?  Well, I did an hour session of circus skills when I was 11 and still juggle quite regularly today, but instead of brightly coloured balls - I juggle jobs.

The last 12 years have found me job juggling and trying to keep my balance; working towards my acting dreams yet working to live.  Drama schools aim to teach you everything in preparation for an acting career but one module they exclude is “what to do if it doesn’t work out.”  Obviously this is omitted on purpose, who wants to spend £25,000 on training to be told it might not happen?  I hate to be the slap-in-the–face reality fairy, and I’m not saying all this as some bitter failed actress, but not everyone can work 100% of the time.  Even Sheridan Smith and the Strallen sisters occasionally have periods out of work.  But you are still an actor even if you have to do something else to pay the bills in-between.

During these lean periods, graduates and young actors often work front-of-house or in bars because these flexible evening jobs leave you free for auditions.  But there comes a time when these jobs and doing ‘promo’ work aren’t the best option anymore.  Promotional work can mean anything from donning a posh frock and greeting VIPs at Ascot to dressing up as a kiwi fruit and giving out smoothies at Waterloo Station.  The money is good because the mortification levels are high; you are bound to see your agent or recent, heart-shattering Ex when dressed as a slice of Dairylea.  And as you get older all that standing around in cold weather isn’t good for an ageing dancer’s bones.  Likewise, bar work till 2am begins to suck when you need to be in bed after the 10 o clock news in order to get your collagen-producing 8 hours in before your early morning yoga class.  I am painting a terrifyingly dull picture of life as an early 30-something, trust me it isn’t that bad.  My point is that as a creative person, you no longer want to your brain to lie dormant during those months of unemployment.  We come alive when working on a script or rehearsing a production number but isn’t better to feel that dynamic and responsive for 12 months of the year?  How do you keep your creative juices flowing and more importantly, feel useful, in-between jobs?

You find a new passion and start working on an alternative career.  Don’t panic!  You don’t throw away your dreams and live the rest of your life in a grey suit doing crosswords on the train.  An alternative career can be something that interests you, uses your skills and compliments the career you already have.  Finding another avenue that inspires you, and will also help pay the bills, can be a really positive thing to do. 

Teaching is an obvious transition; please please ignore that stupid adage, “those who can’t do, teach,” because it seems to me that only those who are bloomin’ brilliant can pass on the passion and skills necessary for our industry.  Working for companies can be challenging as they expect commitment and find it hard to understand when you get a job at short notice.  I once had to leave a job because they weren’t going to allow me to miss my one hour toddlers’ music class for an audition for the Les Miserables movie.  Can you imagine – “I am sorry Mr Tom Hooper, Oscar award winning film director, can we postpone because I must sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ to Tarquin, Harry and Tabitha or their musical growth will be stunted.”  So the teaching job went and so did I - off to the audition.  I may not have won a role as ‘battered whore #6’ on the movie set but I did have the incredible honour of singing on the soundtrack so if you’re reading this, Tarquin, from your Montessori Nursery, I apologise, but that’s showbiz!

Many folk I know have bought into a franchise or set up their own schools, leaving them free to perform and also make a good income because there will always be children (or parent’s) who want to be taught by someone “in the profession.”

The in-thing to do at the moment is photography.  Again, because you can fit in appointments between jobs and auditions and you already have a great client base – your colleagues.  However, it is advisable to have a flair for photography because you cannot just ‘wing’ a good headshot and, no, you can’t use your iPhone 5 even if it does have an incredible zoom.  So like all alternative careers you would need to put time, money and effort into having the right equipment so that it can really work for you.  It can be expensive to set up if you don’t generate business and it may take a long time to gain a reputation and be able to charge the big bucks, but if it’s a passion of yours, go for it.

Unless you fall under the ‘character actor’ section of the Spotlight book you may find modelling is a great way to subsidise your income.  My inheritance from my dear Dad of a strong jaw line and stumpy legs ensure this is not an avenue for me but many dancers and actors are mannequins worth photographing.  Not cat walk stuff but photo shoots, adverts and even hand modelling (unless your contract in Les Miserables has left eternal dirt beneath your fingernails!)

As performers we have so many skills to draw upon.  We can prepare people to speak in public, develop our dance skills into the fitness qualifications or literally sing for our supper. Performance singing no longer has that ‘northern working man’s club’ reputation; you’d be surprised how many corporations, weddings and events are desperate for professional singers to entertain them with an ABBA medley.  Backing tracks are now pretty swish; gone are the days of the 1980’s Casio keyboard “bmm, tssk, tssk, bmm” you can create a truly professional act with modern tracks and make a really good living from it.  Some West End stars have formed a company sending singers to do tribute gigs and others do corporate entertainment.

Sick of having no control over his career, an enterprising fellow Thesp has set up his own theatre company.  He produces modern and new work and is the only fringe company ever to pay me, so it seems he’s winning in all directions.  Having your own theatre company means you can decide what to do, who to work with and create theatre that you believe in – truly exciting and inspirational.  And a stage manager I worked with uses her financial qualifications to help actors with their self-assessment tax forms, not quite donning the grey suit but a great way to make extra income.

So what do I do?  Well alongside some teaching I imagine you have guessed from this column that I have branched out into writing.  There is an on-going joke on Twitter that everyone is a blank/blank/blank and writer!  Everybody can write it’s whether people chose to read it or not.  There are thousands of theatrical blogs out there, ranging from reviews to aspirations and recollections.  Just look at the production team behind this magazine, all working actors putting their passion and skills into words. 

I worked with a wonderful man and actor called Michael Simpkins who has an extensive career; dancing in Lycra with me in Mamma Mia! and most recently seen as a parole officer in Eastenders.  But what I find inspirational about him is that he is a successful writer too; his published books and newspaper opinion columns fit nicely alongside his continuous acting career.  He has the most accessible and witty style and if you haven’t read his book on acting called “What’s my Motivation?” you can’t call yourself an aspiring actor!  Get on Amazon now!  It is my dream to have a career like Michael’s, being able to pop in and out of acting work whilst keeping my brain happy by writing.  See, even thirty-something’s have a dream, it’s just an amended one!

Having an “in case of” and complimentary career doesn’t mean you’re giving up on your acting dreams but actually being sensible and paving a future for yourself.  From a young age we are all so blinkered about acting; we focus on achieving our goals and, like most young people, don’t give a second thought to pensions or god forbid, being 55 years old!  Taking your blinkers off won’t cause you to fall behind but in-fact put you a few steps ahead when you find yourself loathed to wipe another restaurant table and desperate to be creative when those pesky casting directors won’t let you.  Developing the skills you already have can lead onto new dreams, exciting realities and perhaps even allow you to asterisk a new highly-skilled activity on your Spotlight page!

And as for me, I pretend I’m a theatrical Carrie Bradshaw as a type away dreaming that my blog will be made into a book.  I get just as big of a thrill when I see my name on a bi-line as I do when it’s in a theatre programme.  My blog on the recent West End agreement reminded me that when you’re passionate about something, your words do travel, although I declined to get on my soapbox when asked by Sky News!  With this column, blogs on the Huffington Post and some online freelancing, I feel like I am making progress but I have yet to make it to the ‘West End’ of the written word.  But as with all dreams – there is always time.

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