What do we know about actors? We know what we see on Entertainment Tonight, or read in People and Entertainment Weekly magazines, or harvest with one eye open on the late-night celeb fests of Leno, Letterman, and Conan. We think we know actors and understand the mechanics of their profession. It looks glamorous and appealing. It looks effortless. It ain’t!
By Konnie Kitrell
What most aspiring performers don’t see are the years of education — not to mention the discipline, commitment, and rejection — that came before the spotlight. No other profession is so misunderstood by the very people motivated to enter it. Most who seek acting as a profession are under the impression that you only have to want it bad enough, and it will happen. They are driven by the desire to perform, and turn a deaf ear to practicality and reality. The reality is that only one in a thousand will actually find any work in this difficult profession.
Competition for jobs in regional theater, summer stock, and touring companies is as fierce as it is for movies and television. What can you do to put the odds on your side? Get educated. Hundreds of talented young people rush to New York and Los Angeles every year to “see what happens.” They knock on doors and mail out headshots. They don’t really have an idea where to start; they just know they want to start “right now.” They are self-compelled, and often funded by their equally naïve but well-intentioned families. Most will return home after a few months, convinced of the unfairness of it all. The mistake most of these aspiring stars make when starting out is in convincing themselves they are “ready” to face the industry. They are, in fact, untrained and unprepared for the marketplace.
Show business is, first and foremost, just that... a business. As a performer, you are its product. The more polished the product, the greater the chance for success. Almost every aspect of a project is considered and decided on before the casting is approached. Why? Because looking for actors is like picking out grapes in a supermarket — there are thousands to choose from. Directors may recognize your potential, but they usually don’t want to spend either the time or money grooming you for the work. They will choose the talent who are already educated in the” in and outs” of the workplace.
Here’s my all-time “Top 10” list of things you can do to give yourself that extra edge:
1. Develop More Than One Talent
Are you just an actor, model, or singer? Today’s performers need multiple skills to get ahead. Many musical pop stars have to dance for videos. Models need acting skills to stand out on the runway. Take classes in fields where you are weak and force yourself out of your comfort zone. The performance industry today is like any other...the educated are taken more seriously and looked at with respect!
2. Read Everything
Trade papers, plays, monologue books... all these things strengthen your knowledge and vocabulary. You will have more conversation and points of reference during your interviews and auditions. Successful people are not bland people! You must be interesting to others as well as interested in others.
3. Create a Unique Product
Most people assume that to be successful, you have to fit into the category of “beautiful.” You only have to look at movies and TV to know this isn’t true. What you do have to be is a “type.” Have you ever said about an actor, “She was perfect for that role”? Strong physical types suggest characters to us. The key to success is taking what you already have and cultivating it. Be unique. Don’t model yourself after another star.
Look at yourself with no makeup and in ordinary clothes. Be realistic about age, weight, and ethnic background. Who are you? Are you a villain or society swell? Street urchin or clean-cut lawyer? Once you figure it out, educate yourself for more opportunities. For instance, if you look tough, learn how to fence, handle a gun convincingly, and take marshal arts classes. Learning skills like riding or ballroom dancing also strengthens and expands your personality.
4. Never Pass Up an Experience
Performing is a learned skill and grows with use. Community theater, church, and school plays are all valuable education. Acting and modeling competitions such as IMTA are a great way to expand your horizons. Use the summer to attend camps or programs that specialize in your field. If you feel you are superior to the project, ask yourself: what else am I doing right now?
5. Make a Commitment to Health and Discipline
Let’s face it, the stars spend hours in the gym every day, watch every meal, and don’t go clubbing half as often as you think. The camera shows every flaw. Beautiful hair, skin, and bodies are achieved through healthy lifestyles and hard work. There is abolutely no substitute for sleep.
CLASS ACTS AT STAGEDOOR MANOR: (Top) Composing team Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire rehearsal the cast of one of their shows. (Above left) Bryce Dallas Howard and Natalie Portman (L-R) as teens co-starred in the Stagedoor production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Above right) Nancy Carson, one of New York’s top agent/managers for youth, teaches a workshop on audition techniques. (Above) Broadway conductor Kim Grigsby instructs student Chad Moore in breath and singing technique.
6. Cultivate Contacts
Accept that you are on a journey and every person you meet along the way is someone you might work with in the future. Summer camp, local or regional theater — get to know all staff connected with any project, techies included. Classmates become future contacts, and they’ll remember your energy. Were you seen in a positive or negative light? Talk to people you meet at auditions and events, listen to their stories, take notes, and remember their names. They call this networking.
7. Have Realistic Goals
Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to succeed. Six months in New York or Los Angeles is just a beginning; be prepared to give it at least one year in either city, or even better two. Start thinking now what your “second” job will be. You have to take classes, get headshots, pay for an answering service… and eat. Concentrate on the goal and don’t let yourself give up.
8. Focus on Attitude
Go to every class and every audition with joy and self-confidence. Be the one they remember for your beaming smile, and who listens and takes direction. Do your job, and volunteer to help out with costumes and props or in any way you can. Sour and sarcastic people fall by the wayside.
9. Steer Clear of Entanglements
This is a tough one. Have a spouse or significant other? Be prepared for their resistance. Even the most supportive mate will soon grow bored playing second fiddle to your ambition. You need the freedom to audition, travel, and rehearse long hours. Many opportunities have been lost because the actor didn’t want to leave that special someone behind.
10. Never Stop Taking Classes
Every professional in the business will tell you this. When they ask at interviews, “So, what have you been up to?” this is the answer: going to classes, expanding your knowledge, making connections. By being prepared to chat about the latest techniques you’ve been working on, you’ll impress them with your high degree of motivation to constantly improve. You may not have much of a résumé to show them yet, but they’ll at least know you aren’t sitting around waiting to be discovered.
Konnie Kittrell is Production Director/Associate Producer for the prestigious Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center located in New York’s Catskill Mountains. This year Stagedoor is celebrating 30 years of educating the stars of tomorrow. Alumni such as Natalie Portman, Mandy Moore, Zach Braff, Jon Cryer, and Robert Downey Jr. spent their teens at Stagedoor and many were discovered there. In addition to her 24 years at Stagedoor, Konnie has a career in theater, film, and television spanning over 40 years. She has been a performer, costume designer, producer, casting director, and mentor to young talent and their families. Konnie travels across the United States as a consultant, teacher, and judge for acting competitions such as The International Modeling and Talent Association, and works with agents, managers, and casting directors looking for bright new faces.
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