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Give Yourself Credits: A Special Guide to a Proper Resume

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Although it's definitely a plus, a great headshot alone won't usually get you work as an actor - your 8x10 photo definitely needs something to back it up. And that something, as we all know, is a solid resume. Across the board, industry representatives point out that a clear, concise, and current list of credits will more often than not prompt them to call a performer in for an interview or an audition. And, unless you are able to pay a professional printer to put your performances in place, that means you're going to have to consider, combine, and clean up your credits yourself.

Now before you throw out your present resume and start from scratch, assume the role of an agent or casting director again and take a long, hard look at that single sheet of paper. What do you see? Hopefully, you see something - something that you can focus on, something that looks structured and succinct, something that jumps out at you - and not just a solid block of words. A popular rule of thumb when it comes to formatting your resume is to leave some white space. Not only does it give the audition team space to write in glowing comments about your monologue or cold reading, it also takes the pressure off you to fill every line from margin to margin with past production and training details.

Choosing readable lettering styles and sizes is also important, so steer clear of fancy fonts on your computer. Casting director Bob Kale suggests, "Avoid lighter fonts, and try to bold your text. Sometimes the light isn't good in the audition room, or if you're fortunate enough to be auditioning in a theatre, often we're just sitting behind a table with a little lamp. So it's better to have bolded text." Actor-director David Pincus also feels that "typesetting and layout are important. Remember to make it look pleasing to the eye."

Let's say your printing passes the test. Continue reading your resume as if it's the first time you are seeing it. If one of the main things you notice is your name, that's a good sign. Bold, centered, or off-center right up top, and easy to read, it should be the most prominent thing on the page. Next should come all the contact info, whether it be agency and management specifics or simply your service number (never your home phone) and email address (if you intend to check your account on a daily basis). If you're in any unions (or eligible to join them) - including Actors Equity Association (AEA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG), or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) - noting the appropriate abbreviations near the top is standard practice. Talent agent Dave Bennett checks for an actor's union status right away.

Moving on to the personal statistics section: Height, weight, hair and eye color, vocal range if you're a singer, measurements and clothing sizes if you're a model. For obvious security reasons, do not put your social security number or address. You can give all that info when you're signing the contract.

Credit Statement

Time to give yourself credits. This is the area that is most flexible and also most crucial. Most people in the know explain what they want to see here in this manner - put your most prominent credits first. For stage actors, this may mean placing theatre above film and television, dividing credits into NYC and regional, and giving priority to Broadway and Off-Broadway work over Off-Off and community show experience. For screen veterans, studio films and network offerings will likely take precedence over independent features, student projects, and cable access ventures. Strong singer-dancers can opt to put musicals front and center; comic types may want to focus on the lighter fare first.

If you fit more than one category, don't fret - you can always create different versions with alternating credit groupings, and in effect have a separate resume for all occasions. Director Glory Sims Sims Bowen likes to see personalized resumes. "If you want to be called in for the role of a rabbi's daughter, it's good to mention that you've played parts similar to that character - like mentioning you were in 'Fiddler on the Roof' twice. You should modify your resume for the part you want to be called in for, so that you make it clear you are the correct type." Manager Eric Hanson cautions, however, against trying to cover too much ground. "The biggest mistake actors make is to think they are talented enough to play every role. Define who you are as a performer and then hone in on it. Marketing yourself is one of the most important aspects of your career." In every case, Bennett strongly advises to "be honest about credits - if it is background work, be straightforward about that."

Regardless of the order in which they appear, most credits fall neatly into three columns - title, character (you may want to clarify each role with a description of how important the part was), and venue. Respected directors can be added next to the theatre, studio, or company name, and will be a conversation starter for anyone familiar with their body of work.

Naomi Kolstein says her agency likes to see directors listed and the specific roles. "List the name of each character you've portrayed and whether it was lead, supporting, featured, recurring, etc." Personal manager Josselyne Herman-Saccio concurs. "You may even want to list the capacity of the role instead of the character name. That will tell the casting director how big a role you have handled. The character name means little to anyone unless they are very familiar with the piece."

Again, it is best to suppress the desire to squeeze everything you've ever done into this small space. Younger performers may only have a few shows under their belts - everyone in the industry understands that you have to start somewhere. Longtime pros who boast an endless array of legit plays, musicals, movies, and sitcoms should highlight the most recent or highest-profile projects and taper off the credits from there. And a plethora of credits is not always the only sign of castability, according to casting director Bernie Telsey. "For me, it's not so much looking at the credits. I look for something on the resume that tells me more about the person. If an actress lists a tiny project in New Jersey, but it was directed by someone I know and I like the director's taste, and I see he hired her for 'The Goat,' that will help me decide whether or not to bring her in."

Right below the credit section, feel free to add in additional information, such as commercials you've booked (although most people put "list available upon request" and leave it at that), industrial jobs (often a worthwhile sideline), stand-up comedy gigs (show them the funny), voice-overs (lucrative but frequently difficult to land), and miscellaneous credits. New media credits such as CD-ROMs and video games are becoming more and more common, good news for any actor seeking alternative avenues of income.

Now you're in training, and anything from schools you attended to workshops you've taken can be listed here. Specifying the names of instructors you've studied with for acting, dance, voice, and other disciplines not only shows your level of commitment, but might also spark a sign of recognition from those who are considering your resume. Director Stephen Burdman seeks out actors with "good training - usually an M.F.A. program or extensive classical credits."

What's So Special?

Okay, you probably think you're home free at this point. All that's left to do is slap a few special skills together - like driving a stick-shift car, doing a cockney accent, and perhaps adding in swimming or snow skiing - and you can head to Kinko's. Well, hold it right there - you may be guilty of overlooking one of the most important areas of interest on your resume.

So many acting jobs these days require more than just reading lines - that's why you'd be wise to rack your brain and come up with as many traits and talents you can think of to really take advantage of the special skills section.

Maybe you didn't think your background in puppetry would win you a Broadway role - check out the folks in "Avenue Q" or "Little Shop of Horrors." Sign language plays a big role in the current revival of "Big River." The long-running "Cabaret" features performers who play musical instruments, while hits like "The Lion King," "Stomp," and "Blue Man Group" employ all kinds of athletic attributes. Even if you are just good at hanging around, there are parts waiting for you in "De la Guarda," "Nine," and "Cirque du Soleil." And of course, in "Gypsy," almost everyone has a gimmick.

The bottom line: Don't skimp when it comes to stating your skills. You never know what might pique a person's curiosity and prompt them to put you on the call-in list. At the same time, don't embellish or exaggerate what you are capable of doing - you don't want to be put on the spot by being asked to do a handstand, speak fluent Russian, or yodel on cue. Like every other area of your professional resume, it doesn't pay to lie.

Back Stage asked both industry insiders and active actors to discuss this "special" subject, each of whom had some choice words of wisdom.

Kale relates, "I don't generally look at the special skills section. My eye usually glances down the right side of the resume where it says where the actor has worked. But we have called actors in based solely on special skills. It doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. One time I was looking for someone who did rope tricks. Well, an actor came in, and it ended up he could only do one rope trick. He didn't really do rope tricks - he just put it on his resume because it made it seem like he had more skills. So be careful of doing that."

Producer Mara McEwin cites a noteworthy example: "I have often called in actors because of something that was written in the special skills section. I just cast a benefit performance for our upcoming original work, 'Desert Travels.' I needed belly dancers, palm readers, etc., and I ended up calling in actors who had these things written in their special skills." Burdman likes to see "stage combat, physical/acrobatic training, and singing/musical skills. The other stuff is just filler. I never ask anyone to perform any of the 'outrageous' stunts that you might find in the special skills section, although I once saw someone imitating their cat coughing up a fur ball."

According to Telsey, performers should include as many pertinent talents as they can. "You never know what skills are needed for a project. And listing special skills is another way to let us know more about you as a person. Even if I'm looking through resumes for someone with a certain dialect and I find that a person can belly dance, that's one more second of time that that woman is in my brain. So I think special skills are important. One time I noticed that an actress could do an amazing Linda Blair 'Exorcist' imitation, and asked to see it. Now I'm not saying that got she got the job because of the imitation - although she did get the job - but it was just another thing that kept her in the memory of the creative team. She could sing and dance and act, ultimately, but everyone remembered her because of the 'Exorcist' thing."

A good piece of advice is to gauge whether your skills are special enough to point out. Director David Pincus warns, "Oftentimes, expertise in dialects is claimed, but the actual sound is far from what was hoped for." Eric Hanson adds, "Many special skills sections look like they have copied them from other resumes or books on resume writing. I do keep all resumes on file and highlight those with true special skills."

Submitted for Their Approval

All right, you have a flattering headshot and streamlined resume. The last step to getting noticed is getting your P&R in front of the powers that be. Bernie Telsey tells how to submit for maximum effect. "If you are sending in your photo and resume, it's always good to accompany it with a short cover letter that states specifically what project or role you are seeking. That helps us put you into the proper category. We are a big office, with eight casting agents. There's nothing wrong with general submissions, but we may be casting 30 roles the day your envelope arrives, and unless I can match you with what I'm casting that day, it goes into Neverland. But if you say you want to be seen for 'Hairspray,' it will go into the 'Hairspray' bin."

As far as submissions are concerned, not many people like to see long, drawn-out cover letters. A short, typed note or handwritten post-it will often work instead. New York Classical Theatre's Burdman encourages submissions with brief letters, or even no notes at all. "If you want to work with a person or company, get to know their work first - I am always happy to receive a picture and resume from someone who has seen our shows. But please, please, please do not write elaborate cover letters. Remember, you have about 20 seconds after I open your manila envelope to either interest me or not."

Due to the speed and postal savings, most casting notices in Back Stage do allow for submissions via email. If you do submit your p&r, make sure yours are in JPEG (.jpg) format and compact enough to view on screen easily (300x400 pixels is preferred). Otherwise, the photo will either be too large to view properly or will fail to open at all. Despite the advantages of computer communication, Sims Bowen still prefers getting P&Rs through snail mail. "I rarely audition actors who email me their resume/headshots. We get thousands of emails and it's impossible to go through them all and print them out. But a hard copy of the headshot/resume received through the mail will always be opened."

Talent Pool

Our eclectic ensemble of actors lists a variety of things on their special skills sections. J. Dolan Byrnes notes that he is a marathon runner, while Margaret Reed states that she is a mother (some might argue that's the same thing). Contrasting her passion for weightlifting and cooking at the bottom of her resume, chandra thomas also signifies that she has her CPR certification (a good skill to have regardless of whether you are a performer or not).

Deborah Craig boasts a "Fargo"-style accent, crying and burping on cue, speed talking, and doing impressions of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. "I have cheerleading on there, too. People have actually asked me to do cheers before. Sometimes it is for cheer-specific roles. And sometimes it is just because people want to watch you do cheerleading. I remember I went in for 'Debbie Does Dallas' and they wanted to see some real cheers. And I got a callback for that!"

No one can move one eye at a time like Jennifer Jiles - well, maybe one person. "If you can believe it, I had a meeting a few years back and the casting director showed me her version of moving one eye at a time. She did it better than me, I have to say. Actually, I used to have "balloon animals and face painting" on my resume. Then I got called to do balloon animals as a glorified extra on a feature film. It was in a clown outfit, so I turned it down. In hindsight, I should've gone for it. Could be some welcome residuals if I had gotten upgraded!!"

Then there's the story of "human pretzel" Melissa Gallo. "I've always been extremely flexible - I started dancing when I was five - so you could say I was born a pretzel, although that's not something that people always know about me. But I find that when I am in shows where the choreographer knows me, it's definitely something that they tend to showcase, my flexibility and extension. So while I was writing down my special skills, for two hours I was agonizing over what to include. I just kept thinking, 'I don't have any!' Then I said to myself, 'Okay, what do you do that most people can't do?' That's when I came up with the fact that I can bend into a human pretzel. Having something like that on your resume really catches the eye."

Jonathan Calindes displays proficiency with language and swordplay. "I put down that I can speak Filipino or do a Filipino accent. I also list that I have some stage combat experience with rapiers and broadswords."

Nicole Benisch is skilled as a DJ, soccer and basketball player, field hockey and yoga enthusiast. She reflects that her most unconventional skill is West African dance. "I have gotten auditions, but I have not been cast in anything yet because of my special skills."

Patrick Cohen is, among other things, a qualified personal trainer. "I think that most actors cannot list that they are a personal trainer, which makes me somewhat unique. That comes in handy when people are casting roles that are physically fit."

When he attends auditions as an actor, David Pincus uses his special skills as a way to break the ice. "Skillwise, I don't think my skills are that unique (although scuba diving and bungee jumping are pretty cool). What I try to do, however, is plug in interesting life experiences in that category in order to have something to talk about during the interview."

Versatile Brian Davis concludes, "Put everything you can do that you do very, very well. Because you never know that the lead role requires the actor to be able to swim a mile, roller blade, bicycle, jump rope, and be able to do dialogue at the same time. I just came from a golfing audition for a national commercial, and if you get called in for something like that, you better be able to swing the club and hit the ball!"

Special Delivery

Performers continually find ways to get their photos out there in the industry. Transparent envelopes make it easy for industry people to get a glimpse of what you look like (although, if you don't fit the profile of what they are looking for, it may enable them to discard the photo without opening the envelope to read the resume). Postcards and business cards featuring a performer's headshot and contact info are also effective.

Cohen relates the importance of doing a large mass mailing to agents and casting directors from time to time. "You should do a complete mailing each time you get a new headshot done. Also, I give a headshot to everyone I can convince to take one. So I find myself reordering reproductions on a pretty regular basis. Just make sure you always know how many you have left, and reorder right away to make sure that you don't ever completely run out."

Postcards work perfectly for Jiles. "It's a great way to keep in touch and send a thank-you note after a gig or interview. Also, to keep in touch after a booking, just to let them know I'm working, I simply list the dates I'm appearing or when a TV job airs." Actress chandra thomas uses postcards "to let folks know about upcoming performances and appearances." Reed creates her own card designs. "I send a four-by-six-inch personal note card with my picture on it. When I received a Best Featured Actress for 2003 notice, I added the highlights of the reviews and an announcement of the award on the card as well."

Multitalented performer Deborah Craig treats submissions as professionally as possible. "I always type out my labels. I use a professional manila envelope. I write a cover letter specific to the project. I never generate a mass letter. I always write, 'This is what I recently did. This is what I'm looking to do. This is why I'm interested in your project. And this is why I think I'm appropriate for your project.' " Benisch adds, "Even if they don't ask me to, if possible, I write the name of the character on the outside of the envelope somewhere."

Calindas usually submits P&Rs in a headshot-sized envelope with a backing board. "I make sure to staple my resume to the back, with the resume cut down to the correct size. (A paper cutter is a great investment.) I used to print my resume directly on the back of the headshot, but I found out that it smudges horribly, even after you think the ink has dried. Though it looks great, I don't think the casting people would appreciate that."

Resume Wrap-Up

Here are some closing thoughts on how to get your resume to shoot straight to the top of the pile on an agent or casting director's desk.

Jiles: "I copy it onto a nice blue paper that's easier to read than white (I think I read that in Back Stage one time!). And I change fonts with the titles, as well as bold the important things like my Emmy Award and celebrities I've worked with."

Byrnes: "If possible, have a reduced headshot inserted into the resume and place it at the bottom right corner. This attracts the reader's eye to scan down the entire page, and makes a resume stand out from the competition."

Gallo: "Keep your training section simple, particularly with dance credits. I used to include how many years I studied with each teacher, but it got so cluttered that my resume became all about training. Now, I just have each of the teachers' names on there, and some of the teachers are recognizable, so if people reading my resume recognize those names, they're going to know I can dance."

Calindas: "Make sure your resume is truthful, and that it expresses who you are and your abilities. It's okay to appear inexperienced - there are a lot of companies that are looking for more inexperienced actors. However, if you present yourself as a very experienced actor, it will be a letdown when your audition shows that you aren't."

Reed gets the final word on achieving resume success - "Consolidate."

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