The Drama School Grad’s Guide to Acting In London

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Photo Source: Backstage. Illustration – Chanté Timothy

Congratulations! You’ve graduated from drama school and are ready to face the professional world. It’s an incredibly exciting time, but it can also be overwhelming and nerve-racking. You’ve had great training and now it’s time to put it to use—but how? Where do you start? As you prepare to get out there, bear in mind that it takes tenacity, strategy, and luck to work in this business. You have to understand all the materials you need and use them to sell yourself optimally. So, from one recent grad to another, here’s some information on the side of this career that training doesn’t teach you—the business.

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How can I take a great headshot, and why is it important?

Headshots are your calling card to potential employers, so it’s so important to make a great impression.

It’s how you present yourself to the industry, and it’s the first thing a casting director or agent will see of you, so it could be the difference between getting called in or not. For a new drama school grad, money is always going to be an issue, but headshots are worth stretching to invest in.

That said, it is possible to get professional headshots on a student budget. Headshot photographers in London generally start at around £150–200. The most expensive photographer doesn’t always deliver the best shots; shop around and look at the sample shots on multiple photographers’ websites and decide based on whose shots you think will represent you the best. It is imperative that your headshots are top-notch when you graduate, so it is worth saving up to pay the professional photographer of your choice.

For detailed information on headshots and how to prepare for your shoot, check out The UK Actor’s Headshot Guide. And where do you find these photographers? Luckily, Backstage has done the hard work for you!

How do I make a good showreel?

You make a good showreel by knowing what and who it is for.

Casting directors don’t want to waste time calling you in if you’re not right for a role, so your showreel must show off your type and your best work. But you’re just out of drama school with no footage—so what should you do? Here are the options:

Go pro: You could hire a professional showreel service to film some scenes to start you off. That gets you to the stage where you’re booking work and thereby getting new clips to add to your reel. Make sure you research the company and watch its cinematography reels to make sure its work is top quality—you want it to look like it has come out of a professional movie.

Go DIY: The next option is to film your own stuff. Get together with a group of drama school friends, write something that exemplifies your types, hire a cinematographer and sound person (unless you have a friend who does this professionally), and film it together. It’s a great way to practice your skills with friends while getting footage for your reel. If you’re a recent grad with no funds to spare on hiring people, don’t worry—some casting agents just want to see that your acting is good, so film a great scene, self-tape–style, at home. Just make sure the sound and image quality is high, though a phone camera will be good enough. Check that the camera is steady, the lighting is good, you’re wearing an appropriate outfit, and your acting is spot-on.

READ: The UK Actor’s Guide to Successful Self-Taping

Go student: The final option is student films. Many students have access to professional-grade equipment through their university, so you can get high-quality material. It can also be a great way to get footage while meeting the next generation of filmmakers. Be judicious and make sure the quality and script are top-notch to ensure it will be an asset to your reel. Many great film schools put up casting notices on Backstage to find their actors, so the Backstage Casting pages are a great resource for finding these gigs.

And what goes on it? For seasoned actors, your reel shows off your professional work and demonstrates you’ve been approved by other professionals. For new grads, your reel shows off your skill as an actor so casting directors know they can trust you to do a good job.

You need to draw the viewer in, command the screen, and show versatility, experience, and consistent, high-quality work. A great showreel is key to getting your foot in the door and standing out among all the new graduates.

Your reel should show your name, headshot, agent contact information (if you have one), and your Backstage link. Then it should be a series of varied clips, making the whole reel two to three minutes long. Make sure you put the strongest scene that exemplifies your type first in order to hook them in in the first few seconds.

How do I use Backstage Casting in the UK?

Your Backstage profile is a great resource to jump-start your acting career—find out how to use it here.

Make sure your profile has your most recent information and materials. Backstage is chock-full of casting calls from all over the world, so use the filters to find the perfect projects for you. Having media can help elevate your profile, so make sure to upload your showreel. Backstage has so many castings for theatre, film, web series, commercials, musicals…you name it! Make sure to only apply for jobs that fit your casting. I always make it a routine to set aside 30 minutes to one hour every weekday morning to check Backstage, apply to any pertinent castings, and stay on top of what is happening in my industry to ensure I don’t miss anything. The industry moves fast, so it’s important to stay up to date.

Backstage is also a great place to connect with directors, producers, and fellow actors in your area. We all know how important building a network is, especially if you’re fresh out of drama school, and Backstage is a great starting point.

And after drama school, many people may be looking for representation. Backstage’s Call Sheet lists over 900 agents and managers. Start by using the filters to find the right rep for you based on location and what you’re looking for, then research the results to see who is a good fit.

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What is Equity and what can it do for me?

Equity is the trade union representing actors in the UK, and it offers robust support for every aspect of your career.

Equity’s job is to advocate for artists on equal opportunities, equal pay, health and safety, and any concerns its members have. It offers accident insurance and career advice alongside many other benefits. Membership fees are based on your earnings, so it’s affordable for new graduates. Equity’s events are a great place to meet new people, and the union can provide support if the industry feels overwhelming.

Adam Pettigrew is chair of the Equity Young Members Committee. He tells Backstage what membership can do for new graduates: “Along with securing and improving rates of pay, breaks, and all the terms and conditions while working, Equity is also a community. Being freelance can be very isolating, so it’s important to be part of a group who can support you, be that with events, career advice, and even a tax helpline! You are probably the most vulnerable to exploitation when you first graduate or enter the industry, so it’s a no brainer to join together with over 45,000 like-minded people to help protect and look out for each other.”

READ: What Is Equity + Why Should You Care?

What is my “acting type” and how do I market myself?

Type is a combination of characteristics: gender, age range, physicality, job, and personality. Every single actor has a type, and when marketed optimally it can get you work.

Type is one of the most important things when starting out as an actor, yet one that many graduates struggle to get their heads around. In drama school you’re training, so they stretch and challenge you by casting you in all kinds of roles. Will this happen at the start of your professional career? Probably not.

To find your type—aside from your obvious physical attributes—it can be helpful to ask around. Ask your peers, colleagues, and former teachers to describe you, honestly, in three adjectives, and write down the most common answers. Your training can also help you as you think about defining your brand. Think of the roles you played in your shows during training: Is there a similar thread through them all that could help you narrow down how your casting is perceived? A particular character trait? Did you always play the teacher? Best friend? Lawyer? When you watch movies, TV shows, or plays, is there a particular actor that is similar to you, roles that are perfect for you, or styles of show that fit you best? I found it helpful to come up with five adjectives and five jobs that I most commonly played, plus three actors and five existing roles (in different shows and films) that exemplified my type. Then I wrote those down and bam, that is my wheelhouse!

Once you have your type, you have to market it effectively. This is where brand comes in. Brand is a combination of your type, who you are, what you’re passionate about, and how you want to use your voice. Make sure your headshots show the range of that wheelhouse (that’s what different looks are for!); make sure the scenes in your reel exemplify that type; and make sure your social media presence is on-brand. Social media is becoming more and more important, and if an industry professional stumbles upon your Instagram, you want them to see you as a consummate professional and immediately get a sense of your brand. Think about what you post, what your captions say, even your colour scheme and how that can enhance your brand as an actor.

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How do I write to casting directors and agents?

You probably met some casting directors and agents at your drama school showcase and hopefully a few wanted you to be in touch.

 Writing to them in a prompt, professional fashion could make or break your relationship with them. You want to make the best first impression. They have seen you act and are interested in you, but now you need to show them that you are a friendly, competent, and consummate professional that they will have an easy time working with.

For those you’ve not met, the most important thing is to research how they like to be contacted. Some want email, some regular mail, some none at all, and you don’t want to start off on the wrong foot by doing it wrong. Keep cover letters short, professional, and individual—they don’t want a generic letter you’re sending everyone, so tell them why you admire or want to work with that specific person. If they are someone you met at a showcase, mention that! Agents go to multiple showcases, so it’s useful to remind them where and when you met. Make sure your cover letter is to the point and uses professional language and greetings. Attach your up-to-date Backstage or Spotlight link with your headshots and reel. People are busy and no one wants to be spammed with hundreds of emails, so if you don’t get a response, don’t worry—and don’t send more emails. Only contact people again if you have news (such as a show invitation), to thank them for an audition, or if they are casting something you are absolutely perfect for.

What do I do at networking events?

My No. 1 tip is to be your most positive, professional self.

Networking is definitely not most actors’ favourite word! For most of us, it’s one of the most dreaded parts of this industry. But it’s a necessity, and good networking can cultivate life-changing industry relationships.

Networking can happen in so many ways, from attending events like film festivals, screenings, Q&A sessions, and fringe festivals—Intermission’s London edition can be a great place to find the right events to meet the people you want to meet!—to online, where you can follow and connect with industry professionals on Twitter or Instagram.

Once you’re in the room and making connections, how do you keep them? Firstly, stay interested in other people. While you may want to talk about what you’re up to, make sure you’re genuinely asking questions about other people’s lives, interests, and work. Listen to their answers, respond to them, and care about what they say. This tip will transform networking events from awkward evenings of talking about yourself to stimulating conversation and meeting new friends.

Secondly, add value to people’s lives—don’t just expect them to help you. If one of your connections needs help, help out, or if you know someone perfect for a particular job, make the introduction. This way, you can maintain a reputation as a kind, professional, reliable person who makes things happen and supports your peers. Finally, consistently follow up! When you meet someone, make sure to follow up with a thank-you. Make sure you’re staying in touch—every six months is a good benchmark. Reach out with your news or to check in, to congratulate them on their successes, and to invite them to events you are going to or shows you’re in. And remember to have fun—creating relationships with new people should be enjoyable. It adds value to your life as well as being imperative to your acting career.

READ: 7 Tips for Networking in the Film Industry

How do I learn to love auditioning?

It’s all about mindset!

The nature of this business means that a lot of your time will be spent auditioning—something you may not have done since you auditioned for drama school—and that gets many actors down. My biggest tip is to fall in love with the audition process. I know it sounds impossible, but it’s about adopting the right attitude.

Auditioning is giving you a chance to do what you love, so savour it! You’ve been called in because there is a possibility you’re exactly what they need—you are solving their casting problem. So, get out of the mindset of obsessing about what they are thinking of you, as you’ll never be able to tell. And, often, what we think were the worst auditions are the ones we end up booking, right? All you can be is yourself. You, exactly as you are, will be right for something, so don’t go in there and try to be a different actor—do it your way. You never know, you might show them something they never expected but decide they love.

Casting directors know that auditioning is often a painful, scary process. They understand! And they’re rooting for you; they want you to nail it, because if you do, they have successfully completed their job! So, try not to be scared of them. Take deep breaths, focus, and walk in with a smile on your face. Be professional, kind, and positive; they don’t just want to see your talent, they want to know if you’re someone that people could stand to work with for hours on end in a rehearsal room or on set—and someone they can trust to send into those environments—so make a good impression! It’s OK to be nervous—they expect you to be—but try to enjoy yourself.

It’s very tempting to compare yourself to the other people in the waiting room, to your friends, to your peers—and nothing gets an actor down more than that. Focus on changing the way you measure success. Instead of measuring against others, measure against yourself. Do you feel your audition technique improving? Did you get called into the same casting office again? Are you making meaningful connections in your professional life? Everyone’s paths are different, and the surest way to stay sane is to stop the comparison with your peers. Your stress about how you fare compared to others will only shoot you in the foot and distract you in auditions.

And, finally, after you walk out of the audition room, get on with your day. Reflect on what you can learn from it for a few minutes, sure, but then leave it behind, do something else, and enjoy your day. Don’t consume your life with self-criticism and waiting for the phone to ring.

What are the best small theatres in London?

Small, fringe, and Off–West End theatres are a great way to keep up to date on what’s hot in the industry, so these are the ones you need to know.

They are also great places to meet or experience up-and-coming actors, directors, writers, and theatre-makers. Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush presents an array of new work from writers that often go on to become big names in the theatre scene. Arcola Theatre in Dalston is a great place to see work from emerging theatre companies. Camden People’s Theatre supports new artists. Gate Theatre in Notting Hill boasts some of London theatre’s heavy hitters as its previous artistic directors. Southwark Playhouse is a great venue to see a huge array of work ranging from new plays to classic musicals. Kiln (formerly Tricycle) Theatre in Kilburn is the place to see plays that will probably go on to have a long life, so you can see them before they transfer to a bigger venue. The Young Vic is not particularly small, but it’s an Off–West End powerhouse and a UK drama agenda-setter.

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