I've gotten a number of emails over the years asking about how to get started as a professional actor. People always want to know the best and safest route. I'm here to give you advice (from the actors perspective) on some steps to take and have compiled a list of 10 stepping stones that will take you far as you build your business and begin your career. I say "your business" because as an actor today, you have to manage a number of different aspects of your career in order to excel and thrive. A friend of mine, Leslie Becker, has written a fantastic book on all the parts the actor needs to play called The Organized Actor: Build Your Business Book. She has also written another amazing book called The Organized Actor: The Workbook and Planner for the Serious Actor. These are two fantastic resources that would be wise to have on hand. Leslie has been successful in the business for over 20 years now and her advice is invaluable. So, let's begin shall we?
The right training will make you feel so relieved that you got training because you didn't even know that you had no idea what you were doing before! (Trust me, I'm learning this as I receive my musical theater education from Pace University.) If you wouldn't consider yourself a particularly strong musician, it is extremely helpful to find a vocal coach and a voice teacher. Let me take a minute to explain the difference between the two. A vocal coach will help you build your book, they will teach you the songs, bang out the notes and make recordings for you to practice with. They will help you develop an emotional and vocal arch throughout the song and will assist you with the acting aspects of the piece. They make sure the rhythms are correct, but that you have made the song your own and they encourage you to develop style and individuality. They also help you figure out the right 16 & 32 bar cuts for each piece. A voice teacher teaches you how to sing correctly with support and placement, they work on the songs given to you by your vocal coach and may give their own material (not necessarily material that is appropriate for auditions, but rather material that will develop your voice and that focuses on your weak areas), they teach you all about your instrument, how to use it properly, how to care for it, how to warm-up efficiently etc. This is not to say that the two instructors duties never overlap, and that you should have two different people who you go to regularly. However, you should try to find someone who is the best of both worlds. Someone who is an efficient musician (someone who plays piano extremely well), who has experience acting or teaching, and who gives you advice on placement and vowels etc. It is always good to have an arsenal of a few names who you like working with, as people are very busy in this business and you never want to be stuck without any help the day before a big audition.
At some point, it is extremely valuable to focus on your musicianship. Walking into a rehearsal and being the only person who doesn't know which note on the staff the composer is telling you to change to a half note feels awful. Establish a basic foundation of music theory. This will be invaluable when you begin working and will impress and relieve every music director you come across. You can achieve this education from books, classes or even from YouTube videos and websites. Do it and understand it. I promise, you'll thank me.
It is great to have an acting coach who can help you with auditions that come your way. Every time I have a big audition, I always see and acting coach and I continue to feel so relieved every time I do. They are so helpful and they really ensure that you put in all of the work and are showing your best self in the room. I also suggest taking different acting classes in the city or at your local performing arts center. Take an Adler class or a Meisner class. Buy the "Greats" books (Respect for Acting, An Actor Prepares, On Acting, Acting: The First Six Lessons, and many more) and read about all the methods and find out what you like best and try to apply it to your acting. Pick and choose and create your own method that works specifically for you. Keep an eye out for casting directors who also often offer master classes. These are great opportunities to learn and to network. You will find out exactly what that person likes to see in the room and how to impress them. You can find out about these kinds of opportunities on playbill.com or backstage.com.
Lastly, build yourself a solid foundation of dance training. Take a few dance classes a week and focus initially on Ballet. I know, not many people enjoy Ballet. I never did, until I found the right teacher who made it a blast for me. Ballet can be painful if your not having fun, so try different teachers until you've found the one who fits you best (that goes for everything, not just dance). It's ok to not like someone's teaching style. Focus intensely on ballet (it is the basis of everything), then take some classes in Musical Theater Dance, Jazz, Tap, Hip Hop even take a Salsa class or two! You need to be able to learn fast and move on stage and all of that comes with practice. There are tons of different dance studios in the city (Steps, Broadway Dance Center, Alvin Ailey and Dance Molinari for kids) so take advantage of them!
Like I said, find teachers, places and methods that you like and that work for you and stick with them. With dedication and passion, you will thrive.
2. Your Song Book:
As you develop your repertoire of songs, keep in mind that every song in your book needs to showcase a part your best self. You should have no more than 12 or 13 songs in your book. Some people may dispute this claim, as I've seen many actors with two inch binders and 30 songs, but I am of the opinion that if you pick the right pieces for you, you only need 10-12 songs. Your music should be in sheet protectors in a 1" or 1.5" binder. You should have an index of your songs in the front so that you can rattle them off if need be and if you want to get crazy (like me) you can tab every song and cut so they are simple to find and the accompanist can flip to a song without your assistance should the casting director ask you to sing something else right away. I also have three copies of the three or four songs I perform most in my book. One of the full song, one with the very clearly marked 32 bar cut and only the necessary pages for that cut, and one with the very clearly marked 16 bar cut and only the necessary pages for that cut. Not everyone does this, but like I said, I'm a little crazy and really love organization and clarity.
The 12 songs you select should all showcase your voice and personality as much as possible. You should have a variety of belt, legit, mix, contemporary and classical. No two songs should really sound the same. You should have one "Character Song" (a song that is fun and funny and guarantees a good time for everyone in the room). This may not be your go-to song, and you may not use it often but it's always good to have. You should have songs with big vocal and character arches and songs with great money notes. However, don't ever go into an audition and belt your highest notes to impress. A composer once told me that he never wants to be shown everything in the first audition. He compared it to dating; you never give it all away on the first date. Leave them wanting to see more of you, not feeling like they've seen it all. You should have one or two soft, sad numbers but be very careful in deciding when you sing these. Only sing them if you are specifically auditioning for a role that really can relate to that song, never at an open call or first audition. It's better to leave them cheering for you than crying for you. Eleven o'clock numbers are good to have as well, as long as they're not too overdone or depressing. You will find yourself singing your two or three favorite songs at a lot of your auditions. That's great! But, be cautious of that and keep a log of what you sing for who. You don't want the same casting director to hear you sing "On My Own" three times (by the way, don't use that song - it's extremely over done).
To find the sheet music for songs you can create an account on musicnotes.com. This will be your primary resource for sheet music. Every singer everywhere has an account. Thank goodness for technology!
3. Headshot & Resume:
Your headshot and resume are extremely important representations of you as a person and as a professional. They must showcase your personality through colors, expressions and fonts. This is your chance to grab attention and make the casting director want to meet you or work with you!
Your headshots should be professionally done. This is one area of your business where you should spend the money to do it right. The only exception to this would be children. Children have to get their headshots redone much more often than adults, so for the first and second sets, it would be ok to not have them professionally done. However, this means that you should recruit a friend with a professional camera, and a little bit of experience, to help you get good pictures. This will be much cheaper than getting them done professionally. Never use school photos for children. For your headshots, you should wear simple clothing and solid colors. For men, a simple t-shirt that compliments the eyes is great. For women, a nice blouse or sleeveless top in a color that compliments your eyes works well. Makeup should be very minimal. You only want to enhance your features. No smoky eyes or bold lips for your headshots. Go as natural as possible and let them see your true beauty. You should do your hair as you would expect to do it for the majority of your auditions. Casting wants to see you look like your headshot when you walk into the room. So if your hair is curled in all of your headshots, you should curl your hair for all of your auditions. If you want to be able to walk into the room with curly or straight hair, then get two different sets of headshots done, one set with curly hair, one set with straight hair. The background for your headshots should be simple and minimal. Plain backgrounds are great (whites and greys work well) and your background should never be distracting or pull focus at all. You should take a bunch of pictures with different smiles and expressions. It is great to have a variety of headshots to chose from when going in for different roles. You should tell the photographer that you would like to take photos where you look younger than your age, and where you look older than your age. These are also great to have depending on the project. During the photo shoot, make sure to use your eyes. They should be captivating and the focus of the picture. It sounds funny, but you must master the smize:
1. To smile with ones eyes.
e.g Tyra Banks
Backstage.com has a great article on headshots called 7 Tips for a Better Headshot. It is a wonderful resource that you can take a second to read it and get some great advice.
Your resume should also be extremely reflective of who you are as a professional and as a person, it should showcase your personality. Your name should always be the biggest thing on the page and it should fill at least the top inch of the margin. Your name should be in a font that is reflective of you, but still be easily legible. Cursive doesn't generally work well for your resume and I would advise against it. The font should be bold enough to stand out (don't use the light version of a font) and in a color that represents you. If you are a bubbly person, perhaps you might change the color of your name to pink and use a fun font. If you cant seem to find a font that you like, just Google free fonts and tons of great websites have thousands of options. Then just follow instructions to installing them. You can add some simple design elements to your resume, such as simple boarders or solid color text boxes (for your name) but be careful of adding too much design or color. The body of your resume should stay in a rather neutral font that compliments your name and in black. Get creative with your resume and develop something that will stand out in a pile of 100. Try to tie in the design elements and colors throughout the whole resume. You should use no more than two colors. You can even tie in the colors of your resume to the colors you wore in your headshot for a really nice touch. I saw an adorable resume once, with the name in a pink fun font and a blue stitched border. The girl was wearing pink and blue in her headshot and it matched perfectly and looked adorable and I could tell just by looking at them that she was a sweet, creative, fun girl!
Use text boxes or tabs to properly align each column (using the columns tool itself gets too complicated and frustrating. Text boxes are your friend!) Make sure you have your contact information (just an email is fine if you have representation), your union affiliations, your website and the contact information for your agent. You don't have to put your age or year of graduation on your resume. List your most valuable experiences first and then work from there. You should have no more than three columns with the production/ film, your role, and the director or location of the production/film. Education is great for your resume if you received a degree in the performing arts and training is also useful. Be creative with your special skills and only list the things that you are great at, as the casting director might ask you to show them a skill and they can be a great conversation starters.
Word is a great program to use for creating your resume. I used Photoshop CS6 to create mine below but, everything I did in Photoshop, is doable in Word with text boxes and shapes and lots of sending things forwards and backwards. Remember that your headshot and resume must both be 8x10. This means you must cut your 8.5 x 11 resume to fit your 8 x 10 headshot. So don't forget this when you are formatting your resume!
Kelsey Fowler's resume for design suggestions. Please do not duplicate or steal the format or design. This is merely for inspiration.
Start looking for auditions as soon as you have a solid 10-12 songs in you book, the appropriate cuts and professional headshots and resumes (cut properly and stapled together). Go out to open calls for any role you think you are right for. In the beginning, the point is to be seen by more and more casting directors and people. You have to work to establish yourself. You want to be in a position where the casting directors start remembering you and your name. You can look for open calls on backstage.com and playbill,com. These are two fantastic resources for looking for auditions. You can even send your headshot and resume, with a nice professional cover letter telling a little bit more about yourself and what kind of projects you would love to audition for, to agents, managers and big casting directors like Telsey and Tara Rubin. You never know who might see that letter and your info or what they may be casting in the future. Sing songs that showcase your best self and leave them wanting to see more of you.
Your attire for your audition should be professional, clean and a reflection of the character, show or time period you are auditioning for. You do not want to think of your outfit as a "costume" but rather a means of helping you connect to the character you are portraying. For women, if you are auditioning for the stage, a nice dress is more often then not, the right way to go. You would accompany that with a nice nude or black heel. When auditioning for the screen, nice jeans or dress pants and a nice blouse work well. As I said before, make sure you look like your headshot (hair, makeup etc).
It's normal to be nervous for auditions. Everyone gets nervous, but don't let your nerves consume you. Remind yourself of how prepared you are and how you are simply going in there and letting them get to know you through a song. I always eat a banana before a big audition. Someone told me, once, that the potassium helps ease your nerves and it usually works for me! Be confident, collected and professional and you will have a successful audition.
I suggest keeping a detailed log of all of the auditions you went on for the given year. This log should include:
All of this information is very helpful to look back on. You can see who has seen you many times, and what you have sung for them, you can see what you wore to your audition so that you can wear the same thing to the callback, you can recall any notes the director or casting director gave you to work on etc. When you are auditioning all of the time, these things are easy to forget and keeping a log is very important and useful. Plus, at the end of the year, you can take a good look at how hard you've worked and how it has payed off.
There is an abundance of resources to help you as you are getting started in the business. There are books, websites, videos, articles, blogs and so much more. Go out and look for different reads. Attain all of the advice you can get your hands on, from everyone's point of view: actors, directors, casting directors, book writers, composers, agents etc. You can always learn more. Allow yourself to crave more knowledge, wisdom and advice. Don't accept everything you're told as law. Evaluate it all for yourself, and formulate your own opinions through experiences and trial and error. I've listed and linked many different resources throughout this article, here I have compiled them all plus a few more:
Articles and Extras:
Representation in the industry is extremely beneficial, if not necessary. The right agent or manager will get you the best auditions and opportunities for you, opportunities that you would not be able to get for yourself, no matter how many connections you may have and how hard you try. It is their job to establish contacts and connections far greater than any that you could establish on your own. It is also the agent's job to negotiate on your behalf. They know what is reasonable to ask and they advise and guide you along with the contracts and all the legal processes. Agents give actors credibility and professionalism. Actors with agents are taken more seriously by people in the industry.
When searching for representation, I encourage you to do your research. When you find an agency you might be interested in working with, see what other actors are with them and how/what they are doing. Getting representation can be difficult, but there are many ways to go about obtaining it. You can send out or personally deliver your headshot and resume to any agency you'd like to be represented by. Send along a nice cover letter detailing why you think you'd be a good match and what you have to offer. Most agencies want to see some of your work before signing you. So invite agents to any projects you might be currently working on so they can see you in action. Send along a video reel of your best work or invite them to your showcase at your university.
If you are fortunate enough to get a meeting with potential representation, you want them to be passionate and excited about you. When I was first starting out, we met with a manager who just didn't seem all that interested in me and what I had to offer and it made me feel like I wasn't going to be the first person she sent out for that great audition! So even though she wanted to sign me, we held off until we found the right match. Someone who really liked me and said they'd be thrilled to represent me. You also want to make sure that you feel extremely comfortable talking with your agent. You don't want to be scared to approach them about something or too intimidated to turn down that audition for that role you aren't comfortable with. It should be an open and communicative relationship so they understand your ambitions and dreams and can do their best to help you achieve them!
This is a BIG one. Just living in New York City allows you to build a huge network of "weak links". The summer after I graduated from High School, my dad showed me this Ted Talk (I highly recommend Ted Talks, they are great and full of insight and wisdom from some of the worlds greatest professionals) called "Why 30 is not the new 20". In this Ted Talk, Meg Jay mentions "Weak Ties" ( I prefer to call them "weak links"). Your "weak links" are the "friends of friends of friends." She continues to explain, "Half of new jobs are never posted, so reaching out to your neighbor's boss is how you get that un-posted job. It's not cheating. It's the science of how information spreads." You create "weak links" when you strike up a conversation with that person in Starbucks whose holding a playbill. Soon you come to find out that they are married to a casting director at Telsey. Crazy things like that actually happen in New York! It's the best place to be to pursue your dreams through your "weak links".
The more you see these people around, the more they remember you. Even on an island with 1.6 million people, it's still a small world and you will see people you know everywhere. I encourage you to always say "Hi!" and never answer the question, "So, what are you doing now?" with, "Oh, not much..." Let these people know what your up to and what you're looking to do next! Even if it is a little slow and you're not currently working on anything big. Tell them about that great audition you just had, or that awesome reading you did a few months back... you never know who their "weak links" are.
Another huge part of networking is attending every show, concert, cabaret, reading, workshop, showcase, birthday party etc. that you can. Always try your best to attend. This has been huge for me in the last four months. Now, these events can get costly, I know, but it's worth it when you continue to see some of your "weak links" who begin to introduce you to some of their friends and their "weak links". Many times you'll end the night not even believing the people you just met, the conversations you just had and how small the world really is.
A wonderful friend and teacher of mine, Alexandra Silber, has written an extraordinary post on networking and everything you need to know to build yourself a strong, powerful network. Please take a look!
We live in a day and age where unlimited, instant information is available at the edge of our fingertips. Media, in all it's forms, has become an indispensible element in our industry, and this fact only continues to become more legitimate every single day. Because so much information is so easily available, the casting process has become more efficient. When a casting director is looking to fill 25 spots and they have 50 agent submissions to comb through, they may take to the web to scope out some of their options. You must establish an internet presence for yourself as a professional. You want it to be impossible for someone to find absolutely nothing about you when they Google your name. So what does this presence entail?
A website would be the first step. Make sure you buy your domain name right away and get started on developing a website that contains all of the information anyone could ever be looking for in one, organized place. You can develop your website on your own, or you can hire someone to do it for you. However, if you hire someone, make sure that you can easily access your website so that you can keep it updated regularly. It should have your contact info, your agent's contact info, resume, headshots, production photos, videos, interviews, social media accounts, etc. An actor with a professional website and lots of material that showcases them well will get the audition over the actor who has no online presence.
YouTube is also a great resource for actors to showcase their stuff. Whenever you are performing at a concert, cabaret, community production or any venue that will allow recording, ask a friend to film you with a good camera. Even a good I-phone video will suffice as long as it hasn't been compressed from sending too many times to where it's extremely grainy. Only upload your best, most current material. You don't want professionals to be turned off by an "ok" performance that you did years ago.
Lastly, social media is another huge medium for exposure and has become essential to one's business. A strong, positive presence on social media shows the world (industry professionals and public admirers alike) what you are all about. It can even become something that casting professionals look to when making a difficult decision between two excellent performers. When one candidate has a positive, favorable, professional presence on social media and a significant number of followers and another candidate has a negative, unbecoming, immature presence on social media, lacking a decent number of followers, the professionals making the decision will choose the actor who is more professional and who will bring more positive attention to the production. That actor will likely bring more audience members (their followers) to the show as well and I have heard of this also being a factor.
Casting Directors Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley were interviewed for Playbill.com's "Booking It!" series and the advice they give on media presence is fantastic. Take a look!
Ps: the rest of that article is just as great, so read the whole thing!
Last, but certainly not least; notes. I am a big notes person. I think there is nothing kinder than a thoughtful, handwritten note on nice stationary thanking someone for something they did for you or for an experience they gave you. Almost everyone I've ever worked with has received some sort of letter or card from me and, let me tell you, people remember them. They leave the best impression and show your coworkers that you really appreciate them and the time you've spent getting to know them. Get yourself some nice stationary, and write notes. When a production, workshop, reading, concert etc. comes to an end, write thank you notes to the creative team and anyone else you think is appropriate. After years of practicing writing notes, I can say that they truly do have lasting impacts.
So, in short, invest in your craft, research everything, be creative, say yes often, develop your "brand", work hard, always be kind and professional and you will be remembered and will most definitely succeed and see your dreams come to fruition. I wish you all the best, Merde! And break many legs!