Choosing an Acting School – Don’t Be a Lemming!

Dec08

1. A small, short-tailed, thickset rodent related to the voles, found in the Arctic tundra.
2. A member of a crowd with no originality or voice of his own. One who speaks or repeats only what he has been told.
3. A person who unthinkingly joins a mass movement, especially a headlong rush to destruction.

 

It’s that time of year again when full-time acting/drama schools are making offers of places to prospective students. Some of these talented individuals are in the fortunate position of receiving multiple offers and need to make a choice as to which training provider will best suit their individual needs; provide the best quality training; and give them the springboard into a professional acting career.

There are many factors for these future actors to consider including; experience and qualifications of teaching staff; facilities; location; reputation; alumni; curriculum content; production and performance opportunities (a good school will give you the opportunity to perform in full-length productions – not just scenes from plays or shows that are only compilations of monologues); industry exposure; quality and motivation of other students; ratio of screen vs stage experience (I believe that 1/3 screen and 2/3 stage is the right balance);  and many more relevant factors.

Unfortunately, I find far too many people placing too much importance on ‘reputation’ and what others (often unqualified and/or inexperienced individuals) think of the school and not enough on the other important factors mentioned above. Just because your uncle who used to be an amateur actor 30 years ago has never heard of a school it doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. Similarly, just because a famous actor graduated from a particular school in the past it doesn’t mean that the school was the main reason why they have been successful (the likelihood is that the famous actor in question most probably would have been successful no matter which school they attended or would have succeeded even if they didn’t undertake formal training at all! Success usually springs from the individual’s talent and work ethic etc rather than the influence of the school they attend).

The reality is that any accredited tertiary or vocational training institute will provide the basics in terms of qualified staff; facilities and curriculum etc. The choice then boils down to how well you are supported and nurtured during your training and whether or not you are provided with a learning environment that will allow your potential to be fulfilled during the 2 or 3 years of the course.

This is the area that needs to be fully researched before making your decision and often it comes down to intuition and ‘feel’. How were you treated during the auditions? Were they run efficiently? Was there time wasting or a lack of respect towards the candidates? Were you treated like an individual or herded like cattle from one room to another? Your audition experience will most likely reflect your student experience after enrollment.

In the end it’s best to trust your own instincts and judgement rather than taking the easy option of doing what everyone else is doing  (like a lemming jumping off a cliff) if you want to make the best possible choice of school and have a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Mark Matthews B.A. (Theatre); Dip. Ed. (Drama); M.A. (Directing); Cert IV TAE; Cert IV Small Business Mgt.

Managing Director – Sydney Theatre School

 

The Key to Becoming an Employable Actor

Jun23

I will often ask our students the following question: What does it take to be successful and to have a career as a professional actor? Often, the answer will be along the lines of: “talent“; “acting skills“; “training“; “a good  agent“; “luck“; “knowing the right people“; “going to NIDA“; “being in the right place at the right time“; or dozens of other factors.

Many of these things are important and some are not – it depends on the individual and there is no set path to success. However, they often fail to mention what I believe is the single most important factor when it comes to making a career as an actor and it is this:

In order to be employed (and re-employed) as an actor and develop a sustainable long-term career you need to be able to give directors what they need to do their job well.

Directors – especially in theatre – are the key decision makers when it comes to who gets the jobs and who doesn’t. If you are the type of actor who takes direction well; works hard; turns up on time; does research and preparation without being asked; contributes to the creative process with ideas and suggestions (at appropriate times) OR knows when they are working with a director who DOESN’T want ideas and suggestions and so doesn’t offer them; listens and observes proper rehearsal room etiquette; and a host of other helpful behaviours then directors will want to work with you (and they will probably tell their director colleagues how great you are to work with too!).

If you don’t do these things it doesn’t matter how much ‘talent’ you have; where you trained; who your agent is; or how lucky you are – you won’t get the jobs or – if you do – you will only work with a director once and they will tell all their director friends NOT to employ you in their productions.

Students; amateurs and semi-professionals who find it hard to get acting jobs place way too much emphasis on their ‘talent’ or acting ability and way too little on their ability to work-with and help directors to do their job.

I often observe (or hear) what’s happening in rehearsals from my office which is right next to our rehearsal space. Way too often I hear directors ask students to “please be quiet while I’m speaking” or asking “why haven’t you learnt your lines by now?” or “why haven’t you looked up the meaning of that word yourself?” or even “please don’t wait for me to tell you what to do – make an offer or use your own judgement“. Whatever the reason for this – fear; inexperience; immaturity; rudeness; self importance or whatever – these students/actors are not helping (in fact they are hindering) the director.  When they leave the school and try to enter the workforce as a professional actor, would the director want to employ such actors in their productions? Probably not.

On the other side of the coin, I have seen other students who work hard; listen; take direction well; build positive relationships with their director and peers; demonstrate reliability and punctuality; work hard outside of class on their voice exercises and journals etc who are offered roles in professional productions by the directors they work with at STS after graduation. This has very little to do with talent; luck or anything else mentioned previously and everything to do with the perception that the director has formed about the actor in terms of their ability to help them do their job well.

The most important thing students at STS need to learn is: IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU! In fact, quite the opposite is true. It’s about your ability to be a team player and to help others (especially directors) to look good and to do their job well. Learn this lesson and you will be well on your way to turning your passion (for acting) into a profession!

Mark Matthews – STS Course Director

Audition Preparation and Performance Tips

Jun16

Here is some advice and guidance for those who are preparing their audition monologues for our upcoming auditions in November. There are usually many more applicants than available places so preparation and hard work is required to be successful in securing an offer. Having seen many auditions for places at Sydney Theatre School in the past eight years, and also having auditioned many applicants for other drama schools and professsional productions, I have identified some problem areas and issues that commonly arise. Here are my top ten tips:
 
1)  CHOOSE AN APPROPRIATE PIECE

• A character or role you are likely to be cast in (ask others for their opinion if they know the play)
• A character close to your age, type, gender, physicality etc.
• Avoid using accents unless specifically requested

2)  PREPARE THOROUGHLY

• Read the play and identify the character’s objectives and actions
• Look up the meaning of words you don’t understand (esp. with Shakespeare)
• Check correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words (esp. with Shakespeare)
• Over-learn the lines and perform the piece for someone prior to the audition

3)  WARM UP PROPERLY BEFORE YOU ARRIVE

• May not be time or room to warm up at the venue
• Control your breath especially if you are nervous
• Project your voice (by using resonance – not shouting)

4)  TREAT THE AUDITION AS A PERFORMANCE

• Don’t stop during the audition unless asked by the panel
• Request a prompt or ask to hold the script only if you must (signifies lack of preparation/confidence)

5)  KEEP IT SIMPLE

• Keep still unless movement is required (don’t wander aimlessly)
• Don’t lock yourself into patterns. Be flexible and in the moment

6)  DON’T BE INFLUENCED BY OTHERS

• Don’t change anything if someone does the same piece as you in a different way.
• Trust your own instincts

7)  DON’T APOLOGISE OR MAKE EXCUSES

• The panel is not interested in reasons why you are under-prepared (eg sickness; family issues, work commitments; holidays etc)
• NEVER admit you were not happy with your performance (they might have liked it!)

8)  DON’T BERATE YOURSELF IF IT DOESN’T GO WELL

• Remember there is no such thing as a perfect performance or audition

9)  BE CONFIDENT AND POSITIVE BEFORE AND AFTER THE AUDITION

• Have confidence to be yourself
• Aim to project a friendly and professional demeanor
• Answer questions honestly and directly

10)  LEARN FROM THE EXPERIENCE

• Evaluate your performance and identify what worked and what didn’t and why
 

Mark Matthews – Head of School and Course Director

The Secrets of Agents

Dec08

As a licensed actors’ agent in Sydney since 2006, I have had hundreds of actors approach me looking for representation; attended countless drama school showcases, theatre productions & auditions; and have also interviewed a huge range of actors from rank beginners to veterans with more than 50 years in the business.

Based on these experiences, I have come up with some very simple principles and practices that will give actors (and aspiring actors) the best opportunity to secure representation with a reputable agent (and also some pitfalls to avoid for the unwary).

The first thing to remember is that an agent is running a business and – as such – needs to be convinced that you will make them money. The actor’s union in Australia (MEAA) states that a licenced agent may only charge 10% commission on work they secure for their clients (beware of those who try to charge you more!). This means that in order to make $50,000 per annum for themselves (before taxes; rent; wages; utilities; marketing; insurance; licensing fees etc) their clients need to (collectively) earn $500,000 in acting work. When you consider that a guest role on a soap might earn the actor $500 for the day or that many TVCs only pay around $2,000 to $3,000 (ie $200-$300 for the agent) an agent needs to have a LOT of working actors to remain financially viable (or at least ONE who is earning a lot themselves).

This means that when an actor approaches an agent seeking representation, the primary question the agent will be asking themselves is – will this particular actor earn income from acting work (and therefore income for my business) now or in the future? In order to then make that judgement they will be weighing up certain criteria. The criteria will be slightly different for each agent but for me, I would ask myself these ten questions about the actor seeking representation:

  1. Have they demonstrated a long-term commitment to a professional acting career?
  2. Do they have substantial training and/or experience?
  3. Have they invested in quality marketing materials such as headshots; showreels and website etc?
  4. Do they have a discernible “type” and/or marketable look?
  5. Are they professional and courteous in their dealings with others?
  6. Are they interested in on-going professional development and doing their own networking and generation of acting work?
  7. Are they available and flexible when it comes to attending castings and work opportunities?
  8. Have they done any research into my background and agency before approaching me for representation? (or are they simply casting the net as wide as possible and hoping for a bite?)
  9. Do they have substantial talent; skills; knowledge and understanding of acting and the industry?
  10. Are they somebody I can trust as a partner in business?

Before setting out to secure representation I would recommend that every actor (or aspiring actor) asks themselves how many of these criteria they think they meet and –  if lacking or deficient in any of them – set about addressing or improving in those areas.

I receive many submissions from beginners whose main criteria for selection seems to be their ‘passion’ for acting and ‘belief’ that they have what it takes to succeed. While these things are important, as a business person I can’t be making significant decisions based on someone else’s passion and belief – I need evidence and a degree of certainty based on past experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have also had many interviews with graduates of prestigious drama schools who have unrealistic expectations of their agent’s role in making them successful in a very competitive industry and who often make poor decisions about who they would like to represent them based on ‘reputation’ or on how many big name actors are already on an agency’s books. The reality of the industry is that casting directors and producers are not interested in who your agent is or how big they are or who else is on your agent’s books. They are interested in finding the right actor for each role regardless of who their agent happens to be. If this is true, then the criteria for an actor choosing an agent should centre around trust and communication and whether the agent has knowledge and understanding of acting and the industry in general; time and inclination to offer appropriate advice and guidance; and a good relationship with other industry professionals such as casting directors and producers. Many drama school graduates who are in demand (for a very short period of time) simply because of where they trained make poor choices about which agent to employ based on perceptions and ‘reputations’ rather than proper research and informed decision-making.

Ultimately, actors need to remember that they are not only creative artists – they are also business people. Securing an agent is all about marketing and conducting yourself as a professional person in a professional industry. It is a marketplace where supply and demand rules the day. As an actor you need to position yourself in such a way that agents are competing against each other to represent YOU rather than you competing against hundreds if not thousands of other actors to sign with whoever will take you onto their books.

If you go back to the ten questions listed above and work on getting a YES to each of them then you’ll be off to a good start!

Mark Matthews B.A.; Dip. Ed.; M.A.

Managing Director – Sydney Theatre School & Sydney Creative Management

Audition Preparation and Performance Tips

Oct18

Here is some advice and guidance for those who are preparing their audition monologues for upcoming drama school auditions in November. There are usually many more applicants than available places so preparation and hard work is required to be successful in securing an offer. Having seen many auditions for places at Sydney Theatre School in the past eight years and also having auditioned many applicants for other drama schools and productions I have identified some problem areas and issues that often arise. Here are my top ten tips:

CHOOSE AN APPROPRIATE PIECE

• A character or role you are likely to be cast in (ask others for their opinion if they know the play)
• A character close to your age, type, gender, physicality etc.
• Avoid using accents unless specifically requested

PREPARE THOROUGHLY

• Read the play and identify the character’s objectives and actions
• Look up the meaning of words you don’t understand (esp. with Shakespeare)
• Check correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words (esp. with Shakespeare)
• Over-learn the lines and perform the piece for someone prior to the audition

WARM UP PROPERLY BEFORE YOU ARRIVE

• May not be time or room to warm up at the venue
• Control your breath especially if you are nervous
• Project your voice properly (by using resonance – not shouting)

TREAT THE AUDITION AS A PERFORMANCE

• Don’t stop during the audition unless asked by the panel
• Request a prompt or ask to hold the script only if you must (signifies lack of preparation/confidence)

KEEP IT SIMPLE

• Keep still unless movement is required (don’t wander aimlessly)
• Don’t lock yourself into patterns. Be flexible and in the moment

DON’T BE INFLUENCED BY OTHERS

• Don’t change anything if someone does the same piece as you in a different way.
• Trust your own instincts

DON’T APOLOGISE OR MAKE EXCUSES

• The panel is not interested in reasons why you are under-prepared (eg sickness; family issues, work; holidays etc)
• NEVER admit you were not happy with your performance (they might have liked it!)

DON’T BERATE YOURSELF IF IT DOESN’T GO WELL

• Remember there is no such thing as a perfect performance or audition

BE CONFIDENT AND POSITIVE BEFORE AND AFTER THE AUDITION

• Have confidence to be yourself
• Aim to project a friendly and professional demeanor
• Answer questions honestly and directly

LEARN FROM THE EXPERIENCE

• Evaluate your performance and identify what worked and what didn’t and why

 

Mark Matthews – Course Director

Advice for Aspiring Actors.

Oct10

You can’t learn to act by reading a book. You can’t learn to act by enrolling in an on-line course. No-one can actually teach you how to act. Anyone who tells you they can is usually trying to sell you their book, on-line course or workshop based on their own ‘secret’ technique.

Acting talent is just like intelligence or physical beauty. What you are born with is what you have to work with and make the best of throughout your career. You can certainly learn and develop important acting-related skills, knowledge, values and attitudes by reading books or taking part in workshops and then applying what you have learnt in practice at a later time. However these things will do nothing whatsoever to help you improve or develop your natural talent as an actor. The problem is that the ‘gurus’ selling their products generally don’t make this distinction and will have you believe that by listening to them talk or watching them teach in a workshop; reading their books; or signing up for their on-line courses; you will learn their ‘secrets’ and unlock the key to success as an actor. This is most unlikely.

There is only one way to learn to act and that is to act. Just like there is only one way to learn to play soccer. Or to drive a car properly on the road. Or to play a musical instrument proficiently. No amount of reading, theorising, listening or discussing will help you as much as the actual doing of it. Regularly. In the case of acting it is also helpful to do it front of audiences and/or cameras (rather than in front of teachers and classmates) as soon as possible (just like it’s best to play competitive soccer games against strong opposition rather than to do training drills with your team-mates all the time). The audience is the greatest teacher and the greatest asset an actor has while training and while performing throughout their career. They (even the expectation of their presence at a future time) are a much better motivator for the student actor than grades or teacher/guru approval will ever be. The student actor will really start to learn their craft properly and begin to progress rapidly when they start performing in productions.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with knowledge and theory but major problems arise for the student actor when their focus shifts away from trust in their own instincts and creativity and onto showing how well they have understood whatever ‘technique’ is being promoted by their training institution or teacher in order get good grades and avoid failure. A good actor-training institution will do the exact opposite. They will set in place structures and procedures that allow the student actor to take risks; to make discoveries; to play; to experiment; and to create freely without fear of being expelled if they ‘fail’. This is how professional actors and directors (should) approach their work and this is the type of learning environment student actors should be allowed to experience from the very start of their training. Most students at most drama schools are simply learning how to be good drama students rather than learning how to be working actors in a professional rehearsal-room environment.

There are way too many aspiring actors who are being mis-led by ‘gurus’ and institutions that are trying to package, market and sell something as their own ‘secret’ process which is actually better learnt through practice and performance in an on-the-job, real-world environment.

There is an old adage that if something seems too good to be true then it probably is….so beware of acting gurus promising the world and learn the craft of acting properly through production-based training.