Five things about freelancing I learnt from actors


January 28, 2015 by Sian Rowland

Until a couple of year ago I didn’t know any actors. Actors were mysterious beings who graced stage and screen and while I’ve always admired their skills I never thoughts much about what it’s like being an actor. And it’s not all sumptuous dressing rooms and well-appointed trailers.Then I started writing plays and worked with lots of actors and I’m full of admiration for them. It’s a tough life, particularly for those at the start of their careers who are doing the rounds in fringe theatre shows like mine.  Hanging out with actors has taught me so much about my own freelancing and business career.

Dani Arlington in Alice Springs. Photo by Vincent White

Dani Arlington in Alice Springs. Photo by Vincent White

1) How to deal with rejection. I’ve written about dealing with rejection before as it’s something I find hard to deal with but it’s part and parcel of being an actor. When we placed ads for cast members for Bookends we were inundated. I couldn’t believe how many responses we got and for about two weeks my email inbox pinged a symphony day and night. To be fair to them all, I read every single CV and watched every showreel. Whittling the list down to six actors per role to invite for audition was hard and felt very impersonal. As an actor you have to deal with arbitrary rejections all the time. The next step is auditions and even when I had selected my three actors I had to reject the others who had given up their time. I tried to give constructive feedback and almost every person I couldn’t choose emailed back to say it was ok, hopefully we could work together at a later date and they’d love to come to the show anyway. What grace!

What I learnt: rejections happen for many reasons but it’s worth taking the rejection with good grace (even if you disagree) as it could lead to a yes next time. If nothing else it leaves things open-ended.

2) Play every gig like you’re on stage at the RSC. I love watching small theatre productions and gigs from bands who are just starting out. It may a tiny theatre space or a grubby pub but if you play it to the best of your ability you’re learning your craft and gaining fans. In business terms, it’s worth taking as much care over a small job or even a speculative piece of work as it could lead to other things. If nothing else, you’re offering back a bit of your expertise.

What I learnt: always give your best and remember the little people, the ones who are starting out, just learning or not big in their field because one day they might be. And they’re often interesting people with interesting storied to tell.

3) Make an impact quickly as part of a team. Actors have to work as part of a team very quickly. From table read to rehearsal to show, they have to create a quick energy with their colleagues and ensure everyone works as a team. It helps, of course, if you have an outgoing personality but it’s something that can be worked on as a valuable skill. I recently did a job where I had less experience that some other colleagues but instead of offering help or guidance to me they were dismissive and bossy. They knew nothing about my experience or background  but made the assumption that because I was new to this job I wasn’t worth bothering with. It made the job more difficult and felt like a missed opportunity.

 What I learnt: as a freelancer you end up working with people for a day or a few days or even weeks and have to establish your credentials and personality very quickly. Finding common ground goes a long way or even a funny anecdote or two. It all helps to smooth the way to making a positive working environment.

4) A willingness to work outside their comfort zone. Perhaps it’s your dream to perform Shakespeare on stage at the National but you also need to have a willingness to take on a variety of unusual roles to develop your experience. It’s good to have principles to stick to and to say no if a role if really not your cup of tea but some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had as a freelancer have come from taking on projects slightly out of my comfort zone. I try to look at every angle before saying, ‘no not for me’ or ‘I’m not very experienced so you’d better find someone else.

What I learnt: it’s amazing what you can turn your hand to if needs be. When I worked in the public sector there usually were people who had more experience than me in certain areas and there’s the perennial problem of treading on someone’s professional toes. Now, if someone asks whether I can take on a new skill or job, as long as it overlaps in some ways with my skill set I say yes and then learn all I can about it.

5) So what do you do? I’ve noticed that all the actors I’ve worked with call themselves an actor first. Most (if not all) have day jobs that pay the bills and proportionally probably spend more time at the office desk than the green room but ask them what they do or check out their social media and they’re actors first. I always get in a muddle when people ask what I do and they probably regret asking when I’m still trying to explain fifteen minutes later. Perhaps the trick is to take the one thing you desperately want to do and say it loud and proud. I met an actor recently when we were doing a litter pick on the local common (as you do) and before I knew it I said, ‘you’re an actor? I’m a playwright.’ I had a second of waiting for the theatre gods to come and strike me down but then thought, sod it, yes I am a playwright. I write plays and they’re been produced on stage. So what if it doesn’t (yet) pay my bills?

What I’ve learnt: no more, ‘hoping to…’ or ‘just started…’ it’s all about being confident about what we do whether we’ve been doing it for twenty years or twenty minutes.

What people or groups have you worked with who have taught you about your own business life?


2 thoughts on “Five things about freelancing I learnt from actors

  1. Tim says:

    Interesting post, Sian. I’ve always been a great believer that you learn more from people who are different to you than those who are similar. Different perspectives on the same issue, different experiences, different areas of expertise. And if you can find common ground with someone who is your polar opposite, you can do it with anyone.

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