One of the things that can be quite daunting as a young actor is the sense of isolation. If you have friends or family in the industry, or if you’re studying, you may not feel it, but to some extent it’s common to feel like you are alone in your pursuit. This is partly due to the fact that actors are set up in competition against each other every time they meet – auditions, classes, even social events can feel like a race to impress other people in the industry. At other times you may feel like the only person in the room with ambition. It’s hard to feel like you have an ally, and it’s hard to know who to ask for help – but you will need help at some time or other.
The primary reason I started this blog was to create somewhere for you to go for help, but you will probably have more questions than I can answer here. Feel free to comment and I will do my best to answer, but ideally you’ll probably want a mentor of your own. You need someone you trust who has been working in the industry a while and understands its ups and downs. But how do you find someone when you’ve just started out and the only people you’ve met are lawyers who like to do community theatre in their spare time?
The answer is: networking. I don’t like to use the term ‘schmoozing’ (getting the attention of an industry professional at a social event) because I think it encourages a self-absorbed, unprofessional way of conducting yourself. In my opinion, anyone who thinks marching up to an industry professional and talking about themselves for half an hour will actually do them good is absolutely dreaming. All it will do is convince that industry professional that they are rude and self-absorbed. And rude and self-absorbed does not equal employable.
I’ll talk some more about etiquette in a bit, but lets start with something positive: how can you network without being a schmoozey jerk?
Here are some very simple, effective and professionally acceptable ways:
- Go to shows. The simplest and most important action you can take. You should be doing this anyway, since it will keep you informed of what’s actually happening in your industry. If you’re really keen to start a conversation with a pro, go to opening nights (/premieres/launches/charity events) – that’s when the big industry names will be there. It is often possible to get tickets for opening nights if you book early enough, or sometimes there will be tickets available at the door at the last minute – it’s common for people not to turn up if they’ve been given a free ticket! I’ll talk a bit more about etiquette for these situations below, but don’t rush it, just start by being seen. Being a regular attendee at these sorts of events will show that you’re dedicated and serious about your profession, even if you never talk to anyone.
- Do workshops and classes. Teachers don’t usually appreciate you trying to market yourself to them, but they are usually kind enough to answer questions about the industry. You also might find the other participants to be helpful – it’s not uncommon for professionals to do classes to expand their skills in another direction, so you may find a director who is taking an introductory writing class, for example. Again, no marketing, but polite questions are usually fine if you pick your moment.
- Go to industry information events. They’re on all the time, and often for free. The best way to find out about them is to sign up for as many mailing lists as you can. Check my auditions blog for some ideas about where to start. Propel Youth Arts runs a lot of free or cheap seminars for young artists. They’re a great way to learn and meet new people – other artists as well as industry professionals.
- Go to other arts events outside of your specialty. As with industry information events, these are a great way to meet people, plus they expand your knowledge of the arts – and that kind of knowledge will improve the quality of your work. You’ll often find multi-skilled performers at these events (performers who are also visual artists, for example), and then you’ve got contacts up your sleeve for the next time you need someone to advise you on design.
So those are the ‘do’s. And here are the ‘don’t’s. Most of these apply as audition etiquette too.
- Do not, by any means, stalk an actor or director or interrupt them in the middle of a conversation. If you end up in the same circle as them, or someone introduces you, be professional; tell them you admire their work and – if asked – tell them what you’re up to in the industry, or ask them those burning professional questions. Not personal questions about boyfriends and pay and what it’s like to be famous. In general, it works much more in your favour to listen than talk. People will talk at them all night and they probably won’t remember much of it, but they’ll remember someone who was a good listener and asked intelligent questions.
- Don’t lie. It’ll just kick you in the pants later. They know what it’s like to start out and they don’t expect you to already be performing on Broadway. Be honest about what you do and don’t know, most people are happy to explain and will be impressed by your honesty. And believe me, they’ll see through you if you’re not honest.
- Don’t burn bridges. If anyone treats you rudely, keep your cool – you can ignore them later when you’re famous. For now, be polite and professional – you never know, they may just be having a bad day and you don’t want to one day face 8 weeks of working with someone you once insulted for no good reason.
- Don’t brag. If you have been on Broadway, or on TV for 30 seconds, there’s no need to talk about it unless they ask. Your experience should speak for itself via your informed, professional behaviour. The unfortunate truth is that your 30 seconds on Broadway/TV doesn’t compare with their lifetime of artistic work, so again – show respect by listening instead of talking.
- Never, ever, ever tell an industry professional you are ‘very talented’ or ‘the next big thing’ or ‘definitely going to be famous one day’. That’s for them to decide, not you. If you are as good as you say you are, you wouldn’t have to tell them – they would know already. You will never, ever, ever be cast by using this sort of approach. Never. Ever. Get it? Don’t do it.
- Don’t be sycophantic. Don’t get over-excited and flatter people too much – even if it shows your artistic knowledge, you will still sound like a novice, a liar, or a rather immature person with no sense of self. Calm down. Asking polite questions and showing an interest in what they do is compliment enough.
Overall, be professional, be polite, be mature, be human. If in doubt, shut up and listen. It’s rare – it will make an impression.
It’s important to remember that ‘networking’ is not about selling yourself, it’s about building relationships. Just as it takes time to build a friendship, it takes time to build a healthy working relationship, so don’t try to rush it. Respect that it takes time for people to get to know you and trust you, and keep in mind that you are worth knowing and trusting, and that’s its ok to express an interest in someone’s work. The key is to put the focus on them, rather than you.
It’s also important to remember that networking is about meeting other people in the same position as you, not just industry professionals. Chances are, while you’re still emerging as an actor, a lot of your work will come via people you know, so it’s just as important to build relationships with the little guys as the big guys. They are your allies, and allies are important when the going gets tough.
So, to sum up – listen. Be polite. Be professional. Get out and about but not up in people’s faces. Your maturity, generosity and kindness will speak for itself. Kind, generous, confident people are always in demand.