Surviving Actors Expos

February 11, 2014 | Filed Under Acting, Dubious pearls of wisdom, General News 

“If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the consumer, you’re the product.” – Anonymous.

So on Saturday, I attended an event called Surviving Actors, an expo stacked full of “opportunities” for the aspiring/struggling/stalled actor. I specify this type of actor, because the place was full of people selling things that beginners may not know they need, and other things besides.

This may be no surprise to many of you. There’s half a dozen of these things every year – Surviving Actors, The Actors’ Expo, Perform!, etc – generally between January – April, and they’re all either free, or cost very little. The people who pay for it are the people selling you stuff, and what they’re buying is a room full of potential marks. Here is my quick (and probably not 100% accurate) tally of the various services available:

  • 5 Casting organisations (i.e CCP, Spotlight, etc)
  • 4 Photographers
  • 4 Book sellers
  • 4 Showreel providers
  • 6 Resting job recruiters (virtually all telesales or T.I.E.)
  • 8 people offering a variety of courses
  • Miscellaneous

Miscellaneous included accountants, presenter training, some sort of health supplement pyramid scheme, and a whole raft of people selling advice, offering media managing packages, NLP training, US visa deals, etc. Virtually no-one on any stall (a few photographers aside), it should be added, was upfront about any costs unless they were specifically selling tangible objects on the stalls. After all, the sizzle is always free: you’ll only find out what’s in the sausage when you’ve decided to buy it. In terms of practical, proactive things to do, it was a bit slim on the ground: there were no agents there to meet. There were a few cardboard dropboxes with casting directors’ names on them, into which you could chuck your CV and headshot, but that’s it. This was a marketplace selling the one thing we all want: opportunity.

Now, some of these products are essential: if you lack headshots, you need to get them done, and unless you’re lucky enough to know a professional photographer who knows what is required of a headshot, then you have to pay for it.

If you feel untrained in certain aspects of performing (or indeed, all aspects), then here’s where you can find out about stage combat courses, horse riding courses, Meisner courses, voice workshops, acting workshops, and so on.

In addition to that, stalls selling plays, technical manuals (voice warm-up exercises, intros to Method, what-have-you) and the many variations on Contacts have a valid contribution to make to any actor’s career, and their utility comes from the actor’s willingness to use them, not the actual quality or purpose of the product.

I suppose, if you’re struggling to find a resting job that’s working for you, then stalls where you can sign up for teaching acting or manning call centres also serve a legitimate purpose (though I personally think there’s something rather sordid about selling someone lessons in how to earn money, which some places seemed to be offering).

All the casting resources were there, too. I initially baulked at finding stalls for Spotlight, Casting Networks, CCP, Star Now, etc., but of course the reason they’re in attendance is because not everyone knows about them. While I’ve been around the block long enough to know that this is where the jobs are to be found (even if vanishingly few of the ones not advertised on Spotlight are actually decently paid), anyone aspiring to act for the first time would find an event like this an invaluable resource. God, I wish I’d known about something like Surviving Actors when I graduated in 1998; back them, the full extent of careers advice I got at university was “(Technical) TV jobs are advertised in the Guardian on Monday, acting jobs are in The Stage on Thursday. Good luck!”

There’s a legitimate need for all these things, and it’s handy to have them all in one place. You could argue that companies that sell courses play on actors’ insecurities to make their money – that it’s easy to blame your continuing lack of success on a lack of skills, or on just not being good enough, so you invest in their course to feel better and more confident. Doubtless, that’s how some of the marketing works, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se; in my opinion, it’s far better to address your own insecurities by attending a course in an acting method that works for you, or in a new skill, than it is to simply stew in your own fears and self-doubt – that way lies a self-destructive spiral.

It’s the other things that trouble me, such as the showreel services. As I understand it, a showreel is a small highlights clip of work for which you have successfully auditioned, which shows off your abilities to good effect, and which demonstrates that someone out there has taken a chance on you. It’s not just a demonstration of your abilities: it’s a stamp of approval from people in the industry. Surely, therefore, a showreel for which you have paid (usually an exorbitant sum of money) demonstrates merely that you have deep pockets.

Then there are the people promising you a US working Visa, trips to Hollywood, the chance to audition for casting directors of shows like Homeland, Breaking Bad, etc, but only if you sign up to their organisation, all of which will cost you literally thousands – at the end of which is no guarantee that you’ll get anything more than a busman’s holiday and a series of polite but firm rejections.

All this before we get to the people selling marketing packages, mentoring programmes, and the like. The basic tools actors need in this day and age are:

  • A headshot
  • A website
  • A business card
  • An e-mail account
  • A showreel
  • A voicereel (if you want to work in V/O)

Optional extras include a Twitter handle, a FB professional page, and other social media bollocks. This is what we need. We all know that this is what we need. The only thing stopping us from getting it all is our own lethargy or luddism. So why would you want someone to empty out your pockets in order to put it all together for you, ESPECIALLY as less of your personality will come through to a potential employer looking through their identikit guff than something that you have thoughtfully put together yourself that best reflects your personality?

“Ah (I have decided to hear you cry), but what if I don’t really know about website design, and social media management, and all that?” To which I reply “You’ve got Google, haven’t you?” Look up actors’ websites – anyone with decent SEO management will be fairly easy to find. In doing that, you’ll see some that you like; and some that you don’t like. Thus fore-armed, you can put together a lot of the material you need for a website, and then all you need to pay for is someone who’ll help you put the skeleton together, and the hosting. OR you can just find an on-line website generator like WordPress, and spend an instructive afternoon or two wrangling your own (like this one, which a web-savvy friend and I put together in two afternoons).

And this is my real issue: there are SO MANY people at these events marketing stuff that you don’t need, and all of them use a hard sell to make you feel that your career is doomed to failure unless you buy their formula for success – “Get our showreel!”; “Buy our full marketing package!”; “Meet Hollywood casting directors!”; “Learn to be a presenter!”; “Study NLP and you’ll psyche your way through auditions!”; and so on. The trouble is that these are garnishes sold as main courses: it’s such a dicey career, full of uncertainty, and dead patches, and self-doubt, that we actors can come to crave solutions and guarantees: some talisman or secret formula that’ll make us successful. And they just don’t exist. Success comes of hard work, tenacity and professionalism, and occasionally, a giant dose of luck. You can’t just buy it off the shelf.

I’m not even going to start on the stall promoting a bogus health supplement pyramid scheme.

The only thing I saw actually set up to benefit actors in the whole place was an organisation called MAD Trust, which is a charity set up to promote AIDS awareness amongst the acting community, and to raise money for a hardship fund for actors with severe illnesses. They are, of course, after your money too. But at least they’re putting it to good use.

Actors are, by and large, shagged for income. It’s hard, therefore, to be in a room full of people all trying to make you poorer, whether you’ll benefit from the exchange or not. After ten minutes, I felt like a chicken that had unwittingly strolled into a foxes’ den.

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