Ask a majority of actors what’s going on with their career, and you’ll likely get a fuzzy look, the eyes will wander this way and that, some stammering will emerge about needing a better agent, or simply getting any agent, or they did some casting workshop recently. They’ll tell you about a note they sent to someone last month, and toss in a few justifications about what ‘everyone’ says the business is like, and of course the improv/on-camera/sitcom/whatever workshop their agent told them to do is a lot of fun, and, uh…. well…. It can peter out from there rapidly.
Pre-supposing the presence of natural or hard-won ability, a career is then built on relationships – lots of ‘em, developed and nurtured over time. Actors can suffer from chronic career myopia, however, with their concept of how it’s all going centered on what happens (or not) this week, with this agent, with that audition. Ask about last week and a fog descends, and next week doesn’t exist. The sense takes hold that the actor “doesn’t know where to begin” on building (or, for some, re-building) their career. This “I don’t know where to begin” feeling remains in place even for those who are blessed with talent, worked hard to train themselves, and have a few years or more behind them in the biz.
So, here’s where to begin – three pieces of paper (or their digital equivalents), and three lists:
Group One: Every person you’ve worked for as an actor. For each gig, that would involve the director, writer, producer, casting director and other actors of note. You won’t be able to remember all these names offhand, of course, but start with the title of the project (including, e.g., ”that independent thing I did in Palm Desert”), and start filling in the blanks as best you can, using IMDb or whatever other resource you need to supplement your failing memory. Agency information is okay, but better overall is the address of their current production office.
Group Two: Those with whom you’d like to work. Write down twenty projects – film, television or theatre – that have rocked your world in the last couple years. It’s not about your having been right for any roles, just that the project gave you that feeling of, well… “That’s why I got into this nutty business. To do something like that.” Find out the names of the writer, director and producer for each of those projects, and get a mailing address or other contact information. If you want extra credit, look up the casting director as well and get their current information. So that’s 60-80 names at least.
Group Three: Audition followup list. For each audition you have, I believe you’ve met four people – the writer, producer, director and casting director. I don’t care that you just had the CD in an office with a camera – they work on behalf of the writer, director, producer, and you have in effect met all of them by reading for the project. They each have names, and you should walk out of the office knowing all of those names, and putting them in Group Three. To start the process, fill in the blanks on the last year’s worth of auditions.
Now, work the damned list. Start writing. A nice note, hand-written when possible. Get yourself some cards/envelopes with your name and contact information – direct phone and email. I wouldn’t worry about your photo – they can look you up in three seconds on the web – but you can include a business-card-sized shot, or work a photo into the design of the cards if you wish. The note should be relatively short-and-sweet, sincere and professional. Don’t speak from a position as a seemingly lowly actor who’s trying to get ahead, but as a fellow industry professional, based on respect and enthusiasm for the work. Don’t be cute, clever, joking, political, spiritual or say things like, “… as for me, it’s really tough going in this business, but I’m still at it, and learning not to detest myself or others. Yay, therapy!” Don’t ask Spielberg to have coffee. Don’t try to close some deal with a single note.
For Group One, you’re just looking to acknowledge the project, the process, your enjoyment of it, how well it may have done, or what they’ve done since, or just that it’s a nice summer day out. If it’s been a while, say something like, “I was just thinking of that project we worked on, and wanted to write you….” That’s it. For Group Two, a simple and sincere acknowledgment of why their work rocked your world, and how it provided inspiration. For Group Three, a short thank-you for the opportunity to read, best wishes on the project, look forward to meeting you again (with followups when the project airs, with or without you in the role).
You’re building the relationship. You’re trying to open the door to further communication. You may well hear nothing back on most of these, and that’s fine. This process has little to do with whether individual notes get individual responses, but whether the entirety of your effort to grab onto, develop, and maintain relationships turns a career profit over time.
Add to and follow up these lists. Group Three gets four new names for each audition. Everyone on each list gets 3-4 notes a year, but definitely upon some newsworthy event for either of you. Widely ignored, and yet particularly effective, is your interest in their career and accomplishments. Actors have the tendency to communicate from an utterly transparent self-interest, and then wonder why people don’t get back to them as they might wish. Proper etiquette and interest in others is noted by them, it’s appreciated, it’s smart.
Stir with water. Add persistence and training. Simmer for five years, and let’s see where you are then.
(Other relevant blog entries: A Slow Turning Wheel, X-to-1, Good Followup: It Matters.)