I was recently asked to talk as part of a panel to a group of final-year drama school students about a topic that 6 years ago when I was training was hardly addressed at all. But having a reliable ‘survival job’ — what actors do for money when they are not performing — is becoming more important than ever to consider carefully, even before making your first steps in to the profession.

It was clear that the students we were talking to had a more practical outlook that my group did back in 2008 and that the school itself was taking this aspect of an actor’s life more seriously as part of their third-year development. With greater levels of student-debt than ever before, the rising costs of living in London and increasing levels of competition in the profession it was clearly sensible to begin exploring a key aspect of coping with unemployment — a feature of most actor’s lives.

It is probably the last thing that any actors want to think about. At its worst non-acting work can be a demoralising drain of time and energy that gets in the way of preparing for auditions and can eventually lead people to drop out of the profession completely. But finding the right job can actually be a tool to get you primed for the casting meetings and back to earning money from performing as quickly as possible. 

The first thing to do is to find out what’s out there and pick the right job to suit where you are in your career. 

There are three job types:

1. Short-Term Quick-Fixes

E.g. bar-work, waiting tables, catering, ushering, retail, temp-work, tele-sales, tutoring, nanny/mannying …

  1. There are lots (relatively) of these types of jobs available and they usually don’t require qualifications or special skills. 
  2. You can apply and start work within a matter of days. 
  3. Often social and involve working with the public; you get to see a bit of real life.
  4. They are easy to drop at a moment’s notice and can usually be fitted around auditions without too much hassle. 
  5. And if you do dislike the job it makes getting acting work all the more satisfying.

Unfortunately they are often pay close to minimum-wage so require a lot of hours and at their worst can be dull, demoralising and hard-work.

Pick this type if  ….

  1. you need money to come in quickly
  2. if you can survive on less money 
  3. you don’t mind a job you’re not madly passionate about (lots of people do these jobs at the beginning of their careers)
  4. you know you’re only going to be out of acting work for a short while.

2. Non-Acting Careers

E.g. often means setting up your own business

personal trainers, masseuses, web-businesses, painting/decorating, running a clothes stall, chefs

  1. Usually more rewarding than the first category.
  2. Better eventual financial rewards. 
  3. You work to your own clock. 
  4. Takes you out of your ‘acting-head’ for a little while.
  5. Teaches a lot of self-discipline and business skills; all useful for acting.

The downsides: 

  1. Can take up a lot of time.
  2. May require learning new business skills. 
  3. The rewards won’t come instantly — and sometimes not at all. 
  4. May need an initial investment. 
  5. May require qualifications and training. 
  6. Can distract you from your acting career.

Many people develop this type of second job as they go further in to their performing career. If you are not working as much as you’d like as an actor it may be preferable to invest a little time and money into training for a job that will (hopefully) eventually pay more and be more satisfying than to continue slogging away in the low-pay, long-hours quick-fixes above.

And if you already have skills that you could turn into a business then this could be a good option to start working on.

Be aware, if you need to spend time and money on a training-course make sure that it will fit round any potential auditions.

3. Acting-Related Second Careers

E.g. workshopping, acting coaching, teaching at drama schools, corporate role-play businesses, headshot photographer, editing show-reels

  1. These can be a rewarding use of your acting-skills.
  2. Can keep you involved in the industry and help you make new contacts.
  3. Better paid than most quick-fix jobs.
  4. Often weekend work available and/or you can arrange them around your hours.

However …

  1. May require further training and/or qualifications.
  2. Opportunities to work may be sporadic. Once people have a good position they tend to hold on to it for as long as possible.
  3. Some people may struggle being involved in acting without actually ‘acting’.

Many actors find this kind of work very satisfying and it can be lucrative if you are successful. Use your network to find opportunities to get going — see if your drama-school runs workshop-training courses; ask the people you meet throughout the industry how they got into their jobs.

The key things to make sure you get from a job is that it pays enough, it is flexible and that it has a limited negative impact on your acting.

Paying enough means that it not only covers the essentials but also what you need for your performing career: subscriptions, classes, theatre tickets, printing scripts, etc. And make sure you’ve got enough money for life outside acting; you want to be at your best when you walk into the audition room.

Flexibility is key. You need time to be able to drop everything so that you can get to auditions and prepare properly for them. Having to choose between a job you need to pay the bills and learning lines for a casting is a recipe for headaches. Look for jobs that offer flexible hours (often designed to attract actors) or make sure your employer is ok with swapping shifts at late notice. Or choose to work as much as possible at evenings and weekends to keep your days free for meetings. 

 Be aware of and limit the job’s impact on you physically and mentally. Constantly lifting heavy loads, being on your feet all day or working into the early hours of the morning won’t help you.

And keep a check on how bored or stressed you are at work. This will effect your self-esteem and energy outside of the job, something you will carry with you into auditions.

Developing the right attitude to your job will make the experience of being ‘unemployed’ a whole lot more pleasant and probably get you back to acting-work more quickly. 

Focus on the benefits: as often as you possibly can see it not as a drag on your time and energy but instead as a way of funding your acting career. Remember that the money you earn from it will not only alleviate the stress of wondering how you’re going to pay your rent this month but by paying for classes, theatre tickets, cinema tickets, platforms, talks, subscriptions, scripts and a social life it will also improve your acting skills, engage you in the profession, help you network and keep your mood up and motivation high. And when each audition comes round you will know your job will allow you to print off a 60-page script, that you’ve got just the right clothes to wear and you can pay for that emergency singing lesson you need.

It will also provide you with a routine and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It can be social and interesting and rewarding in its own right. It is a cliché but is also a chance to see ‘real life’; get you out of your acting head for a part of the day. And if it’s a job you enjoy it even gives you the option to turn down any acting jobs that you’re not completely sold on.

If you really can’t bear your second job there are a few things you can do: 

  1. The first days and weeks of a new job can be the worst so stick with it for a bit and see if getting to know your colleagues and the job itself improve the experience. 
  2. Accept that in the short-term it may be rubbish but work towards finding better long-term options over the first five years or so of your career. 
  3. You can change jobs quickly. Especially if you’re doing quick-fix style work. Look for better things.
  4. Are you putting in any effort? Take a bit of pride in your job, however basic it is, and you may find it that much more rewarding.
  5. Or you can try the opposite. Switch your mind off for a few hours, have fun with your colleagues and look forward to your breaks and going home.
  6. Make sure that the job is not the main part of your day. Your life outside of work should be as busy, creative and fun as possible: do something towards your acting career before or after whenever possible. Go to a class, see a show, read a play, do some self-promotion. Arrange to meet friends, do things you enjoy. Make sure you’re exercising, sleeping properly and eating well. 

Remember that all these situations are temporary and that working these types of jobs are a normal part of the performer’s lifestyle. If you think carefully when applying for jobs, make deliberate, thought-out choices and build a productive and fun schedule outside of hours then your ‘survival-job’ will just be another part of your progress towards success as an actor.