Things I Wish I Had Been Told in Theatre School

Callam Rodya in the Encore Theatre Company's production of "Down Dangerous Passes Road".

Callam Rodya in the Encore Theatre Company’s production of “Down Dangerous Passes Road”.

Theatre school was great. It is great. But it can omit some of the more fundamental and important career lessons. School is, after all, a bubble. It’s not a natural professional environment.

So, with what little wisdom I have regarding a career as an actor, here’s a list of some things I wish somebody had told me in theatre school. Some of these lessons, I had to learn the hard way. Others simply would have saved me a bit of time.

  1. “Stealing the show” is not a compliment. The ensemble is more important than your “moments”.
  2. You’d be surprised how few people are willing to pay for theatre tickets when they aren’t your friends and family and have no personal connection to you whatsoever.
  3. No, you can’t actually play forty and fifty-year-olds in your twenties. At least, no one will pay you to do it.
  4. By the same token, there are very few roles in the theatre for twenty-year-olds.
  5. The stage manager always works much harder than you. And technically, you work for him/her, not the other way around.
  6. Most people don’t get drunk on Opening Night…because they have a show the next day…idiot. Oh, and cast parties are more likely to be cast dinners.
  7. Developing and producing your own work is the single MOST important thing you can do after you graduate.
  8. Background film roles don’t do shit for your career.
  9. Unions are awesome and the worst at the same time.
  10. When people said you would be poor thanks to your brilliant career choice, what they really meant was “completely fucking destitute.” And that’s okay.
  11. Auditions are on one level. Knowing the right people is a completely different level altogether.
  12. Directors, casting agents, and producers care as much about how easy you will be to work with as they do about how good you are for the role. If not more so.
  13. Remember how you used to have five weeks to get off book? NOPE. Get off book NOW.
  14. Save up a certifiable shit-ton of money if you’re going to move to the big city to try and “make it”. Like, a ridiculous amount. Student-loan worthy. That is, if you want to actually be able to go for auditions, take classes, network, and you know, any of those other career-building essentials.
  15. Don’t do everything. Seriously. Know when to turn something down. And believe me, you’ll know.
  16. It’s not unreasonable to expect to be paid for your work. And you should be. But you won’t always be. So when you do work for free, which will be a lot, make sure it’s work that you’re passionate about or will really be a career booster. And honestly, it should be both.
  17. Ninety percent of casting decisions have nothing to do with how you perform in your audition.
  18. Most of the time, when you don’t get the part, it’s not because you suck, but because of some other (probably superficial) reason altogether. Unless you suck.
  19. Energy is more important than appearance. So get more sleep instead of wasting your time making yourself look good. After all, there’s always a hair and makeup person on set. There’s rarely a person to spoon-feed you caffeine and cocaine.
  20. Take your “me” time. And cherish it. Because the pursuit of an acting career will totally consume your life.
  21. Don’t hide your “physical flaws.” Embrace them. And learn how to look at yourself objectively.
  22. Your “hit” is no joke. It’s what you’re selling. Either be okay with it, or figure out a way to change it and still look like a real human being.
  23. No matter how big of a star you were in school, out here, you are just a part of a team. So act like it. And give credit where credit is due at every opportunity.
  24. Acting is actually easier than you want to believe it is. And more people can actually do it than you want to believe. And most people behind the scenes work harder than you do. So don’t be a diva.
  25. You are replaceable.
  26. The camera really does add ten pounds. No shit.
  27. Stage and screen are completely different worlds requiring completely different approaches and are cast in completely different ways.
  28. You thought there was “technique” to acting on stage? Just wait till you get some serious face time with the camera.
  29. Rehearsals are a luxury. Don’t waste them.
  30. It is not okay to be drunk, stoned, high, or any other kind of intoxicated while you work. Not for “professionalism” reasons. But because you are, in fact, worse.
  31. Try not to get discouraged/cynical/jaded/resentful too early. This is a tough business. That’s just the way it is, and it’s not going to change any time soon. So be tough. Or get out.
  32. And finally, don’t go down this path just because you’re “good enough” to be a professional actor. For the love of God, do it ONLY because you cannot do anything else.

Always be brave and bold.

Updated:

Wow, what a response! This post has been seen across North America (and even beyond) by over 120,000 people. I’m really happy that this list has struck a chord with so many of you.

Here’s my response to your response:

SEE ALSO: How to Survive on Set Without Looking Like an Asshole

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211 thoughts on “Things I Wish I Had Been Told in Theatre School

  1. So funny to read people’s responses. Especially people saying “obvious” to what you wrote… they would be surprised at how many people don’t get it. Nicely put list… and it makes sense that you wrote it after several glasses of wine. Keep plugging along.

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  3. HI! I just retweeted this before I saw your copyright notice. My apologies. I like this piece a lot; its simplicity makes it accessible for my young actors and probably a few more experienced actors who could do with the reminders (I’m a stage director). Please send on your retroactive consent? Thanks!

    1. No worries! I have no problem with retweeting or sharing the link. It’s when people quote or repost the text without credit or link that I get uncomfortable.

      Thanks for your kind words! cR

  4. I’m a designer and I have to say this really applies to anyone in theatre, or even in the arts, to my judgment. Certainly you’ve specifically catered this to actors and I think that’s great. There’s a lot here that we can hit on and work with; I think you’re onto some universal aspects of working in any discipline with artistic intent and a necessarily high degree of dedication.
    Glad you wrote this!

    P.S. Love your corollary thing # 33. I always forget that one myself.

  5. I’ve been in the biz for 25 years across all media (stage, film, TV, commercials, corporate etc) and I went to the most recognized drama school in my country. I can vouch that;

    1) They don’t teach you all these things in drama school.

    2) Every bit of advice in the list, even though many are wry, are the good tips you learn quickly or over time if you’re paying attention and aren’t too self-absorbed.

    Newbie actors, definitely take heed. And don’t fret too much about the vagaries of the biz unless it helps change your outlook or behaviour for the better. Otherwise, enjoy the ride, and remember that the job is not the only important or interesting thing in life.

    Good list, Callam, although I would add one caveat. Some real a********s get plenty of work if they are good/famous enough (I’ve worked with some and you’ve seen them on the big screen). But it sure increases the chances of getting a gig if you’re friendly, generous and good to work with.

    Also, don’t expect that all you need is for your talent to be recognized. The industry is packed with highly talented people who don’t work nearly as much as they should. It’s a very subjective business and luck is a big part of the mix, but hard work and showing up to forums, shows and conferences will demonstrate an active interest on your part which will not go unnoticed.

  6. I must disagree with #24. I have been paid for my technical work in many places around the world since 1983 & the only ‘actors’ I’ve seen who’ve not worked harder than I have are generally crap. Even as Stage or Production Manager the actors work harder. It just doesn’t look as hard as the big bloke lifting the 100kg of shot bags.
    That said. # 25 is spot on.

  7. I’m not …was not a Theatre major( just wanted to do commercials …lol) . Your words are powerful ones…school is a bubble for sure…Break a leg to all of you …!!!!

  8. The cat is stealing focus; lol! Seriously, I have been in a position to know and work with many actors, and I must say, most have been highly professional people who seemed to have these principles engraved on their hearts. Maybe I have been lucky, but I don’t think so. We hear stories about divas because they are rare, and stand out.

    1. Your “hit” is basically another word for your “type”. You hit could read as “doctor” or “teacher” or “villain”. It’s the character(s) you’re most likely to be cast as based on your look alone.

  9. Wrong…..stage and screen are not completely different. They both require the same core technique. Then you adjust it to the medium…….goddam I’m tired of people placing it in two completely different categories. Think about your favorite film or tv actor…….then look up their background and see that more often than not they got their start on the stage. A flower needs water to grow; however, some need less and some need more……

    1. dude they are about the same as slayer and justin beiber, both music, in the music industry but would you go to see slayer if justin beiber was the support act, the only thing they have in common is that they are both ‘acting’ and if you dont know that then ……….!

    1. Absolutely not. Aspiring actors need encouraging more than most. But it’s also important for us all to maintain a realistic outlook of what being a “professional” actor really means.

    2. If your child’s dream is to become an actor, I’m convinced he’d love you to share his dream. If this is what he wants to do, he will go for it, independently if you support or do not support the idea. You will feel so much more pleasure being on his side during his journey than otherwise. And he will probably profoundly appreciate you for it too!

      Every profession has its difficulties. It’s what you make of it. It’s what you believe. If you believe the reality of acting is tough, it will be. So, tell him it is beautiful, fulfilling, and a huge adventure. And enjoy the trip, together!

      Much love, and the very best of success for your boy and your family!

      Mieke

  10. All good advice except there’s no such thing as a casting agent. It’s a casting director and a casting office. Agency =/= casting office.

  11. I feel like I may have read this list and commented on it a while back, but just in case- all very true. I would have to say the biggest thing I’ve learned working in this business is that career trajectory often resembles more of a roller coaster than a steady incline. It’s not your typical rising through the ranks situation, more like, big tour, unemployment, regional gig, unemployment, Broadway, unemployment, $100 stipend for a showcase… etc

  12. I’d like to add to your fantastic list:
    You don’t need an agent or manager to get you the audition, be it theatre or film. Seek an agent if and when you genuinely want to explore that working dynamic within your career. Not necessary however.

  13. A good theater teacher WILL tell you all of these things. But when they do, they will risk being called “rude, mean, disrespectful, unencouraging, etc.” by enough students to get them “fired”! I know. It happened to me.

  14. This is the WORST. Oh my god dude. Where did you go to theatre school?! You seriously learned all these things afterwards?! 90% of these items aren’t even lessons you have to learn if you’re an actor you just know them. And stop calling it THE CAMERA. Unless you’re talking about the one camera you’ve ever been in front of because your “advice” is completely misguided and condescending.

      1. Callam, that is the PERFECT response. Man what is it with blogs, Donnie, that was very impolite. Naughty Donnie.

    1. Honestly though. If you work on any productions you will learn this. I studied sociology for three years in college while acting on the side, and took just one basic skills pointless acting class, and knew most of these by the time I was halfway through high school. It’s unfortunate that this may not be taught. Then again, rarely if at all do people “learn” these typed of career details in school. You have yo be actively involved outside of your studies to understand this. Volunteering, independently producing shows, working in all types of environments, talking to your peers and instructors as experts in the life and not just a text book. This is true for nearly every fieldPursuing every audition I could find and doing so for 13 years made me understand the realities, and pure joy of the life. Also how to balance a passion with a realistic idea of what to expect. One cannot go to school and learn how to be an actor. Just as someone cannot do so for music, painting, any art really, or sport, or many disciplines. One has to take their life experience and pure luck at times and hone the craft they have naturally. Other trades might be teachable, but to do anything professionally, both in mentality and in monetary terms you must. MUST go beyond the curriculum.

  15. Hmmm. Apparently your should have grabbed you by the chin and said “LISTEN to me right now goddamnit!!!!!” Because we say these things ALL the time. They are more basic than Stanislavsky.

  16. Hmmm. Apparently, your theatre teachers should have grabbed you by the chin and said “LISTEN to me right now goddamnit!!!!!” Because we say these things ALL the time. They are more basic than Stanislavsky.

  17. Your list and video are so inspirational! As the mom of a “broadway bound” actress…this came at the perfect time! We are waiting for the college and MT acceptance letters from a dozen schools in NY, NJ, Penn and beyond! Your honesty is a breath of fresh air! It’s not about just about being a good actor/actress, singer, dancer. It’s about tenacity, drive, sacrafice and dedication that will make it in any career path/passion that you choose. Your next list should be…..how to get the most out of your college MT experience!!! Thanks Callam…can’t wait to see what you do next!

  18. #5 gave me a bit of a smile.

    As for acting not being as hard as one would think, I’ll take that to heart. I do stand up comedy and have had a couple of small amateur short film gigs offered as a result and have always secretly thought “Ha. They think I can act… adorable.” (Although I’m pretty sure my brain phrases it in a much less condescending fashion when I’m actually in those situations).

  19. Not sure where you went to theatre school but they obviously didn’t do a good job of giving you all the fundamentals of “the business”. All good theatre departments provide the advice you mention, it’s a part of the training. These pre-professional students need to know the tricks of the trade, the disappointments, the need for tenacity, the patients requires, the in’s and out’s of the industry, and are taught that, so they can enter the world of entertainment fully prepared.

  20. As a film director, I salute you, great tips for ALL actors (and we filmmakers do value how easy you are to work with (and work as team/take direction) as much as the performance you give…saying that offering that emotional truth, that shaymanistic performance can be tough/draining/ and actors should be respected and nurtured. Great post.

    1. Well said! I always love working with artists and technicians who share a mutual appreciation and respect of each other’s work and responsibilities. It’s so important, especially when you’re working together for such long hours on set.

  21. One of your entries is wrong, wrong, wrong! I wish the camera only added ten pounds, it’s at least fifteen or twenty. It looks like forty when I see myself . . .

  22. Lots of true things. I’ve been wrestling with this post though. On one hand, I wondered about your training experience, like Leslie. But on the other hand, many of those truths can’t actually be absorbed as advice, and good teachers know that – direction, teaching and advice all work differently, and being told and learning aren’t synonymous in a space of time that takes five, ten years, more to digest. So they offer what they can in a way that becomes a life of practice.

    As for contention over the last point – I mean, I think you’re a great example of how it’s really positive, crucial, to be able to do many things well, Callam. But, yeah, we make challenging theatre happen because it’s absolutely necessary.

    Hope Encore has its own home really soon. Glad to learn about your work there.

  23. bang on! 100%. I am a film production major turned actor. After 10 years of freebies and worked in every conceivable role, we finally won an award in a film festival. It is all worth it!

  24. Superb! SHOULD BE POSTED IN EVERY ACTING PROGRAM AND COLLEGE/UNIVERSITY, CONSERVATORY IN AMERICA. POST IT IN ALL DRESSING ROOMS, CLASS ROOMS, GREEN ROOMS, UNIONS, etc. etc. etc.. End of story.

  25. some absolutley sterling advice there callum, like yourself i have learned a lot of these things from people like you sharing their wisdom, no theatre school for me, started acting in 2011 am in my 30’s and want to be a screen actor, ive always wanted to do film,since i was a kid and no matter the good or bad days, i love it-passionately, my advice to anyone out there is

    Never Give Up, No Matter What Anyone Says, You Will Get There, Eventually :)

  26. School is all about technique and style… show business is like no other business so there is no right or wrong answer. Each path is uniquely different. A 7 year old was nominated for an academy award, was does that tell you about all those fancy schools. Pretend time is a game invented by a 3 year old. $$$$ . Also a side note… if you are going to video blog… make sure your room is clean and your bed if made. :) Great article otherwize

  27. I’ve been in the industry for about a decade, and I can say that I agree with everything here *except* #32, which is, in my considered opinion, the absolute worst advice in the history of all acting-related advice… I’m serious. #32 should be “Pursue this career as long as it makes you blissful to do so. When you get fatigued and need to recharge, do it. When you ready to get back at it with zest, come on back!”

    Following #32 as written means that the talent pool for entertainers will be filled with no one but those people who can’t do anything else… those kinds of people are *terribly* needy, incompetent, narcissistic idiots. What we need to have are people who could be happy doing *anything.* Those people have a breadth of experience and interests that will fuel their creativity and make everyone’s experiences better.

    Terrible, terrible advice in *any* context.

  28. Ohhhh thanks for this wonderful list of tips in theater acting im sure it will helps in my acting skills cuz im currently studying acting and i find it really nice although it quite challenging especially that im not that 100% in my confident level . Right now im reading http://www.exploretalent.com/articles/7-tips-improving-confidence-actor/ and it has nice features to like this and helps me too. Thank you soo much.. Is there any aspiring actor in here too like me ?

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