Dear Drama Student...

Recently I was privileged enough to talk to an eager group of drama students in Newcastle; they asked me for a Skype chat, with a view to them finding out what it's like, working in the media...

For those of you that don't know, I used to be a secondary school teacher - and my enduring love of youth work has meant I've 'kept a hand in', whether that's meant working with the Met Police in schools, giving sessions on knife crime and conflict resolution (yes, really) - or working on presenting my own motivational talks; this is an integral and important part of my life, and gives meaning to the other 'flimsy' things I sometimes find myself doing! 

Getting ready for a skating dancer shift. Not impressed.
The reason why I'm telling you this today? It occurred to me that the things I find obvious, other people on the outside of this creative line of work, do not. And although I do not claim to be an authority on performing on the West End, or being a successful on screen actress, there are a number of valid cross-overs between being a performer, and being a freelance presenter... 

The Skype chat went well, but I felt afterwards that I'd been a little negative, which is not like me (as a general rule!). I had been that hell-bent on giving a realistic picture of what the media industry is like, that I'd forgotten I was in the presence of hopeful young performers at the start of their journey - who were as much in need of inspiration as much as they were 'realism'. And so, please remember that context as I share with you the letter I sent to their teacher to be read out in class, the 'appendix' to the interview... and I've also added a few 'interesting' pics from my media career so far (that the letter did not have), to make this post a little more... palatable!


Dear Sarah, Sally, Carly and Victoria,

I had a long think about our Skype chat, the insightful questions you posed, and the answers I gave; and it got me thinking that I may have been a little… pessimistic about the performing and media industry… Now, the WEIRD thing about that is that one of my jobs (that I love) is giving motivational talks to teenagers; so what was I doing presenting you with the dark underbelly of what could happen if you decide this is the life for you..? I think I wanted to give you a slice of realism; to give you a taste of what the industry can be like so you’re not disillusioned later on in life… BUT! There are massive advantages to working in drama, to being an actress or a presenter, and to carving a life out of something creative… So I made my mind up to write you a letter, to make up for my negativity; and maybe explain things a little better, now that I've had time to reflect..!

And so to the subject of money (taken from a TV ad)!

One of your questions was whether or not I had to take on part time jobs to supplement my income, as a performer… and yes, I know I said I have taken, and likely will again, take on part time jobs to see me through the dry-times work-wise. Whilst that is true, there are people who don’t have to do that, who do precisely what they want to do – and have enough work to pay their way, or to save for the times that crop up between jobs. The basic truth that covers that question is that this is a life style choice, and I think I should have made that clearer. What I mean is this; some people are suited to a nine to five job (for example), maybe they find that routine comforting, they love office staff dynamics – or they enjoy being able to excel in administrative duties. Not everyone is suited to a creative career in drama or the media – this is definitely something you need to ask yourself, ‘what matters most to me?’. And not just what your working day involves, but also what that means for your social life… Imagine a world where you’re unsure when you’ll next go on holiday – or own a house, for example – but having a coffee with friends in the middle of the day is easy to achieve.

So yes; I have always taken on part-time work when I've needed to – as my life is made up of contracts working for various companies, any of which could end at any given moment. But I love the variety of my work, I love that no two days are ever the same, and I love the fact I sometimes get to feel the sun on my face in the middle of the day. These are things I hold close to my heart, along with being able to spend time with my loved ones, getting back up north at short notice to see Mum – these things would be so much harder if I worked in a ‘normal’ job.
A double-header radio show, with one mic. Cosy...

When I told you about going to auditions, and having to have a thick skin to take the knock backs, I was talking about the experience a vast number of people go through – but obviously there are exceptions; you could, for example, get a leading role in a long-running radio drama like The Archers… you could become a star, and even go on to write your own scripts (like Tom Cruise or Will Smith)… and there’s a whole host of other jobs performing relates to, behind the scenes and in production, so these experiences would not be wasted. But you do need to imagine yourself going through the ‘screening process’ that is auditioning, and think about whether that is a pleasant thought – or whether you’d rather take less risks, and have more comfort… there is NO shame in that! If you merely look at this industry as a way to make money, I fear for your chances; after all, you are – to a certain degree – beholden to the powers that be, to choose you for their projects, and to pay you handsomely for doing it, which is not something you can control.

When I finished my Masters and went into teaching, I found it to be one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. If you do it well, I think it’s because it is your vocation, or calling, but on top of that (I wonder if Mr Sharp will agree with me when I say) every day, as a teacher, is a performance… Maybe it doesn’t seem such a big deal to you (as it wasn’t to me when I was a student) but being a teacher can be terrifying! Talking about that would entail writing an entirely different letter (!) – but I’m bringing it up because even a ‘steady’ job like teaching can be uncertain, there are no guarantees you’ll keep a job… or like it… so why not try doing something with your life that makes your heart sing, what’s the worst that can happen?

Doing my make-up 'on the hoof' comes with the territory!

If you recognise the idea of a ‘vocation’, then you’ll understand there is no option when it comes to choosing a career in the arts; you have already made your mind up, you want to write the words to your own life’s soundtrack… If you watch Dirty Dancing, an episode of Glee, Fame, or anything that relates to that desire to perform… and you picture yourself in the leading role, you feel the highs and lows with the characters, their passion for a life in the arts, and you intuitively understand the need to act – then you should invest as much time and energy as you can in your craft, make yourself strong in your talent, and do your research…
Research can include talking to people, who do what you want to do, to find out how they got to where they are today… (which I know you understand, hence our chat!)

When you have had a number of these conversations, it’s likely you’ll see a pattern emerging; of the techniques these people used to succeed on the road to ‘success’, and the mind-set they adopted (this, to a certain degree is true of all industries…). There may even be a ‘hero’s journey’ theme that arises from those stories, a point where the protagonist could have kissed their potential future career goodbye, but chose to fight against every obstacle… before going on to do what their heart truly desires. It’s much less likely that someone decides they want to be a performer, and the universe takes every complication out of the picture; even if it’s just a cynical member of your family who belittles your aspirations, or your drama teacher who tells you you’ll never amount to anything more than a slapstick comedy actress… (and no, I don’t bear a grudge!)

Professionals have so much knowledge to share!
Yes, I have asked many people over the years for their advice; and I am still extremely grateful to have wise mentors in my life today – I don’t see this as a journey that ends, there will always be something new to learn about yourself, the world, and where you fit in it.

And so we come back to you; the students who asked the pertinent questions, the enquiring minds that want answers about what the future could hold… there are questions you may well answer just by living through your own life experiences, but, until you do – carry on asking, seek your vocation with an open heart, and love what you do – whatever that ends up being. Life is too short to live someone else’s life; so find your own – and love it!

And if you ever have a question about that journey – I’m here, if I can help I will.

Good luck! Or rather, Break A Leg!!!

Gema x

Now the above may not apply to you or your life; and I am by no means suggesting I've 'arrived' career-wise! But I'm a firm believer in talking about your experiences, whatever they may be, to people in the early stages of their life and/or career - some advice will be useful, other bits will be less useful... but hearing stories and anecdotes is definitely something I'm interested in, so if you're sharing - I'm listening..! 

Comments

  1. Excellent post, Gem & spot on! As someone who works with & supports independent musicians I know first hand how hard it is in the arts. Many people might think the internet has made things easier but in many ways it has made things a lot harder for performers. Research, research, research & never stop learning, nobody will ever know everything. When you know what you want to do, don't be afraid to take a risk, those that do are more likely to succeed. It shows they are not afraid to fail & why should they be afraid? You can only fail if you don't try! Good luck :)

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    1. Thanks Mark, glad you liked it - and really pleased you contributed with your positive comment! :D

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  2. A lovely letter Gema. I agree it takes a certain kind of person to work freelance, I know I can't. But there are always options if you want to make a living in a creative industry. It's just a matter of having a clear idea of where you want to be and just insist, insist, insist until you get there.

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    1. Thank-you Alice! And you're right, there are so many different paths and possibilities in the creative industry; talent training
      and tenacity are a must!

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