What many prospective students want to know - and indeed, their parents - is: if I commit to studying a drama course, with all the time and expense involved, will I be able to get a job as an actor?
This is an excellent question to be asking from the outset. It's important to understand what you're getting yourself into if you sign up to a course at CADA or even at another drama school. Drama schools vary greatly in the costs of tuition. I recently spoke with someone who went to a drama school in Sydney and paid $40,000 for a one-year course which did not even result in an accredited diploma, while at CADA you can complete a two-year nationally recognised qualification for close to half that price.
If you think of education as an investment in your future - that is, you pay for training, and hope to begin to recoup that money in the workforce after you graduate - you need to understand how that is likely to work as an actor.
An actor rarely gets one "job". Yes, indeed, there are "jobs" for actors that are ongoing over many years - for instance, in a long-running TV series, you may win a role as part of the ensemble of characters appearing every episode. Consider soaps like Home and Away or Neighbours, where cast members remain part of the story for many years. Moreover, it's not just free-to-air TV anymore; many series go straight to Netflix or Stan or other content providers around the world. So as a new actor you may audition for, and win, a role where you get to play the same character again and again - until that character is killed off, leaves town, or the series is axed by studio executives.
But this is not the only way to build a career as an actor. Most professional actors are "jobbing actors". For them it's not about getting a full-time job with holiday pay, the company car, and all the perks. It's about building a life that is artistically satisfying - a life that moves from project to project. A regular employee may get a job and stick with it for a few years. A working actor applies for jobs again and again: they generally complete one project then move onto to the next, through a series of auditions or invitations to be involved. So an actor's month may consist of a "guestie" (a guest role in a major series, where a character appears for a couple of episodes and then is gone), a voiceover for an advertising campaign, a couple of auditions for TV commercials, engagement on a play development project at a local theatre, a short film role, and so on. Some of this work may be sourced by the actor themselves, while other opportunities may be sourced for the actor by a talent agent or manager. Many actors, while building a career, will have another job to provide some income while they also go after their acting work.
After a time working in the industry, many actors find a niche or specialty. For one actor, 90% of their work may come from screen projects, for another, 90% may come from voiceovers. For another, 90% may come from stage, and so on. These outcomes will largely be dictated by your personal attributes (were you born with a beautiful voice? do you look fantastic on camera? or are you a very physical person when given a stage?), the training that you've had (was it biased towards a certain discipline? or perhaps it provided you with access to certain tutors or opportunities?), and finally, the luck of being in the right place at the right time. This 'right place, right time' aspect is about winning that fantastic role that allows you to show off your skills as an actor and be noticed. Which in turn opens up channels for more work. It may be a relatively small role, say, as part of a big-budget movie, which ever-after associates you with that franchise, or it may be a comic role in a TV commercial, that makes you an Aussie icon (think 'Ronda' in the AAMI series of advertisements.) It could be something else entirely. The thing is, though, a lot of the time, content producers don't really know which projects are going to be successful and which are going to disappear into oblivion. So there is some luck involved. Even a very small-budget film may develop a cult following and careen an actor into a bigger league of work opportunities.
So there are many paths for an actor in the industry. It may take some time to recoup your investment in your training. You must expect that you will be working in another job at the same time as building your career as an actor. It may be that in that job you can use your acting skills (tour guide, children's entertainer, professional speaker, teacher, etc), or it may be something quite different, which uses a different skill set (office work, building and laboring, retail, hospitality, massage therapy, etc.). So you may want to develop multiple skill sets alongside your acting.
Some actors have crossover skills - writing, producing, directing, or singing and/dancing, for instance. These actors may be able to make their own work - produce their own projects, acquire funding, and continue their passion when work is not coming in from other sources.
The main thing is: be realistic. When you graduate from drama school, you are on the bottom rung. It is unlikely that you will bounce to fame and fortune in the blink of an eye. But you can hone your skills, prove your mettle, and get some great opportunities along the way. Consider Geoffrey Rush's career - he's known for so many wonderful roles now, from Captain Hector Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, to Lionel Logue in The King's Speech. His "big break" came at the age of 45 with the release of the Australian movie Shine in 1996; he won an academy award for Best Actor. By 1998 he had done three international films and scored a second academy award nomination. He had been working mostly on the Australian stage prior to that time, and his skill as an actor had already been recognised in a number of Australian award nominations. Was his financial success instant? No. But he did work as an actor for many years, and became good at it.
You need to make good choices as you build an acting career. You need to eat as well as pursue your artistic dreams. So you need to construct a life that allows you to do both - and think carefully about that: are you prepared to live with uncertainty, and are you prepared to pursue a range of acting opportunities? Or are you a person who needs a high level of security in life, to function? - then it may be that acting is not for you.
But the flipside of it is that training as an actor provides you with many skills for other fields of endeavour. By default, it builds self-confidence. It empowers you to express yourself and become more articulate. It exposes you to many wonderful works of art across theatre, film and television which are enriching to your life. It teaches you emotional IQ, how to empathise with people who are quite different from yourself, how to work in a team, how to support your colleagues, how to collaborate effectively. It upgrades your communication skills and critical thinking skills. In a sense, actor training indirectly delivers personal growth and creative work skills that many graduates take to other areas of life and work. And the value of this is beyond a monetary investment.
So can you make a living as an actor? In the early stages of your career, think of it as "Actor Plus": acting plus something else to earn you income. You may be lucky and get your big break early - but don't count on it.
Training is the place to start. Our Certificate IV in Acting for Stage and Screen is a great way to test your suitability for the work of an actor, to learn the craft and see how well you can apply it. Or if you can't make that commitment, just try an evening course - Acting 101. Either way, you'll connect with the professional actors on staff and be able to learn under their tutelage and experience - and talk to them about how they make a living from acting.
Canberra Academy of Dramatic Art