Life as a Performer and How to Get There
by Alex Murphy
Whether you are 17, 27 or 57, if you want to perform, to act—in a movie or on the stage—chances are you want to get better at it, no matter what.
But if there is no chance of you attending a full-time undergraduate or graduate acting program, please know that there is a way for you to piece together a practical, functional and viable performance education.
There are many reasons aspiring actors (or filmmakers) end up not pursuing full-time, degree-bestowing training programs. There are many potentially talented and trainable students whose parents are paying the costs for their children’s education. And these days, for example, a reasonably good theater and film program will run from $20,000 to $40,000 per year. And that’s JUST FOR TUITION.
These parents are very reluctant or outright unwilling to invest in an education in the arts because of a fear, always hovering, ever real, that their children’s chances of making a living as an artist, an actor (oh, my God!) are so precarious. Indeed, many times it’s the students themselves that make the pragmatic decision to pursue a professional life that offers more immediate and reliable compensation and advancement.
Many of these folks, with safer, less ambiguous educational paths chosen, often go on to lament (at some level) having to leave behind their desire to perform, to abandon the storytelling culture—whether it be film or theatre. And, as anyone who is a part of that storytelling culture can tell you, whether it’s at an amateur or a professional level, it’s certainly a beguiling, challenging, fulfilling and exciting part of our lives.
In addition to all the young people contemplating a career in the performance world, it’s common to find people from their late 20s on, who come to a belated, perhaps more fully mature realization that they wish to pursue or study the art of performing. And often these people have serious responsibilities—jobs, marriages, houses, bills and children.
Finding the time and energy to devote to creative pursuits with any of these challenges can be daunting. It can seem impossible. Most people in this position give up and say, “There’s just not enough time. There doesn’t seem like any clear way to get started and then stay involved in any meaningful, productive way.”
But there is a way. Rest assured. There is a path forward.
For me, one of the benefits of studying and performing in downtown New York City was the ready access (which has been the case easily for the last 40-50 years) to a private, part-time studio training system for actors.
In fact, there are a wide variety of such private studios to choose from. Most of these are designed for the student who wishes, or is only able, to take one class in any given time frame.
I’ve been in scene-study courses with 16- and 60-year-olds in the same class, both studying acting part-time for different reasons.
I’ve been in a course with an actor fresh out of a Master of Fine Arts program, doing a scene with an actor who was a carpenter by day.
I’ve known many actors who’ve faithfully taken an ongoing performance workshop for years, one that meets for three hours once a week.
And most importantly, I’ve known many performers over the years for whom a single three- or four-hour introductory workshop became the basis for some kind of growing, continuing commitment to practice the craft of performing whenever and wherever possible.
I should point out that all of the people that come to mind do so precisely because I found them to be in possession of a strong, focused work ethic.
There were certainly a number of part-timers who struck me as being extremely talented at the outset. But most importantly, over the years I’ve witnessed countless numbers of part-time students who, with hard work and persistence, noticeably improved their acting game even with only limited time to do so.
I suppose, in part, it’s from seeing others pursue the art of performance on a piecemeal basis that I’ve been left with the unshakeable belief that it’s quite possible to cobble together, over time, a foundation for an understanding of the craft of performing, as well as a talented, practical ability to do so when called upon.
A good acting class meeting once a week, or a well-run, exciting, engaging “intensive” performance workshop that meets for only two hours a day for three days can be more than enough to get a potentially talented performer steered in the right direction—materially as well as inspirationally.
It’s safe to say a considerable portion of the performer talent pool in the United States got started performing and/or maintaining their craft exclusively through one-off workshops and part-time classes.
While traveling and booking future theatre work for myself in Australia (and New Zealand) in 2003, I met and befriended an actor from New Zealand who had a fairly healthy film and TV career, in addition to the occasional well paid theatre gig.
He had not even started acting until his late 20s and certainly made no money at it until his mid- to late-30s.
One of the things that most impressed me about him was that he’d organized a kind of self-study acting class designed for aspiring actors to run and manage themselves.
These were mostly actors who’d previously had some kind of training and exposure and wanted to keep up and advance their acting skills. I met with some of these students and worked on play material with them—they were mostly working class kids that had to hold full-time jobs to pay the bills.
I found most of them to be quite talented in their own particular way, and I remember thinking in time any one of them might move up to paid acting work.
When I encounter people in their 30s and 40s who’ve decided to give themselves the gift of an acting class they always wanted to take, I tell them the story of two American actors that started late and part-time: John Mahoney and Gene Hackman.
John Mahoney is known to most Americans as Martin Crane, the father role on the hit TV series FRASIER, which ran from 1993 until 2004.
Mahoney was near the age of 40 when he finally decided to quit his day job as a medical journalist and enroll in acting classes. Within a few years he was asked by John Malkovich to join the now famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago where he has done many, many lead roles (I saw him in a wonderful play called ORPHANS).
Years later, he would be working as a featured actor on one of the longest and most successful shows in American TV history.
One of my favorite actors, Academy Award winner Gene Hackman, was past 30 when he finally decided to enroll in an organized acting program.
In that program, he and classmate Dustin Hoffman were voted “least likely to succeed.”
Hackman is on record as saying he knew he wanted to be an actor from about the age of 20.
To sum all this up, if you have any desire to try your hand at acting, give yourself a gift—enroll in a performance workshop.
Alex Murphy is an IAFT Acting Mentor. His professional career in film, television and theater has spanned both the United States and Europe. After graduating from the University of South Florida, Murphy went on to be involved in numerous New York stage productions. His work in the U.S. in film and television includes One Life To Live, All My Children, Madman and Guts. His European movies and shows include Kiler, Mlode Wilki, Success and Awkwarium.