‘Make sure you’re always ready to work’ – how to build your personal acting toolkit

jobbing-actor-24879-800x600-1Whatever situation you find yourself in as an actor – whether you’re currently on a job, or juggling resting jobs whilst waiting to audition – there’s always something you can be doing to ensure you’re prepared when that life-changing opportunity comes your way.   

Here, in an extract from their book The Jobbing Actor, accredited coaches Anita Gilbert and Letty Butler – who have between them over forty years’ experience in the business – share how to keep yourself in that state of readiness, along with an exercise to help your professional development…

Actors spend their lives waiting. Waiting to audition. Waiting to hear the outcome. Waiting for someone to grant them the opportunity to be an actor.


If you do something every single day that makes you an actor, you are an actor. You’re always an actor whether you’re working or not, but it’s up to you to make sure you are always ready to work. YOU ARE YOUR BUSINESS. It’s as simple as that. You have to make sure every part of your business is in good working order at all times – your voice, your body, your brain and your ‘toolkit’ (i.e. your skillset).

As Paapa Essiedu says: ‘90% of this job is not acting, but making sure you are ready for it.’

Paapa Essiedu

Paapa Essiedu | © Financial Times

You can help yourself maintain a constant state of readiness by paying particular attention to your toolkit. There is nothing worse than feeling unprepared when a last-minute, potentially life-changing audition comes in. Putting a little time, effort and yes – occasionally money – aside to build on or refresh your skills is essential (not to mention tax deductible). The readier you are, the more confident you will feel in the room. The more skills you have, the more findable you are in a Spotlight search and ultimately, the more chance you have of landing a job. It’s simple maths.

If a part requires horse-riding and you haven’t so much as sat on a donkey, you’re not going to get seen for it. It’s equally futile to have a chokka-block toolkit full of rusty spanners. Going to an audition claiming you’re fluent in Urdu when you haven’t spoken it for twelve years is only going to result in embarrassment – not just for you, but the casting director who’s suggested you. Do you think they’ll ever bring you in again? No. You wouldn’t employ a plumber who once showed up with a banana to fix the shower would you?

But we get it. As a performer, you’re most likely juggling resting jobs whilst waiting for that audition, or perhaps you’re in the midst of a tough theatre tour with scant spare time to learn how to skateboard. But in the words of Coldplay, ‘nobody said it was easy’. The two biggest factors in creating change are persistence and effort, in addition to tiny habits and a growth mindset. The trick is to start small and believe you can do it. We’re not asking you to sign up to do a ten-week intensive clowning course, just ten minutes of focused work on acquiring or maintaining a skill every day can make all the difference.


You don’t need to do a ten-week intensive clowning course to keep developing as an actor | Photo © Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Let’s try an exercise.  Get a piece of paper, some pens and give yourself at least half an hour for this. Make three columns: Existing, Tactical and Curious (ETC).


What skills have you already got? List them all. Languages, sports, instruments – even weird and wacky things you might not deem relevant. You never know what a job might require.

Underline the ones that need work and put a star next to any that you are already skilled at.


List any skills that might enhance your professional appeal. Accents? Audio narration? Motion capture?

If you need inspiration, think about people in your life and all the things they can do. We tend to forget that characters are based on real people, with real skills. Yes, you might be required to whip out some stage combat or historical dance for a theatre audition, but what about commercials, TV and films? It’s more likely you’ll be reading for a character who can play golf, ride a motorbike or shuffle a deck of cards, so look at contemporary, everyday skills in addition to traditional ‘drama school skills’.

Once you’ve done that, think about films, TV series or plays you’ve watched and what was required of the actors in them. A specific accent? Underwater swimming? Pancake tossing? Doesn’t matter how irrelevant it seems, get it down.


Make a third list of activities or things that interest you. Dig deep.

If you’ve always harboured a deep fascination with taxidermy or skydiving or becoming a croupier, get it on the list. We can’t emphasise enough that you never know what casting directors or producers are looking for, so nothing’s ever wasted. Plus, if you enjoy learning something, the likelihood is that you’ll put the work in to achieve it and you’ll always have something interesting to talk about in the audition.

Pick one skill to focus from any of the three lists and incorporate it into your targets this week. Remember to start small. Tiny habits = big changes.

Keep this list somewhere safe. Next time you find yourself ‘waiting’, decide that you’re going to use the time proactively instead and tackle your toolkit. It’s not waiting, it’s development.


Letty Butler (left) and Anita Gilbert (right), authors of The Jobbing Actor

This is an edited extract from The Jobbing Actor: A Coaching Programme for Actors by Letty Butler and Anita Gilbert, out now.

Get your copy of this innovative six-week coaching programme – filled with industry-focused and holistic exercises and challenges, plus uplifting advice, practical hints and tips – at 20% when you order direct from our website.

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