‘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.

‘Anyone can improve their memory’ – Mark Channon on how to learn your lines more quickly, easily and confidently

MarkChannon_blogheadshotWhether it’s a script for a play, scenes for next day’s shooting, or sides sent over shortly in advance of an audition, every actor will be familiar with the process of trying to get their lines off the page and into their brain.

The pressures of line-learning can cause anxiety, and the fear of forgetting them can hit your confidence, your focus, and ultimately your performance – but it doesn’t have to be this way. With practice, experimentation and patience, it’s possible to strengthen your memory, reduce that pressure, and find a memorisation strategy that fits into your own process as a performer.

Here, Mark Channon – performance coach, ‘Grand Master of Memory’, and author of Learning Your Lines – explains how to go about improving your memory, and creating a personalised line-learning approach you’ll come back to again and again.

If you were to score your memory between one to ten, how good would you say it is, where ten is the best possible version and one is the memory of a goldfish?

When I ask this question to a room of a hundred people, around twenty per cent believe they have poor memories (ranking themselves 1–3), seventy per cent believe they are average (4–7), and only a small percentage, usually around ten per cent, believe they have excellent memories (8–10).

How good we believe our memory to be can have an impact on how we approach a situation. Let’s say you have an audition tomorrow and you believe you have a poor memory; this will make you believe perhaps that you ‘can’t do it’, or that your ‘memory isn’t good enough to learn lines quickly’. You may even have past experiences to back both of these statements up. However, when you approach any type of memorisation or learning with this type of belief, it’s going to increase your levels of anxiety and impact on your performance.

The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well: the name you didn’t remember; the fact that slipped your mind; the location of your keys. But these are only a few of the jobs our memory performs, and like any set of challenges, they can be overcome with the right strategy; indeed, if you were to think about all the memories you have stored throughout your entire life, you would start to realise that your memory is, in fact, phenomenal.


‘The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well’

With regards to improving your memory, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that there is no magic bullet; improving your memory is a skill, and like any skill, it will require time, effort and commitment.

The good news, though, is that improving your memory is a skill, therefore it’s something you can learn! All you need is a set of compelling reasons and some good habits and routines. Once these are in place, anyone can improve their memory. For actors, the compelling reasons are usually the big rewards you’ll earn: increased confidence, a strategy to learn lines rapidly, the ability to make lines stick, and the chance to have more freedom in auditions and performance.

But what habits and routines should you be using? This is where my book, Learning Your Lines, comes in. It includes dozens of tips, tricks and techniques such as Memory Palaces (yes, like in Sherlock), Mental Maps, Creative Memorisation, Visual Cues and many more, along with exercises and examples to illustrate how they work in practice. You’ll discover how to harness these tools to strengthen your memory, and develop a personalised line-learning strategy that works for you and your acting process – one that is easier, faster and more enjoyable.


You too could build a mind palace like Sherlock Holmes (image from Sherlock © BBC)

In writing the book, I’ve drawn on both my own real-world experiences as an actor using these strategies for myself, as well as my many years coaching and training other actors. By both practising and teaching memory strategies I have developed a systematic approach not just to learning lines quickly, but also to building confidence and focus when applying this approach.

Let’s take a look at of one of the strategies I cover in the book.

The Chain Method

The Chain Method taps into our amazing visual memories; more than this, it also utilises our love for stories. Stories are easy to remember and hard to forget! In my experience, it is generally easier to remember the story and details of a fictional book than details of a non-fiction book, which might contain complex frameworks, terminology and facts.

When reading a story, you are in a state of flow whilst bringing the world to life with your imagination, making connections between characters and plots and, most importantly, making sense of things whilst being emotionally invested as if it were you at the centre of the story.

One of the differences between fiction and fact is that, with the first, you do not try to remember, it just happens through your heightened observation as you find yourself becoming part of the experience. With non-fiction, however, you tend to be much more focused on remembering, which ends up being counterintuitive. Stories that we experience can become unforgettable.

Try the activity below and see how the Chain Method works using the power of your visual memory and stories.

In a moment, you will read a story that includes fifteen main words. Each of these words is connected together with an association either visually, by narrative, or both. All you have to do is let the story come to life in your mind as clearly as you can, and give your attention to the details – what you see, hear, feel, smell or even taste. I’ll ask you to read through this story three times.

Imagine this:

Big Ben is wearing a fur coat, he’s bouncing up and down on a springboard and dives into a large pot of honey. Out of the honey jumps a dinosaur. The dinosaur is wearing a baseball cap and swinging a baseball bat. He starts smashing up a Ferrari with the baseball bat. Driving the Ferrari is Tom Cruise, Tom is holding a gigantic cigar; he takes a cigar and puts it out on the head of a bald-headed man. The bald-headed man is eating a big sticky chocolate bar. Wrapped around the chocolate bar is a slimy snake, the snake is playing the drums and drinking a bottle of beer.

Read this through two more times, bringing it to life with more clarity each time.

Now test yourself out. Grab a piece of paper and write down as many of the keywords as you can remember in order (not the whole story). When I run this activity with anything from thirty to a hundred people, most will remember over ten words. If you are in the group that remembers all fifteen, well done! If you happen to get less than ten, stick with it.

People often ask me: ‘How long does it take to develop a good memory?’ From my observations over the last twenty-five years as a trainer and coach in memory and performance, you can see improvement relatively quickly – usually within a week or two. However, to permanently establish the skill requires around six weeks of consistent daily practice: at least ten to twenty minutes per day.


Tom Cruise in a Ferrari – did you remember it? If not, stick with it!

This six-week time span was backed up by two neuroscientists, Boris Konrad (also a world-class memory athlete) and Martin Dresler. Their research demonstrated that if you practise memory techniques daily then, in around six weeks, you see a change in the activity of your brain; your memory essentially becomes more efficient.

My hope is that Learning Your Lines will help you in this endeavour. Think of it as a set of ingredients in a recipe, rather than a fixed menu. As with all recipes, it’s beneficial to follow it as laid out at first. The first time, it may not turn out as expected, but with practice your skill will improve, and with enough time you will build the confidence to experiment with ideas, remove what doesn’t work, and add in what does, until you can eventually create something that feels personal and specifically yours.

Because if there is one thing that has stood out for me when working with other actors, it is this: everyone has their own process. Whether you follow Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Meisner, your own gut or some other method, the outcome for most actors seems to be the same: create an authentic character, be faithful to the story, live in the moment and react truthfully.

So whatever your process, you will hopefully discover that there is a way to integrate what you learn from the book into your method of working. Think about your craft as an actor and how these ideas can be added to augment your existing practice, rather than changing the essence of your process.

Above all, I have one simple suggestion for you in terms of approach: ‘Make it your own.’ You are much more likely to use what you own for yourself, and taking ownership is crucial to deriving real value from what you are about to experience.

On a personal note, there’s something that I have always loved about acting: the playfulness and impact it has in the way it creates and recreates imaginary characters and worlds, and gives audiences experiences that can elicit a feeling of entertainment and a sense of reflection. It can even be a catalyst for change. My hope for you is that you approach learning your lines with that same intention. Get creative, make it meaningful and you’ll make it memorable!


‘Use it to create something that feels personal and specifically yours’ – Learning Your Lines by Mark Channon

This is an edited extract from Learning Your Lines: The Compact Guide by Mark Channon, published by Nick Hern Books.

Mark Channon trained and worked as an actor for many years, including at the National Theatre and in the West End, before becoming a Grand Master of Memory at the World Memory Championships. He now works as a trainer and coach in Memory and High Performance, and has written several books on memory improvement.