Making Your Own Work
How to create your own performing work
An account of how we started producing our own work, with tips and ideas to help those who wish to start working as a performer for themselves.
“Hi diddly de, an actors’ life for me,” goes the song, but is it possible to be a jobbing actor all the time and not have to take jobs in café bars, pubs, fast food outlets etc? Well, it is possible, how do I know? Because I’ve done it! Naturally, a few actors are stars and appear in big films, TV shows and stage productions and they can live well from being an actor, but what about the rest of us? You could always start a theatre company! – But I don’t have the money to do that! – So, what can you do? I am writing this blog outlining my own experiences and hopefully that will give readers some ideas on how to start making one’s own work. Through this, you will probably read things you already know, or there are things you are not interested in doing – that’s fine but hopefully you can adapt my scenarios to suit your own circumstances.
I always say, “those in showbusiness always focus on the show, but tend to forget the business!” Being an actor is a business, not a job. A lot of the time we work for others, be that a film company, TV production company or theatre company. But we don’t get cast and stay in the role for 30 years! We have to constantly apply for work. A lot of the time we get rejected – that’s par for the course. But how can we work when no one is prepared to hire us at a given time? Well, we create our own work. Really, as an actor you have to focus on the two sides of you! There is the personal YOU, (that is the person you are) and then there is the product YOU. The product YOU is the commodity that you sell. The commodity that is unique with its own style of performance and the skills that commodity possesses, such as singing, dancing, comedy, etc. If you set up a market stool and sell household goods, you don’t feel worthless everytime a potential customer passes you by without buying anything. I believe, as an actor, you need to adopt that same principle. The commodity YOU is just the product you are selling. The personal YOU is the real you and if a potential client doesn’t take an interest in the commodity you are selling, move on to the next potential client.
The next point of focus for me, is the title of the commodity. Are you an actor? Are you a singer? Are you a dancer etc, you are probably some, if not all, of these things? For me, I use the title best suited to the engagement I am seeking. If I am applying for a role in a cabaret show, I might say I am a singer. If I apply for a role in a dance show, I market myself as a dancer. Of course, if I am applying for a role in a play, I class myself as an actor. As an overall title, I call myself a performer.
So, you are a performer, and you would rather work performing than working in a fill in job in a café, bar, or temping? So, how do you do that? The product
The product is the commodity you are going to market. What is the commodity? The commodity is all the things you can do.
Firstly, write a list of all the skills that you have. These skills have to be of a good standard. Don’t say you are an experienced stage combat artist when the only sword fight experience you have is play fighting with your little brother with a toy sword in the garden!
Once you have a list of the skills You may have something like:
Character actor – (List type of characters you play)
With your list of commodities, you then have to structure those skills into specific routines or acts.If you can sing, list the type of songs you like to sing. If you are a dancer, choreograph some routines. The main thing to consider is your market. You will need to think about the type of people you are going to market to. Considering your market, you then build your routine / show. For example, you may decide to market to children’s party bookers and so, you devise a children’s activity show using the skills you have. When you create your show, create it with your target audience and market in mind. It is not really a good idea to create a show that you love, but no one else is interested in or there is no market for your show. The Market
This is really important as you need to work out and research the market for your commodity, (your act / show). There are many markets out there that you can tap into. If you are taking your first steps into marketing your own work and you don’t have much money, you will have to accept you are going to start small and build up. Financial backing can make your business grow faster. If you have no financial backing, accept it is going to take a bit longer.
I am going to start small, here. If you have no financial backing or not a lot of savings, you can start small and build upwards. If you follow this route, make sure you put a little bit of money from each gig you do, so as to have a budget to work with later. If you have some money to invest you can skip to further down, where I discuss putting on plays and starting a theatre business. The following ideas are to get you started.
So, what type of markets are out there? Here are some of the market’s examples, but you may find some of your own. Care Homes
Care homes are always looking for entertainers to come and entertain the residents. They like singers, dancers, magicians, puppeteers, pantomime performers, comedy routines etc. Ideally you will need to create about a 1hour act with your skills. You also need to remember the audiences are invariably going to be elderly, so you act must appeal to them. So, if you sing, put together a set of songs that you could do. Makes some notes about each song so you can give a little talk about the songs before you perform them. You may even put some jokes in. Equally, if you are good at comedy, put together a comedy routine with slapstick etc. If putting routines together seems daunting, don’t worry because I shall go into this in more detail later.
Local Social Clubs and Associations
Associations like, towns women’s guild, Round Table and Rotary clubs, working men’s clubs, football, cricket, rugby and golf clubs are always looking for new entertainment. That could be anything from giving a talk to a full-on event show like a medieval banquet or murder mystery evening.
Hotels often look for performers for a whole host of events such as weddings, parties, conferences and for general entertainment for guests. You can drop off your business card or a leaflet so they can inform any group that uses the hotel, and they are looking for entertainment.
Some years ago, I worked at a hotel on the Isle of Wight as show Compere and we had different acts coming in each night. One chap was an actor who could sing, and he had put together an act of songs from the musicals. He had a suitcase with basic costumes such as a cloak, hat and mask for Phantom and the same cloak for Fagin. He had a little case of backing tracks and toured around the Southeast by train. When he was not acting, he was touring around hotels with his act performing 5 or 6 times a week.
There are many people who like to book entertainment for their own private function. This could be a children’s party, a murder mystery evening, a cabaret for a wedding party or a dinner party quiz night. Many of these private individuals use services websites where they can submit their details and requests and wait for quotes to come in from entertainers.
There are several lead generating websites such as Add to Event and Bark. On these websites you create a profile and tick the type of entertainment you do. They then send you leads from the general public, organisations, clubs and companies. They do charge for this service which is usually about £2- £4 per response. You send the client information about your services and hope they book you! If you write a decent quote and add some pics, you will get clients booking you. The good thing is everytime you do a gig the website gets feedback from the client and adds it to your profile. They NEVER put-up negative feedback without contacting you first. This way you can grow your entertainment service business quiet easily because new clients are influenced by the testimonial’s others have given you.
There are other entertainment websites that list jobs such as Entsweb and there are entertainment agency websites where you simply list your services, directory websites in other words. These are free to list on, but the agency deals with the bookings and takes a percentage from your fee. Don’t forget to add this on to you fee! I.e., If you normally charge £200 for a gig, add on £30 to cover the agency commission. What sort of money can I realistically get from doing things as set out above?
Well, obviously that depends on how much effort you put in marketing yourself, how far you are willing to travel etc. But we manage to get around 2 to 3 bookings a week doing the above and our fees range from around £150 for a small 1 hour gig up to around £400 for larger gigs. We do these types of gigs, so we are able to use some of the profits to finance our theatre shows.
Now, you might say, “Yeah, but I’m not interested in doing kids parties or care homes, I want to act!” That’s fine but, this style of work is better than working in a bar. It also helps you build up capital to invest in theatre type shows later.
How do I create an act?
Use your imagination! Look at the list of skills you have that you made earlier. Then consider the style of performing you may do. Build you show around your skills. Your show could be narrative based where a theme runs through it, or it might be a purely variety based show.
Our example of how we started might help. A contract we were counting on fell through in October 2013 and we suddenly found ourselves without any work for Christmas. We didn’t have much money as we had been through a difficult patch the previous couple of years. We came up with the idea of putting a pantomime together for care homes. We telephoned care homes and told them we were offering a panto that would come to their home for the residence. We asked about their budgets for entertainment and found out they were happy to pay around £130 to £150 for 1 hour. We told them we could do this and literally within a few days of ringing around, we had booked up 3 solid weeks in December working 7 days a week. So, we were due to take about £2,600.00 for Christmas. But we didn’t have a show yet! Well, each booking we secured, we sent them a basic contract and requested a small deposit. This gave us about £200 up front. This was our budget to create the show. We visited charity shops and bought old bed sheets and by getting poster paints from the pound shop, we managed to make some simple scenery. We made some wooden frames to hang the backcloths on and voila! We had a set! Costumes we managed to make or adapt or buy ready made from joke, charity shops, etc. Then we needed sound! Luckily, we found a second-hand amp in a pawn broker type shop for about £25.00. Someone gave us a couple of old stereo speakers and be bought some backing tracks. We then set about writing the script and rehearsing it in the front room. The small tour around our hometown was a success. Not only did we enjoy performing in panto every day, but it was also exciting that the whole production was ours and we were proud that we had created everything as well. The icing on the cake was, we had money to invest in further projects after the Christmas holiday!
How to market your act
You will really need internet connection here and a computer. To begin with you should make a flier for your act / show. Doesn’t have to be anything really complicated. Your photo, text about what you do and contact details. A website is a good idea where you can put more information and pictures and links to Youtube videos. If you can’t afford a website to begin with, you can create a business Facebook page.
Once you have your flier/Facebook page/website start sourcing your market. If you are aiming to take shows into care homes, there are several care home listing websites where you can list your services under their entertainment section. Some are free to list, some charge. The main thing here is to get your details listed on as many listing websites as you can. With Facebook, engage with groups where your target audiences are. Netmums, for example if you are available for children’s parties.
This is the real time-consuming bit, but it does pay off. You may also get in touch with your local councillor who can direct you to local arts and entertainment schemes. As I mentioned before, you can set up a profile with lead generating website like Add to Event or Bark. With these sites you get regular leads coming through, which you then respond to giving your details, your show and your price. These do cost though. Sending a quote may be 2 or 3 credits and you buy about 20 credits for about £24.
Equipment and travelling
Even if you have a small act or show, you are likely going to have equipment. That could be a suitcase of costumes and a music player, and you need to be able to travel. If you have a car, you are in a very good position! If you don’t have a car, do you know someone that does and could take you to your gigs? Alternatively, if you live in a city and your equipment is not too much, you could possibly use public transport. I do know of a company that use taxis! I mentioned before the chap who travelled around by train to hotels. Your transport should also be something you consider when putting your show together.
All of the above suggestions are to give you ideas to get going, especially if you don’t have much to invest to start with. It may not be what you want to do long term, but it is a way to bring in extra money and you are working at being a performer. As you grow you will be able to invest more into your business.
Remember, with all of the above, you are paid a fee to perform, so you don’t lose anything. The risks are very low. You get paid!
When you start to produce your own work and start a theatre company, you will need to take some financial risks.
Moving on and starting a theatre company
So, you want to start a theatre company? Or at the very least put on a show? This can seem like a very overwhelming proposition and virtually impossible to do. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Usually, it seems a daunting task because you are aiming too high to begin with. Like anything in life, you have to start small and build. So where to begin? Let’s say you want to put on a show. Okay, ask yourself, what type of show? How many people in the show? It could be you on your own in a one person show, or you may have others join you.
Be aware, though, that staging your own show is risky and not necessarily as lucrative as working in the variety sector as detailed above. There is a lot more uncertainty when staging your own show. You are going to have to find a venue and you are going to need others to help you. There is publicity and marketing, all of which cost money and there is no guarantee you will get that money back!
The most important thing when planning to put on your own show is to work out a budget based on what you can afford. You need capital! So, look at what money you have that you are prepared to invest and possibly loose. There is no defining figure, but we shall use the amount of £500 for this example. Budget
So, you have your budget of £500 and you are now ready to start planning your show. Questions to ask yourself?
How many performances do I run for?
Who do I need to help me in this? – i.e., how many cast members/ tech team do I need and how much do I pay them?
What sort of set do I need? And how much is it likely to cost?
What are my transport requirements and how much is that going to cost?
Marketing costs? How many posters and fliers will I need?
Already the costs are mounting and £500 looks like a drop in the ocean for all the costs this show is going to take. Okay, lets look at it more closely.
So, you have £500 to spend. First thing is your venue. Where shall I put on my show? Here you have to consider your show and who it appeals to and who it is aimed at. Where is the best venue for the audience I want to attract? Again, we have to consider our show and our market.
For your first venture in show producing, I would advise starting small and producing a show that has a wide appeal. Nothing too heavy or political. The Venue
There are two types of venues to consider – small fringe theatres and community centres. It is likely you will be asked to pay a hire charge. This is something to always try and avoid! If you approach a fringe theatre, ask them if they will do a box office split with you. That means the total amount of ticket sales are split between you and the venue. This could be something like 60 / 40 in your favour. Some fringe venues may also seek a guarantee. That is they want, say the first £100 out of the takings and a box office split thereafter. A community centre usually will ask you to pay a hire charge, but depending on where you are, this need not be that expensive. In any event, talk with a community centre manager to see if you can do a joint production to get locals into the centre. They may then offer a box office split like the fringe theatres. Finally, you have to see what your total loss would be if no one bought any tickets! This sounds alarming, but you have to look at the worst-case scenario. If a fringe or community venue is going to cost you a £100 in guarantee if no one turns up you have to judge if you can afford to lose this. Out of the £500 is it worth taking the risk, in my opinion. So, whatever happens, you could lose £100.
You still have £400 in your budget. Wait though because the next thing to look at is costs for cast and tech personal. Don’t forget you are also going to need to pay people for rehearsal as well as the show and rehearsal space! Never underpay staff! It is not good practice. Professional people deserve to be paid properly! Really and truly on your first venture, keep your staffing levels to the bare minimum. You may have a cast of 2, you and someone else. If there are just 2 of you, do you need any tech crew? Can you manage to work your own sound cues from the stage? Again, this is a consideration when writing you show. By far the best thing is to do the project as a joint venture with friends who want to do the show as a project, and everyone operates under a profit share basis. But you do have to make sure others are happy with this and understand there is a risk they will not get paid anything. You may offer to pay expenses and food in lieu of a fee but check this with them first!
With rehearsals, see if it is possible to rehearse at home in your front room, or in the garden, or in the park? This will cost you nothing.
Set, props, and costumes.
Make your show simple! Don’t have too many costume changes or loads of unusual props. Can you use household items you have already got at home? Can you perform the show in modern dress?
What kind of set do I need? Again, devise your show with an easy setting. Not just in terms of cost, but in terms of transportation. Loads of scenery is going to cost a lot to make and a lot to transport. Does the venue have things you can use? Like a table and chairs that you could put covers over? Keep your set minimal.
Getting your show to the venue
If you have a car, great! But do remember to devise your set, costumes and props so they will fit in the car! If you don’t, can someone give you a lift? Or can you go on public transport? Everything will need to go in suitcases that you can both carry! You could go by taxi as long as the venue is not too far away. If you can afford it, you may hire a car. The only thing with hiring is you may have to pay a large deposit up front. Again, travel is an important consideration when planning your show.
Once you have got your venue, your show and transport sorted, you need to market your show and sell tickets. If you are using a fringe venue, they may ask you for fliers and posters as they invariably do market themselves and will help you. You can design your posters on your computer and get them printed by companies such as Vistaprint. You can expect to spend around £50 to £100 on these. You should also use social media to advertise your show, create an event of Facebook and constantly post on as many social media platforms as possible. Also, ensure you are listed on every “What’s On” websites you can find! Send out a press release to local newspapers, radio and TV stations. Try and come up with an angle with your press release rather than just talking about the show. You might say something like, local group created a theatre piece from scratch and have battled to get the show on for the people of the community.
How much are your tickets going to be? Here you have to be realistic. With a fringe venue they can guide you as they usually have an average ticket price that they charge. For your first venture when you are not known, it is a good idea to make your tickets slightly less than the average. Not too much but by a pound or so.
I always calculate ticket prices by starting with the total cost of putting the show on at that venue. In this case, our £500. Then I look at the capacity of the venue. Let’s say it is 100 seats. I then take a quarter of the capacity, here it is 25, and ask, “If I sell 25 tickets, how much do they need to be to get £500?” The answer is £20 per ticket. But then I need to see if this is the average ticket price. If the average ticket price is normally £10 and I decide to sell at £8, how many tickets do I need to sell to make £500? Answer is 63 (63 x £8 = £504) Based on this, I need to sell 63 tickets! Actually, you may need to sell more as there are usually ticket sales costs. These can vary but check with the venue what their rate is if they are selling tickets on your behalf.
Another way is to sell your tickets via platforms such as Ticketsource or Eventbrite. With these sites you can choose to pass the commission on to the customer. This means the customer pays £8 plus around 50p commission. You then get the full £8 per ticket after the show. They pay you about a week after your last performance. These sites also allow you to create a listings page which also is a good way of marketing.
Making the budget work
So, by going along the above route, we have spent £100 on the venue, £100 on the fliers and posters, let’s say £100 for set, props, and costumes. That leaves us with £200. Out of that we pay for travel, food etc. Tickets are being sold through an online box office service and will cost us nothing! So, we could just about do it. We could even have £100 to spare! But, remember, the £500 budget is our stake money and we should be prepared to lose it! It is a gamble! If we are lucky, we can make our money back and if we sell out, we make a profit. All that depends on how much time you sit at your computer and actively market your show and how much your show subject matter appeals to the target audience.
If all fails and you lose £200 from your project, you have done it! You have mounted and produced your first production. You will learn where you went wrong, you will learn about producing a show and you will begin the process of starting your own theatre company. If you look at what you gain from the experience a cost of £200 is no bad thing for all the knowledge you have now gained. Next time you will be able to produce a show knowing the problems and hopefully turning a profit!
Going back to the ideas mentioned at the outset, such as performing in care homes, children’s parties etc. If you build that side of the business up, you will find that you will have profits from the variety work as you are paid to perform and some of those profits can go to support your theatre producing projects.
Funding is great if you can get it and it is always worthwhile pursuing this. You could get funding for start-up projects, or local community funding. The thing to remember is, funding should be a bonus, not a necessity. Don’t get into the position where if you don’t get the funding, you can’t produce your show. Always plan your productions carefully and budget sensibly.
The more you grow the better at it you will become. You can join organisations such as ITC who can help you as you develop. Network with other theatre companies and venues as much as possible. Everything I have written about here is taken from my own experience. I have, and still do, many of the things here and it works for me. It might not be the right way for others and there are probably those that might disagree with my suggestions and that’s fine. Everyone will find their own way of doing things. You will make mistakes, but if you are determined you will make it work. If nothing else, this blog is to show there are ways of making your own work and it is possible to get on and work as a performer. Yes, there is an awful lot of work to put in, but if you are inspired by what I have written, then that is the positive.
If anyone would like to chat about this further, or about how you can start making your own work based on your own circumstances, I am offering 30 min Zoom sessions to chat with you and answer your queries free of charge. Simply email me at email@example.com and I will let you know dates and times I am free.
For more in-depth training sessions I am able to provide an online consultancy service for £15.00 per hour. Just let me know if you want to book a session.
We went from this in 2014.....
To this in 2022....
In the meantime, I hope this has been informative and that you may now take your first steps to creating your own performance work. It might appear daunting, but small steps, bit by bit, take each aspect as it comes, and you will get there. If we can do it, you can do it!
Best of luck!