Canadian-born performer Lindsey Huebner shares advice for any foreign-born actors who want to get into the UK theatre scene.
No one is saying that the UK theatre industry is an easy place for anyone to make a decent living, but what if you have the added challenge of being an actor who comes from away?
In this article I’ll describe some of the challenges faced by those of us who are not native to these shores and offer practical tools for ingratiating into the UK’s theatre scene. I’m going to focus on those who have a right to work in the UK; but these tools, although tailored to those of us who come from abroad, can be applied to anyone trying to find their place in the theatre industry.
There are as many roadmaps to success as there are successful people, but the one commonality that stands out to me among expats who have made it as performers in this country, is that they embrace who they are.
If nothing else, know that no matter where you’re from, you bring a unique perspective and experience that people want to see. We long for authenticity and vulnerability so instead of trying to cram yourself into a mould that doesn’t quite fit, throw it all away and try being unapologetically yourself. Your agents and friends have the best intentions when they try to steer you, but knowing yourself and having confidence in what you bring as a performer has to be the foundation upon which you build everything else.
Finances and Tax
If you’re just arriving in the UK, doing a bit of work early on can ensure a smooth ride and avoid the tax season panic. Make it easy for yourself so you can focus on what you do best.
- Get a National Insurance number
- Register as self-employed ASAP
- If your income is primarily self-employed, you’ll want to put money aside each month for tax and National Insurance contributions (±15% of net earnings depending on tax bracket)
- Read Spotlight’s advice on filing tax returns
Accents and dialects
A director friend of mine once told me that the reason I wasn’t getting bigger auditions was because of my native accent. Another director in a casting once expressed surprise at my voice, saying, “I thought [insert drama school] would have beaten that accent out of you.”
The advice one often hears as a non-UK born performer from agents, casting directors, friends, etc. is vast and at times contradictory, so let yourself off the hook as there is no definite right answer to approaching accents and dialects as a non-native in auditions.
I spoke to several other non-Brit performers to get their thoughts on how to deal with accents:
- Only audition in an accent or dialect other than your own if you really feel like you can act through it. This doesn’t mean it has to be technically perfect, but rather that it is not tripping you up or holding you back. They want to see a character, not a performance of an accent.
- Work on your RP and the accent of the city in which you have settled. Make them watertight and expand your repertoire from there based on the types of roles you are most often seen for and those you wish to pursue.
- Keep your ears open and refine your listening. We haven’t grown up hearing the same diversity of sounds as home-grown Brits, so even consciously taking in the symphony of accents can give you an edge.
- Read Spotlight’s tips on how to master an accent.
- Visit accent learning databases Spikizi or Idea.
- Work 1-to-1 with a coach.
And finally, remember to have some perspective. We all know there’s more to being an actor than accents and dialects, so do not despair if accents don’t come easily to you.
Diversify Your Day Job
There’s a myth I believe many of us were fed that somehow, we’re less of an actor if we do anything else besides acting. This notion can be incredibly limiting, not to mention elitist. It’s so easy to get caught in the trap of working insane hours with little time to do what you came to this country to do. If this sounds like you, maybe it’s time to rethink how you make your money.
Try your absolute hardest to find a job that utilises your skills, pays you adequately and does not hurt your soul. I realise how simplistic this makes a tricky, often luck-based endeavour seem. It will take some reworking to get the balance right, but the time it takes to find your perfect fit is worth its weight in gold. Some examples of flexible roles with decent pay include: singing teacher, acting coach, extras work, personal trainer, yoga teacher, massage therapist, copywriter, ghost writer, photographer, graphic designer, celebrant, consultant, public speaking coach, life model, LAMDA coach, kids’ party entertainer, theatre features writer, to name but a few.
Find your tribe
It sounds cheesy, but finding your people within the industry is highly practical and potentially transformative. So much of our existence is leaden with competition and jealousy, so find camaraderie where you can. Join Facebook groups and invite people out for coffee/pints. Cultivating creative networks with like minded individuals not only ultimately yields work, but it also makes the whole struggle a lot less lonely.
Make Your Own Work
You’ve risked enough to get here and you have a voice; now is the time to use it. You have a unique perspective on the world and your place in it – not to mention the potential to move and inspire others to do the same.
If you have an interest in writing, start putting pen to page; if you want to produce, start reaching out to playwrights you respect and otherwise help facilitate the creation of the work you admire. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, start the process of making the work that you’d want to be a part of, work that you’d go to see. Be a part of creating and producing the innovative and masterful work for which this country is known around the world.
We all know this industry has no guarantees, so if you’re in for the long haul, make sure that you love where you’ve settled regardless of any potential for external ‘success’. Make work in a place that you want to be; that excites you; that’s worthy of the sacrifices you undoubtedly had to make in order to get here. If the UK is that place for you, congratulations and welcome home. The industry is better for having you in it. Now let’s get to work.
Lindsey hails from Canada and hopped across the pond to train as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and has called the UK her home ever since. She has worked as an actor, voice artist, writer and facilitator in the UK and abroad. When not immersing herself in world class theatre, she can be found teaching yoga and fixing up her narrowboat on the canals of London.
Headshot by Paul Nicholas Dyke
Main image by Samuel Regan-Asante via Unsplash