Going pro: A guide for the parents of young actors

As a voice teacher in the Philadelphia region, I am lucky to have several young students who do professional work as singers and actors. New students and their parents often ask me about going pro. Below are some thoughts and resources to get you started. 

Photo from Flickr, by Fort Meade

THREE QUESTIONS

Before you decide to have your child pursue professional acting, you need to have these essential things in place:

1. Family commitment: Children and their parents must be committed to making things work. Professional acting is an intense way of life that affects the entire family: the young actor, any siblings, and both parents. If just the child wants it or just the parents want it, that's not enough. Decide what you want and set limits, if needed. Some families restrict themselves to their home state, while others pursue bi-coastal careers in NYC and LA. You might consider limiting yourself by genre: commercials, theater, TV, or movies.

2. Disposable income: Families need to invest a lot of money (often several thousand dollars) into a child's career before they earn anything back. Costs include head shots, trips to Philly/NYC, clothing, lodging, classes, and private lessons. Many families spend far more than the child ever makes. Some go into debt. Others break even. Very few make a substantial profit. I advise parents to approach their child's acting career as a fun and educational experience. Just don't expect to get rich, and don't invest money you can't afford to lose. 

Also, don't worry if you lack the means to help your child pursue professional acting. (Many successful actors never acted as children. And being a child performer is not right for everyone.) For now, you can encourage your child by taking advantage of low-cost opportunities like school shows and community theater. Encourage a teen to get a part-time job to pay for training. Also, many theaters with education programs offer scholarships to students who qualify.

3. Flexible schedule: Actors often get called for last-minute auditions; you need to be able to drop everything and go to NYC or Philly at a moment's notice. Of course, you can always turn down audition opportunities, but agents (who earn a percentage of their clients' pay) will encourage you to attend as many as possible.

4. Emotional maturity: Child actors and their families must be prepared to work hard and quickly. They must learn to manage nervousness and handle rejection. (Every actor will receive far more "no's" than "yes's.") Parents must put aside their own disappointment and deliver bad news without crushing a child. 

Children must also learn to accept both compliments and criticism. On the one hand, family, friends, and audience members may be wowed by a child's talent and lavish him or her with praise. But the same performance may invoke criticism from a director or teacher who feels the child can do better. Children need to recognize that audiences and professionals have different expectations. As professionals themselves, they will be held to a higher standard than their non-professional peers.

In addition, children may encounter jealousy from other children their age, and they will spend many of their working moments with adults rather than with other kids. While working, they will be expected to behave like the adults around them by being prepared, waiting patiently, remaining focused for long periods of time, and staying quiet when asked.

CONSIDERING TIMING

If you are considering whether your child should pursue professional acting now or later, just keep in mind that the window of opportunity for young actors may be smaller than you think. Acting is a business, and like any business it is focused on the needs of its clients. The early adolescent years can be a "dead zone" for young actors. Once a child begins to progress from "cute little kid" to "transitional teen," work opportunities may fade. Mature-looking teens may find even fewer opportunities, as casting directors often prefer to bypass child labor laws by hiring young-looking adults. (When 30-year-olds play high school students on shows like Glee, even college-age actors may be competing against adults who are more than 10 years older them.)

Parents need to be aware that a child actor may be "hot" one moment and "cold" the next. Just because a child works regularly does not mean that he or she will always have work. Children and parents need to be prepared for the cyclical nature of the business and for the financial and emotional fallout when work opportunities slow down.

Many families choose to pursue professional acting for a limited time before refocusing on academics or preparing for college. Some parents may guide their children away from acting as a long-term career choice; others may encourage them to pursue performing. In my opinion, every actor should be prepared to earn a living outside of performing, as most -- even those who regularly do paid acting work -- will need to earn a living between gigs.

TRAINING AND EVALUATION

Once you've decided that professional acting is the right path for your child, it's time to get a second option. In my experience, parents aren't the best judges of their children's talent, especially if the parents were not performers themselves. Some parents are overly critical, and can't see that their child has a special gift. Others aren't critical enough, and think their kid can do no wrong.

A good teacher will help you identify your child's strengths and weaknesses as a performer. She can also steer you towards other professionals who can help, such as dance or music studios, acting classes, agents, and head shot photographers. (Most of the students I work with perform musical theater and need to be skilled in acting, singing, and dance.) Finally, a teacher can guide you towards appropriate auditions and away from opportunities that aren't right for your child. (Read on for more about the teachers I recommend.)

LEARNING THE BUSINESS

Before you dive into the world of professional acting, learn from someone else who's been there. If you're not sure of the difference between a manager and an agent or an agent and a casting director, you need someone to show you the ropes. Find an acting teacher who can coach you in the business side of things. (See my recommendations below.) Talk to other parents whose children act. Or, spend some time exploring Backstage.com. (The website is a great resource on acting, and they even have a special sections for kids and teens.) Below are some articles to get you started:

CREATING A RESUME

Every budding actor needs a resume, even if he or she has very little experience. If your child has ever taken an acting, singing, or dance class, that's a great place to start. Other information to include: school and grade; hobbies and extra-curricular activities; sports; height, weight, and age. Here's a sample kid's resume. Below are some sites with further guidance and examples: 

GETTING HEAD SHOTS

A head shot tells directors and casting agents what your child looks like and helps them remember him after the audition. Professional head shots usually cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on where you are located. (Philly's leading head shot photographer charges $125-$300 for student actors). If you don't have that kind of money, don't worry. Try these ideas to get a nice photo without spending a fortune:

  • use a school photo
  • visit the portrait studio at JC Penney (sitting fee is $9; CDs and prints cost extra)
  • ask a friend with a good camera to give it a go

Again, read my recommendations and check out Backstage's head shot section for some guidelines to consider.

GAINING EXPERIENCE

No matter how much raw talent your child may have, he or she will need experience acting under pressure. Classes are a great place to start, but it is also important to gain experience doing auditions and acting in productions. Opportunities abound in the Philadelphia region. Start by reading some of my other posts on acting opportunities for kids and teens: 

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Acting Classes:
  • Acting and Acting Business Coach: 
  • Photographers:
    • Paul Sirochman. He's the best in Philly and his rates are reasonable. He also offers on-site hair and make-up services.  
  • Representation: Philadelphia-area managers and agents are the best way to get local/regional gigs and auditions, but agents should also have strong NYC connections. (NYC agents may or may not have connections in Philly.) Also, an agent generally keeps 15% of an actor's salary for any gigs the agent books.
    • Managers
      • Cathy Parker Management: send headshot/resume by mail to P.O. Box 716, Voorhees, NJ 08043. Cathy is the region's top manager for child actors. (She also represents adults.) Her young clients regularly appear at the Walnut Street Theatre and on Nickelodeon in NYC. She has represented several of my students.
    • Agents
      • AMA Talent Agency: www.amatalentagency.com; a full service agency with experience in print advertising, commercials, TV and film, and theater
      • Expressions Model and Talent Agency: www.expressionsmodels.com; focus is on print advertising, commercials, TV and film
      • Greer Lange Model and Talent Agency: www.greerlange.com; focus is on print advertising, commercials, TV and film
      • Mary Anne Claro Talent Agency: www.clarotalent.net; focus is on commercials, TV, film, and theater
      • Reinhard Agency: www.reinhardagency.com; focus is on print advertising, commercials, TV and film