When I was in school I chose drama (or, more specifically, “Theatre & Media Studies”) as an A-level subject.
I’d been ‘steered’ away from choosing it for GCSE and regretted it for that entire 2 year period. It really was all I had any interest in doing anyway, apart from English, which was a given, set subject anyway. But, it was a subject that led nowhere, I should choose more academic subjects, learn skills and choose more useful courses. I’m sure you’ve heard that excuse before.
When it came to choosing A level subjects, I probably could have had the choice of a number of GCSE subjects which I’d done pretty well at, with little (or no, now I come to admit it) effort in revision or study; but I really didn’t have the heart to pursue any of them. I always wanted to act, and/or make movies. (I still do, but that’s a whole other story. Although it’ll probably crop up once or twice during this post.) when it came down to discussing it with teachers, and then mum, once they gave me cause to hope it was possible to choose this having not studied it to GCSE.
Looking back since, I think it was pure desperation on their part to make up the numbers – there ended up only being four of us on the A level course anyway. Which, for any other course with practical aspects might have been a hindrance.
But for us, it worked out fine. Any theoretical classroom based work was quiet and studious with no distraction. And the practical aspects…well, we produced a ‘prospectus video’ for the school, which with just four of us as a tight knit production team was easy – fewer of us to argue the toss, to storyboard, to direct. We were able to all get hands on experience with the camera, and the teachers got us a day in an actual editing suite, learning to use the equipment and again, all getting hands on experience editing our actual video. Being only four of us, any practical acting presentations (as a group or sometimes two pairs) we did showcased each of us far more than larger groups might have had the opportunity for. I went to a Welsh medium school. Because the 1st-lanuage Welsh speaking community in South Wales was so much smaller than in other parts of Wales, a lot of welsh-speakers had, I suspect, friends and acquaintances in different professions in the area. In this case, Welsh speaking drama teachers have a number of contacts within the world of Welsh-language drama and TV production. Therefore, a small group of drama students could be offered ideal experience in TV and media production (to benefit their studies, of course) and at the same time benefit the production company by being a bunch of free extras for various productions.
Off the top of my head, an S4C drama called “Er Mwyn Tad” whose main character was a teenage girl, and so, for certain scenes, required a group of teenage friends…Voila; and Welsh-language soap opera “Pobl-Y-Cwm” – still alive and well today – where a contemporary story line involved an underage schoolgirl getting involved with one of her teachers. Hence, scenes regularly being filmed in and around our school and some of us being required to populate halls and classrooms for scenes; and, when said character left school and went to college, she still required friends/classmates for certain scenes set in said ‘college’. It was fun, it was an experience, and I doubt everyone who ‘did drama in school’ can say they had such benefits to learn from.
Fast Forward twenty-something years; and, even though it had crossed my mind a few times in the interim, ‘being an extra’ had never really occurred to me as something one does. Over the years I’d watched stuff – TV and movies, and it had struck me how some people in the background seemed to be acting very very nonchalantly, as though they hadn’t noticed a movie being made, and a Hollywood A lister walking around right in front of them. On other productions, (sadly, the majority) some of those in the background seemed to be over-acting, or just generally very bad at ‘acting normal’. In most instances, I assumed that someone on the crew just went round after they’d cordoned off the set and grabbed some people on the street and said ‘hey, you, come and walk along this street and pretend you don’t see Mel Gibson crashing a car behind you, OK?’. Or words to that effect.
On one occasion, someone who drank at the same pub my parents did, got cast in a movie they were shooting locally (yet another period piece, so using the castles an landscapes of Wales), and his tales of being on set were pretty inspiring…and tales of getting paid for it as well, even more so.
Years later, when I’d moved to the other side of the world, and was expecting #1 and contemplating maternity leave, I saw an ad in a local paper, I think, looking for people of all ages and looks and races to sign up to be TV and movie extras. I toyed with the idea for a bit, as a hobby or a part time thing, but for some reason it slipped my mind, and to be honest, I’d not even thought of that until writing this now.
Then, all change again in my everyday life, and finding ourselves back here, and finding it difficult to find work of any kind, let alone full time, to fit around the OH and his shifts, and the children and their school and other commitments; I settled for a hotch-potch of casual contracts, for now. One, the first one, really, was one of those ‘Seasonal’ jobs that comes up around Christmas time. No, not your general extra checkout people at M&S or the supermarket; or extra sorters at the local parcel depot; this one was the cream of the crop…well, short of switching gender and growing a long white beard…but if it’s Christmas and you’re a woman (especially one who, when it came to castings in the past, always got cast as a matriarchal-type figure); where better to be but at Santa’s side playing Mrs Claus?!
And so, this was my first foray into public performance, acting, since all those years before, in school, (and extra-curricular drama club). Back in the saddle.
The grotto would close so we could all have lunch together; Mrs Claus, Santa, the elves. during one of our lunch breaks, during the “What do you do when you’re not doing this” conversation that one generally has when participating in something short-term, concentrated, like this; Santa let on that he was pretty much a full time Extra (Or ‘Supporting Artiste’ – generally referred to within the industry as an ‘S.A.’.), and, contrary to what I’d always assumed in previous flirtations with the idea, made quite an O.K. living out of it. Well, Full Time and able to make some kind of living off it? Now there’s an idea. And with all the ‘hanging around’, time in between to get on with writing; not to mention absorbing more production experience while it was going on around me.
So, in the new year, I looked into it a bit more. Of course, in the years before when I’d toyed with this idea, there was no internet. Now, all the information is far more accessible. For everyone. And there are so many more trying to get in to this line of work. The agencies are full to bursting of people vying for work. And they’re always happy to take more – the more versatile and full their books are the more chance they have of placing someone on a production and therefore earning commission from the fee. Easy to find the information and sign up. Not so easy to get offered the work …
All in all, I’ve been quite lucky in my first year as far as amount of work. Of course, far from being full time, it’s still more along the lines of interesting hobby which pays a bit. Although from what I can gather, some of those who treat this as a hobby or a sideline, sometimes don’t see any work at all for the whole year (most agencies require the people on their books to re-register annually. If for nothing else, this means that photos are always up-to-date, a requirement since productions cast on the way you look and fit in to their background/set), so I’m one of the lucky ones I think.
This year, I’ll be back being Mrs Claus again for December, with the same Santa too, so we can swap stories.
I did read a blog post recently about someone’s life as an S.A.; but do you think I can find it again to link to? Nup! So, one day soon I’ll write a bit more about the ins and outs of it; within the parameters of the rule-book of course !!! (Yes, there is one of those too!). Don’t expect insider gossip or pictures of ‘the stars’. If I had any, if there’s any sure fire way of getting kicked off the books, that would be it! Don’t expect show-stopping glamour or tales of how anyone got their ‘big break’, either. It’s none of those things.
On the other hand, there’s a great bunch of hard-core ‘regulars’ on the circuit, and we do get to play with memes like this …