The prestige and exclusivity associated with the many performing arts courses around the world is enough to make anyone think that completing one is the only way to ‘make it’ in the industry. While professional training is a valuable resource, many professionals have proven that there are other ways to go about making a career out of performance.
Cabaret-burlesque performer Natalia Ristovska, for example, had “never had any training, had no CV and wouldn’t even know what to do” when she was talked into auditioning and subsequently landed the role of Ms Sherman in an amateur theatre production of Fame.
At the time she was studying to be a kindergarten teacher because her mum advised her she would need a day job until she succeeded at her then-goal of becoming a writer.
“I spent my entire schooling life studying for this ‘day job’,” she says. “I would say I dedicated a good eight years working on becoming a professional kindergarten teacher.”
After her performance in another amateur production, this time playing Fantine in Les Miserables, her career ambitions had changed. “It pretty much cemented in me the notion that I wanted to be a performer, and to hell with the ‘day job’,” she says.
Now working as Mama Natalia, the emcee at Burlesque Bar in Melbourne, Ristovska says her kindergarten teacher course was not a total waste.
“Drunken adults and three year olds are strangely similar in psyche…that’s why I created the ‘Mama’ persona; nothing says ‘sit down, shut up or I will make you pay’ more than the idea of the mother figure,” she says.
While Ristovska says there is always room for training, she admits that most of her skills were learnt informally on the job. “As a performer you never stop learning, and a good entertainer is always trying to hone their skills,” she says.
Besides emceeing most nights at Burlesque Bar, she also produces and performs in cabaret-burlesque shows around Melbourne that combine many performance styles including “a mixture of black comedy, bawdy humour, Grand Guignol shock theatre, music theatre… and circus arts [with] a dash of theatre restaurant.”
She says, “I am where I am because I made myself what I am. Then I created the work to hire myself for; then created a demand for it.”
For Ristovska this has meant producing and performing her own shows along with coordinating all the technical elements, such as editing music and sewing costumes, as well as marketing the shows through managing her own website and creating and circulating flyers.
“I maintain that performers need to make their own work, do their own shows and not sit around waiting to be hired by Hollywood,” she says.
Another performer who has made a career out of her own work is Melbourne-based theatre maker and performer Clare Bartholomew.
“I’ve never really done the auditioning thing…I can only speak from my own experience but I feel like I’m going to write a better part for me than I’m going to be able to perform a piece that someone else has written,” she says.
Bartholomew also did not undertake a performing arts degree, but her student theatre involvement at university led her away from studying an arts degree and on the path to becoming a professional performer.
“I was really involved in student theatre…we were writing and performing a lot of our own work, which I liked,” she says.
After leaving her arts degree behind, Bartholomew completed a year at the John Bolton Theatre School. She then travelled extensively and undertook a series of short courses and workshops with renowned practitioners, such as Philippe Gaulier, before “things started to click into place.”
Although she initially “wanted to be a serious actor,” Bartholomew now specialises in clowning. “I didn’t really decide to do clowning…it just sort of happened naturally,” she says.
Her style of clowning does not see her dress up in a clown suit and big shoes; rather, it relies on the physical, slapstick comedy made famous by the likes of Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball. However, her part-time job does require her to dress as a special type of clown.
“Nine years after theatre school I was asked to audition for a role as a clown doctor,” she says. “I was very lucky; I knew two guys who were in it but I didn’t know anything about it.” Twelve years on, she still works as Dr Fairy Floss with The Humour Foundation.
The most rewarding aspect of the job is ‘definitely making a sad child cheer up’, she says.
Bartholomew says the purpose of the role is to “change an atmosphere from something dark to something more playful,” which is achieved in a different way to a traditional performance scenario.
“You have to adjust your performance with what’s happening in the room…you really can’t have any expectations at all, you have to be open to what happens and drop all the ego,” she says.
The feedback she receives from the audience is also different.
“The children are definitely more honest; they tell you to go if they want you to go or they tell you to stay if they want you to stay.”
When not at the hospital, Bartholomew is content directing, producing and performing her own work, as well as running workshops independently.
“I always wanted to write my own work and perform my own work too and I’m really enjoying what I’m doing,” she says.
Unlike most actors, she does not have an agent. “The work comes from people seeing you at a festival and booking you for their festival,” she says.
While she admits that “some people are naturally funny, [and] naturally have the timing,” she believes there are also “some things that you can work at” and she tries to help people with this through her workshops.
“It depends how much time you put in…I think you need to do it a lot. Just make as much work as you can, get as much practice and stage time as possible and try as many different things as you can,” she says.
She suggests that other performers can do most of their learning from those around them: “Work with people who are better than you; do workshops with people that are better than you and get feedback from them.”
The most obvious place for up-and-coming performers to receive feedback is of course their teachers, and many talented actors have gone on to teach.
John Jacobs currently teaches in the creative arts course at Deakin University in Melbourne and has been teaching Drama for 21 years. His passion for teaching illustrates both the rewards for teachers in being able to assist students in developing their skills, as well as the benefits for students in learning from those who are more experienced.
“I think the notion implied…that ‘if you can’t do, you teach’ is wrong. Teachers are underrated and unappreciated in this country,” he says.
In fact Jacobs has proven he ‘can do’ on many occasions, appearing in several television shows including Blue Heelers and The Flying Doctors. “I’ve done quite a bit of professional acting but I never really tried to devote myself to it full-time,” he says.
Instead he has devoted his career to the actors of the future. “I think young performers love the feeling of being on stage, the power of it… but, yes, they frequently are unrealistic in their expectations,” he says.
Regardless of whether pupils go on to become the next Geoffrey Rush or Cate Blanchett, Jacobs says performing or creative arts degrees teach “life skills [that are] potentially very important” including teamwork, and “confidence to speak or ‘perform’ in public.”
While the performing arts industry is often portrayed as having limited job opportunities, the potential reality is quite different. Whether you aspire to work as an independent performer, or want to use your performance skills to help others – be it through clowning or through teaching – with passion and a willingness to learn, anything is achievable.