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Thursday, 9 March 2017

Career Guest Post: Working as an Actress

For most the idea of a sick day, lounging in bed and binging on Netflix, although not entirely enjoyable, is a welcome relief from the daily grind of work. But for me, as I write this from my sick bed, I am desperate to find my way back to work. And that’s because I absolutely love my job. So when Laura from Blonde Vision was seeking Guest Bloggers to write for her Careers feature I jumped at the chance.

I am lucky enough to be a working actress. I am currently one of the ensemble actors in the West End production of Les Misérables, and I quite frankly have to pinch myself on a daily basis.




I, Kayleigh McKnight, goofy 25 year old girl from a tiny town on the borders of Essex, have somehow wangled my way into show business.

Or sometimes that’s the way I look at it when I’m being dramatic. (For non-dramatic version of this story, please see the end of this blog post!)

In fact, “wangled” is far from the truth. We live in a society now where people see success and fame in the performing world as just a reality TV show away. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (I live with two previous contestants from reality talent shows) but for many that work in the theatre and film industries, luck is just not a part of it. In fact, my journey to where I am now has been a consistent string of rejections, a whole lot of work in class and at home, and an inner determination that I deserve to be a working actor.

I started doing acting classes from a pretty young age as I was painfully shy. My parents decided that putting me with a bunch of other crazy children would help me speak up. Instead it revealed to them that they just had their own crazy child, she was just in hiding! From there I always had a love and passion for theatre. Musicals were my escape, and a trip to London with my Mum was the highlight of my year. When I got to the “oh-my-god-i-have-to-make-all-my-life-choices-now” age, I stood firm and said that I wanted to go to drama school. I didn’t get into a degree course the first time round. Instead, I got offered a yearlong foundation course at LAMDA. It was that, or go and do a degree in English Literature, and thanks to very supportive parents I moved into my new flat in London to start my training. When the year was up, I managed to gain a place at my top choice school (Guildford School of Acting in case you want to know…) to study Musical Theatre. What followed was three years of 8.30am ballet classes on a hangover, crying because I wasn’t good enough and laughing because I had finally earned an actual degree surrounded by the other “crazy children” who I was lucky enough to end up in classes with.

And when I left college, a shiny fresh and naïve graduate, the reality of this crazy industry hit me. I had to move home with my parents and I got a job working for a private healthcare company, taking enquiries and booking appointments. All the while, preparing for auditions and hopping on trains to London any time I was called. A year or so passed. I got rejected so many times. And then my agent dropped me. By this point, I was seriously close to calling it quits. It felt like despite what I thought I was capable of, no one else was with me on this at all. It took a lot of crying into very large glasses of Sauvignon Blanc but I decided to stay resilient. I couldn’t give up after the first big hurdle. And so with the help of some friends, and a lot of emails, I found myself a new agent (who rocks and I’m still with her today) who put me where I belonged, at the bottom of the ladder. 

I moved to London, and started to work as a teaching assistant whilst doing “profit share” theatre (essentially... it’s unpaid, and if you are lucky enough to see profits it is totally minimal!) From there I gained my confidence, and when I walked into the auditions for Bend it like Beckham the musical I had a new found strength in my stride. I deserved this job, I was right for it and I was going to work my absolute hardest to make sure I got it. *Insert montage here of Kayleigh trying to kick a football in her back garden and singing at 7.30 in the morning to make sure she’s warmed up for her audition in time*.

So a lot of the time I say I was lucky. I was in the right place, at the right time with that job. Because ultimately I was. But, I was once told by my old History teacher (sup Mr Harvey!) that you have to create your own luck. And that’s precisely what I try to stick by now. So when I got the call to say I landed my first West End job in Bend it, I cried… not because I was happy, but because finally all the hard work and effort I’d put in was being validated. I wasn’t doing it for just me anymore.

Then, after an amazing year playing a footballer (and getting to go on as the lead which blew 10 year old Kayleigh’s mind) I was back in a position I’d been before. I’d auditioned for Les Misérables two other times to no avail. But this time was different. No longer shy Kayleigh of three years ago, working in a hospital and surrounded by self-doubt. I was finally standing at my full height (5ft 9 in case you wonder… shes a tall one!) and knew I deserved to be there. That they wanted casting to be easy. That they wanted me to be perfect for the job, because ultimately, I’d be making their job easier.

And here I am now. I get up in the mornings, make myself brunch, have a quick check of the voice to see if I’m in working order and get on with my day. This could be catching up with friends, learning new songs for upcoming auditions, hitting the gym or classes, and keeping my ear to the ground with upcoming opportunities. Then, at 6.30pm we hit the stage for a vocal warm up before we get laced into corsets, pinned into wigs and thrown onto stage to entertain an audience of over a 1000 people for 3 hours. 

It’s physically and vocally tiring (As the show is entirely sung-through... not a single spoken line which is mental now I think about it!) but exhilarating at the same time. No show is the same, despite the moves and lines being identical each night. It’s amazing how someone’s mood offstage can affect the way you play the show onstage and I think that’s what keeps theatre so exciting. You will never see the same performance twice, ever.

I love my job. I really do. I love the all-encapsulating highs when you open a show for the first time, and the contained laughter when someone messes up on stage but you have to keep going. I love it despite the crushing feeling when you don’t get recalled for an audition you thought you nailed, or find out that after 6 rounds of auditions they “just went for the other girl”. It’s hard not having a normal social life. 

I’ve missed weddings, christenings, birthdays. I think people think I don’t care about that but I really do. I hate not being able to go on a date with a normal 9 to 5 guy because I don’t finish work until 22.30pm at night! I hate having to work other jobs when I’m resting. I hate the constant self-evaluating in my brain when I come off stage and when I leave an audition room. I hate having days where I hate being at work, because I know how very lucky I am. And I really REALLY hate sick days.

But I love my job. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

The condensed version for those of us who can’t deal with my melodramatic delivery of my career journey so far:

You make your own luck. Sure, you can be in the right place at the right time, but you have to make the right impression too – so don’t skimp out on the hard work.

Acting work is sociable but only within the acting world. We are night owls. If you want to date us, expect a late night drink!

Drama school is hard work. Don’t think that we just dance on tables like they do in Fame. I’ve pretended to be trees and squirrels and everything…….. Yeah like I said… It can be hard work. Also, invest in convertible tights. Lifesavers and timesavers!
Auditions are the most scary and brilliant experience ever. Embrace them. Use them as an opportunity to learn. Remember, the casting team want an easy job, they want to like you!

It’s competitive. Don’t kid yourself that this will be an easy ride!

Trust your gut. If it says to keep going, then it’s probably right. And if it says it’s time to call it quits, that’s totally right too! You are the one who knows what’s truly right.

You aren’t going out on stage every night and saving lives, but you could change someone’s life. Take your job seriously but not too seriously. It’s called a play for a reason.

And that’s all folks. If you fancy catching me smeared in mud, laced into a corset and struggling because I clearly ate too much for dinner, you can catch me at the Queens Theatre.




Over and out!

- Koko

a.k.a Kayleigh McKnight (if we’re going to be professional about it!)

Twitter: @koko91

Instagram: @koko4491
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