At some point you get tired of hearing it: “Why don’t you just write something for yourself to star in?” It’s a classic query at holiday gatherings, on worried parent phone-calls and from well-meaning friends; it’s designed to propel you into action, to really take charge of your career! And to be fair … it’s actually not a bad suggestion.
Writing a vehicle for yourself can be a great way to give your acting career some purpose and momentum; it’s also a strong signal to potential future collaborators that you take your work seriously, and aren’t afraid of investing time and effort into a project. Given that you’ll be stepping into unfamiliar roles (and one of those will be as a writer creating new work), it’s guaranteed that this path will not be an easy one. It is, however, rewarding. And whether or not your vehicle ends up on stage or screen, you’re bound to learn invaluable lessons about yourself and your craft along the way.
Manage Your Expectations
The first thing you’ll need to do is set some realistic goals. Creating a project for yourself from scratch is difficult at any scale; don’t let your ambitions sink you after an enthusiastic start. Depending on where are in your career, certain projects are going to be completely out of your reach; don’t write a feature screenplay or a tv pilot only to sabotage your chances of having it produced when you insist you play the lead. And if you write one anyway, you need to ask yourself: is it still worth pursuing if a producer reads it, loves it, and wants to cast somebody else?
Aim for a short film or a stage show. You should be working on something that will test your abilities, but is still a manageable enough a project that you, yourself, could produce (as you probably will). Another option is to develop online content such as a podcast or web series; while this is often seen as a great way to get your work to audiences quickly and cheaply, you will likely have to keep producing more material to keep viewers engaged. It’s great if you have the time for a longer-term engagement—just know that’s what you might be getting into.
Be sure to keep reminding yourself of your goal: to showcase your acting talents. Don’t lose sight of this in the planning stages as you find yourself seduced by the possibilities of grander narratives.
Play to Your Strengths
When it comes to planning out the content of your vehicle, play to your strengths. Think of a story, character or perspective that you can tell authentically and passionately. Many first-time writer/performers draw from personal experiences, or examine such facets of themselves as family history or cultural identity. Ideally, you want to find a story that nobody could tell but you—or at least as well as you could.
Playing to your strengths should also carry over into the way you execute your idea: if you’re a singer, consider writing your family history into a cabaret. If you’re funny, write a comedy and cast yourself front-and-centre. If you can do your own stunts, a Victorian drama about a rural schoolteacher is probably not the best showcase of your talents. Sometimes we can feel pressure to craft work we feel is more ‘correct’ or ‘impressive’ than the things we are naturally drawn to. Resist the temptation to create something you think will be well-received rather than authentic to your interests; even if it is positively reviewed, you’ll probably be miserable throughout the entire creative process.
Your Creative Community
Don’t be afraid to lean on your creative community for collaboration or support. They will undoubtedly be proud of you and many of them will sympathise, having attempted something similar in their own careers. And if you receive offers from potential collaborators to attach themselves? Jump at that chance! There’s no reason to isolate yourself on this journey.
Think about a list of all your assets as a performer: all the skills you can think to bring to the table when creating your vehicle. If you added another person to the project, and compiled all the things that will make them look good as well, suddenly you’ve doubled your assets and halved the amount of work you need to do! You will improve the final product considerably if you can bring people aboard as passionate about their roles as you are for yours. For emerging actors and creatives, such small-scale shows and films are an excellent means of showcasing and refining skills in a low-risk environment. If you can make these people feel excited about your project and supported by you as the producer, they will go above-and-beyond to make your vehicle as strong as it can possibly be. You can be transparent about the fact that this project is intended to make you look good: that’s not to say it can’t make others look good in the process.
And a quick note on crowd-funding: this project may be the first time you intend to ask your family, friends and colleagues for money to help finance. There is nothing wrong with this; people will likely be impressed by your hard work and drive and want to contribute. However, crowd-funding is usually a one-off thing for these kinds of projects in your career: you’ll get one chance to beg your community for support of this kind. Can you do it for less, and maybe with your own cash? If it seems like a possibility, consider saving your crowd-funding one-shot for a bigger, more ambitious project down the line.
At some point, you’ll eventually have to start writing. There’s not much to say here that isn’t said elsewhere and in more detail (check out “How to Write Your First Screenplay” for more commiseration on the topic) so just make sure you remember: writing is tough. It’s going to be a struggle. You will be fine. Set a deadline, work at it constantly and don’t show anybody anything before you complete a second draft.
There will come a time when you get sick of drafting and want to see your idea come to life at a reading or in the rehearsal room. Resist the temptation to put down the pen too early. Remember that writing, with the exceptions of your time and sanity, is totally free: the more you invest in this step, the more problems you’ll solve and actual money you’ll save. In just the same way an impressive script can ensnare the attentions of some veteran performers and crew, a half-baked draft will scare away any and all you’re brave enough to send it to. Invest in this process. It will always pay dividends down the line.
Often, the hardest part of the process—even more than when you have to sit down and type the script out—is sending your work to somebody for feedback, or inviting your first audience into the room. It is doubly tough when it’s a vehicle you’ve written for yourself: in most cases, the material is so closely tied to you it can be hard not to take the criticism personally. But it is a vital part of your process.
Feedback keeps you honest. It’ll keep your choices grounded, and help you from falling into the dreaded realm of the ‘vanity project’. Invite the opinion of others and let them pull you out of your own headspace. Sometimes, you’ll have made choices that you didn’t even realise were problematic: “Did you notice every second shot of this film is a close-up of you looking amazing?” As always, it’s better you learn about any problems in the rehearsal/planning stages, rather than reading about them in a review.
Be Your Own Producer
We’ve alluded to this a few times in this article, but it is worth discussing in some detail: plan to personally produce your star vehicle. Plan to be the person who spends the most time on it, organises all aspects of it and, more often than not, pays for its production. While there can be a steep learning curve to the producing game, most people find it quite freeing: you’ll be the one you rely on to make your project actually happen. Get over the inevitable headaches of this and enjoy that self-determination!
Many actors find themselves producing—either something for themselves or others—and continue to utilise the skills they develop on future projects. Regardless of the outcome of your vehicle, being able to produce will afford you numerous opportunities in your career. It will train you to be more organised, level-headed and help you widen your creative community.
While writing a vehicle for yourself is a demanding, intimidating process, it’s always a thrill to see the project come together. Know that when you bump into the theatre, or book in to that festival, release your latest video online or submit your film to competitions around the world, you are not just showcasing a performance you can be proud of. You are sending a message that you are the kind of artist that has taken control of their career: it wasn’t enough to wait for opportunities, you went into the world and made them for yourself. Be sure to enjoy every moment of the adventure this will take you on.