Actors – Writing Your Biography for the Programme

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Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe via cc
We are delighted to republish Prof. John Palmer’s ‘Theatre Briefs’ series, Actor Hub hope you find them as useful as we have.
This series of short essays about acting is reprinted with the kind permission of Professor John P Palmer of London, Ontario, Canada. He wrote these ‘Theatre Briefs’ for use by students and fellow actors during classes and rehearsals. Where he has relied on material from others, they are cited.
For almost any show you are in, you will be asked to write a biog, a brief biography (50 to 200 words, depending on the programme size, the budget, and the plans of the programme designer). Typically the biog should tell something about you, including your acting background and personal information. You cannot possibly include everything you want in a brief biog, and whatever you write is likely to be edited somewhat for size, if nothing else, but the better job you do, the happier you will be with what finally appears in the programme. Here are some tips for writing your biog:
Write them in the third person.
Include recent performances, but unless you were cast in the title role, do not list the character name. For example, instead of:
“Anne was the Flower Girl in My Fair Lady, a Storyteller in Children of Eden, and the Widow in Jesus, Son of Man”
Shorten it to:
“Anne has appeared in My Fair Lady, Children of Eden, and Jesus, Son of Man.”
The exception to this rule, might be when you were cast in the title role, or in a role you loved:
“Anne portrayed Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Eve/Mrs. Noah in Children of Eden, and Mary Magdelan in Jesus, Son of Man.”
You might use the short form anyway, just to save space for other things you’d like to say.
Many people like to read interesting tidbits of information about the actors and the production:
“Anne is excited to be a part of this production of A.R.Gurney’s Love Letters. The role of Melissa has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she is truly grateful for the chance to portray such a diverse character.”
This type of comment uses a lot of words, but it is the sort of thing that many people in the audience like to read.
Feel free to use a quote from yourself within your biog (sparingly)
If something is special to you, go ahead and mention it! This might include where you were born, where you work, where you graduated from university, etc. People often seem to like ‘people news!’ Also, mentioning your business (tastefully!) might provide some advertising for you.
Avoid inside jokes when you write your biog. The folks who will be reading your biog won’t get it and they will end up feeling left out. The following would likely be edited out of your biog:
“Jane would like to thank her friends for that night at Tom’s Place! Long live January 19th!”
Mentioning something about your life outside of acting can be a good thing:
“In her spare time, Anne enjoys writing, dancing, and graphic design.”
Here’s a sample of a fun-to-read biog:
“Anne, a Seaforth native, is very excited to be portraying the part of Mary in this production of It’s a Wonderful Life! Anne’s theatre experiences include the role of Melissa in Love Letters and small roles in My Fair Lady and Children of Eden; and she proudly portrayed Max, the dog, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. When she’s not acting (or crawling around the stage on all fours), Anne enjoys writing, dancing and graphic design.”
Avoid the excesses of the 60’s in program biogs:
“Hi! I’m Dawn, as in New Age, AKA MoonLove and this show is my first in this incarnation. In previous lives I was Bernhardt (Joan not Sarah) and played oh…gee…just tons of good, happening things. My dog and I live in a rustic place on the Bayfield River, and we would love to share our lives with a spiritual being like ourselves. Peace and Love.”
Nowadays the accepted professional form seems to be:
John Smith (Fred). Mr. Smith is making his Clinton Community Players debut in Angels Sing. Other credits include: The Young Man in Albee’s The American Dream at the Varna Theatre Co., Hamlet at Arena Stage, Cornelius Hackle at Actor’s Theatre. Mr. Smith is married to the actress Joan Rivers and lives with their two cats in Varna.
It’s okay if you don’t agree with the above guidelines. Some people would rather not go on about their “day jobs”. They’d rather let people know what led them up to this role, and the stuff they do outside of acting seems irrelevant to them. That’s okay, too.
One person says, “When I read a biog, I don’t really want to read about people thanking their Creator, or whether they like hang gliding or crocheting. I want to know what roles they’ve done & where, & maybe where they went to school, who they studied with & where they’re from. I don’t find a listing of credits haughty at all — that’s the stuff I want to know!” Different strokes for different folks.
From Arlene Schulman:
As an actor (or director) when I write my biog I have several intentions in mind
  • For the audience – let them know just who it is who is playing that role: if I’m local, have they seen me before either here or somewhere else; if I’m not, might they know my name and face from something else I’ve done? And I try to give them a taste of who I am by using humour or quotes or thanks
  • For any directors or producers who may be out there – to let them know my range and talents by including shows and roles that highlight those strengths, and to demonstrate the range of my professional experience by mentioning key places and people I may have worked or trained at or with, and finally
  • For myself – any personal comments, quotes or thanks I wish to include.
Of course, most biogs don’t allow you enough space to say half of these things, so you have to pick and choose what you want to include.
Biogs sometimes read like a resume, and many audience members find them boring: “They list roles I’ve never heard of in performances I’ve never seen.” Obviously the programme is read by many audience members who have nothing to do with theatre other than to enjoy seeing shows. If the intention of the biogs is to entertain that audience then, by all means, the director or someone should make that clear to the actors before they submit their biogs (I personally like the idea of a touch of humour in biogs, but in moderation)
Usually, I leave the choice to the actors: some inform, some entertain, and some do both. My own preference would be that you mention some recent performances you’ve been in, tell what you do (or would like to do) for your career, and include some other pithy personal item or two.
Also I would rather include a blanket thanks to families and partners somewhere in the programme – otherwise the thanks from the actors can take over the programme, the way the acknowledgements seem to run on and on at the Oscars.
These essays may be reproduced at no charge for non-commercial purposes. Just please acknowledge the original source (John Palmer) and his blog Eclectecon.
Also please retain the attributions included in the briefs.
You may not use these resources for commercial purposes.