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It was with considerable excitement that I read your recent vocal support for working class actors in The Stage. As we are so often talked about and not to, I wanted to share my experience with you.
I am a working class actor, you see – born in Barnsley, my father was a glazier and my mother was a saleswoman for new-build homes. They divorced when I was 7. I have no dynasty, no connections, not even a drama school credit from which to inherit some legitimacy. I’m just someone who has to do this, so I do.
I applied to Central the year the tuition fees were hiked. When the letter arrived, I was informed a two year course would cost me ~£18,000 a year in fees, not taking into account London living costs. Needless to say, drama school was not an option for me.
I’ve enrolled in as much training as I can afford over the years; I even earned enough to fund myself through Shakespeare and Screen Acting courses at LAMDA. It may have taken me five years instead of three, but I’m confident enough now to put myself on a level with drama school graduates.
But it sometimes feels like my doing what I can do instead of crying about what I can’t -clawing my way into more experience and training, producing my own work and committing to shows and short films for little or no pay- is meaningless to the industry, which still adopts a binary ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ attitude. As a result, I am one of many who are denied a rung on the ladder.
I appreciate those voices; it’s flattering in a way. The only problem is that such commentary generally expects someone else to do something about it.
I don’t have the luxury of waiting to find out who that will be, so I simply try to help myself as best I can.
And that’s why I enjoyed reading your sentiments in The Stage. I am in complete agreement; we must do something about it.
So Mark, what shall we do?
Opportunities for those not well connected, not well supported, come few and far between. Even then, these tend to be taken by those that are. With the best will in the world -I have no doubt you spent your time in the trenches paying dues- but you no longer have a dog in the race. I am the dog the in the race. Perhaps working together with people like me is a way to get started.
Perhaps we need to connect and support working class actors. We aren’t as hard to find as the Panda or the Rhino, for those willing to look. Robin Williams famously had a clause in his contract to employ a homeless person on his film sets. Perhaps you could have a clause to employ a working class actor or two in smaller roles?
Falling short of such noble idealism, perhaps a campaign underpinned by your rich, dulcet voice would help raise awareness, in the vein of My Theatre Matters? I’m ready to throw my hat in if you are.
p.s. Anyone with ideas as to what we can do, practically and without waiting for government legislation, to redress the balance and create a more supportive culture for working class actors, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.
I am a Location manager in the TV world. From the world i see i dont think there is an issue, nor do i think it needs addressing in an idealist way.
I have worked on many productions, with working class actors and working class crew. There is a mix, I have seen millionaires stood next to Travellers. Working side by side. For me it is more about openong doors. This isnt a class war, this is an agent war. We need more open auditions, its a very closed shop irrespective of class. I know middle class actors having issues equally as much. Getting agents infront of them is their hardest challenge.
We alse need a decent real life film training programme. I dont believe (coming from a ‘disabled’ person) that positive discrimination is right. I hate this thing that we should have more ethnics, more disabled, more working class etc. No we should have more of the best people for the roles, best people for the job! The industry is insestuous regardless of class!
It’s great that when you get there, that’s what you see. But too many never get there, too much of the time.
You can say it’s an agent war, but that’s when it gets difficult to untangle the mess we’re in.
You need an accredited three year drama school course at one of four or so very expensive institutions to have a hope of getting a shot at one of the few high profile agents capable of getting you the big jobs, the most meaningful, significant and impactful work (and even then, drama school is no guarantee of a good agent.)
But you could argue that’s only a problem because the casting director only sends their briefs to those few top agents.
But you could argue that’s only a problem because the production company only hires that casting director.
But you could argue that even if all those stars aligned, it’s the executives calling the shots picking the well connected and the well to do. Is that because American’s think British people must be from Downton Abbey, so the ones that conform to that expectation get jobs?
There are so many levels, and any change at any level would be an improvement. Real change at all levels would be a transformation.
I’m not asking for more working class actors for the sake of it. You’re right, the best people for the job should get the job. But you find more of the best people if you look in more places, and it seems that the system is increasingly disenfranchising a whole crop of potential.
It’s only because I’ve read five articles this week, it feels like, I felt compelled to challenge it. And ask someone who has challenged it themselves for help.
This is well written and a great point.
However I have an issue with the argument in hand. How we class working class actors.
I got in to Mountview on a full scholarship because I worked my butt off in a single parent family that earnt less a year than the fees cost. I had EMA funding in 6th form and we were on benefits. HOWEVER, I grew up in Sussex so my accent actually defies our class assumptions, so I still walk in to an audition room with a “posh” accent and it is assumed I come from a middle class upbringing where as my bestie Emily has a lanc accent with a gorgeous statistically pleasing family (who are also wonderfully kind and lovely and humble – I love them!) and yet with her accent she’s accustomed to going in for typically more working class roles.
So what’s not clear to me is that we should be classing working class actors in working class roles? Or is this purely a matter of accommodating people who cannot afford drama school (which I’m all for!). The debate has so many branches, how do we combat all of them respectfully.
Hear hear for writing this Rob! I’m so glad this sort of thing is being discussed!!
I think it’s a good letter, making a solid point: I’ve no idea if it will generate any reply. Of course, I also think Mark Strong intended to raise awareness: raising awareness within the confines of an industry paper may not have much sway where it matters, however: it’s preaching to the converted . There is certainly a case to be made more generally that the industry might, indeed, be stronger as a whole if more vocal support for genuine change was raised at higher levels of the industry by e.g. dedicated members of Equity who have a platform and a heft that the ‘jobbing actors’ don’t.
The Equity initiative, ‘Professionally Paid, Professionally Made’, was recently very proud that they had messages of support offered by Julie Walters and David Morrissey. While I don’t think it costs them much to word a pledge, this could be a powerful tool in e.g. affecting court decisions over actor right to NMW. Even if these ‘names’ aren’t offering solutions themselves (and, in a sense, should they be expected to be?), having them give visible support to the need to find solutions that an organisation like Equity stands for does seem important to me.
Robert, I think that in your imagination Mark Strong has got a lot more influence than in reality. I can’t see that any production companies would allow him have altruistic Williamesque clauses inserted in his contract.
Sarah – This discussion has so many branches, and I tried to narrow it down purely to try and come up with actionable suggestions. I never want to just moan about things. While my suggestions are just a springboard to try and generate discussion, it’s clear that’s what they’re doing.
Your point on accents is great, for one, and for two, yes, I think it’s about having more equality of opportunity. I don’t want to be limited to working class roles – I can play high status characters just like I can play working class people – as did the great working class actors of the previous generation.
It’s more about allowing those from working class backgrounds like yourself, and the hundreds more, to get equal opportunities to work.
Whether it’s at the agent, casting, production or executive level, or a little bit from all, the industry is beginning to ignore a major resource. People like Mark Strong, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Julie Walters, David Morrisey – all have proven that working class actors can be amazing investments for theatre, TV and film. The increasing apparent disequilibrium these days therefore doesn’t seem to make sound sense for anyone. Yet here we are.
Lee – I think Mark made his comments in an industry paper because it’s an industry matter. I also think he was definitely trying to raise awareness, but my question ultimately is will he put his money where his mouth is, so to speak? Someone who says ‘we must do something’ must do something, and anything will do. So what will he do? And can I get in on that?
Professionally Made, Professionally Paid is a great idea, in theory, and one that in an ideal world shouldn’t need campaigning about. National Minimum Wage is a legal requirement when you’re asking people to work. Simple as. That said, I’ve seen dissent from some around ‘attacking the skint fringe’, beggared for lack of funding, while major institutions attempt to employ performers way under the odds. There’re also concerns about normalising National Minimum Wage as opposed to Equity Minimum. I think their heart is in the right place, but it’s a different place to the one I’m addressing, which is at a much broader level of the well-established industry. Ultimately I chose to invest in those shows I did for low/no pay to gain experience and hone my skills. I could have sat at home. That said, if I could have been appropriately paid, I should have been.
Harry- I know the ‘Robin Williams Clause’ is fanciful at best, and not a practical solution. You’re right to point that out, but it addresses what I feel is a misconception. Too often it feels people decline to act thinking that taking a small action would just be ‘a drop in the bucket’ that doesn’t amount to real change. But it’s through those drops that we fill the bucket. There’s also an issue of scale there- what seems small to people at that level could be game-changing for people starting out.
YES ROB 😀
Bravo Rob. Great letter. And can I also add how refreshing it is to see intelligent and reasoned comments and debates being posted below.
I too sound ‘posh’ cos I hail from the south but my career has suffered as I have no family connections to get me on the ladder and I simply couldn’t afford to work for free in the early years.
So, what can be done?
*Join Equity. Learn your rights, find a community and attend and improve your branch. The West and South West London branch have worked wonders by engaging with producers, directors and casting directors and showing them what a weath of talent is out there if they don’t just look to their usual places to cast.
* Challenge low pay and no pay when you see it. Sometimes there is a place for it, but mostly its a disrespectful race to the bottom. As Lee said, engage with the Professionally made, Professionally paid campaign.
*Challenge the Arts Council to encourage their funded bodies to do more to reflect and engage all aspects of society. For example, the National Theatre should be just that: a theatre of and for the nation. The stories they tell and the people who tell them (directors and performers) should reflect all aspects of society. At the moment the national can’t even make a good stab at gender and rece representation let alone income inequality.
*The BBC. As above. As a publicly funded body surely they should make the effort? Their right to charge the licence fee is up for renewal. Shall we all boycot paying them until they make more effort on equal representation and access?
There’s a few ideas to get the debate rolling!
My main point is about unionisation though. As a disperate group of freelancers we’ll never change anything. We need to band together and work for change. You make the difference! Join Equity.
Great, productive ideas!
I’ve been a member of Equity since, I think, 2008, and I have to say in that time I don’t think I’ve contributed anything to the union besides my membership fee. At the time, it was another way for me to try and appear legitimate in the face of a slight CV and as time went on, affordable Public Liability insurance. If it’s a matter of getting out what you’re putting in, I need to start putting in more, that’s for certain.
Moving away from your comments specifically, I’d like to clear up, with a few caveats, what I’m not saying with this letter:
1) Every audition should be an open audition. This couldn’t be further from the truth. However, let more agents see the brief, let more suitable candidates through the door, and ensure an adequate proportion of them have some kind of diversity when it comes to background. Even if you only have five spots when auditioning 20 for unknowns, take chances with those five spots. Maybe casting directors do this already- is there anyone out there who knows?
2) The acting business should be easy. Again, I’m not saying open the flood gates and let’s everybody be actors. The business is overcrowded and there’s a surplus of talent, for sure. This will always be the case, but that doesn’t mean we simply do nothing and accept the way things are. I understand that using economic statistics to devise proportional opportunities for the spread of the talent-base’s socio-economic background is a) going to be really boring and b) more than a bit silly. At the same time, more openness – with those holding key roles in the industry being viewed as facilitators rather than gatekeepers, can’t kill anyone.
Further to this, I don’t expect better equality of opportunity for working class actors to realistically result in me personally getting more work – though it would of course be nice. There are plenty of working class actors out there who would likely be cast ahead of me. Good for them if so.
3) Privilege means you don’t have to work hard. I don’t begrudge anyone their success. That success, I am certain, has come without it being at the expense of others’ success. There’s no conspiracy, and hard work is not some exclusive preserve of the working class, to be used as a badge of honour in the face of those who do bigger, better work. There’s simply a gap in the market opening up right now, and that may be due to a culture in the industry that no-one designed, but came into being. That gap now is big enough and has plenty of people to fill it, so I view this genuinely as more of an opportunity for the arts and entertainment industries to exploit for their advantage than a purely moral, soapboxing crusade.
4) This is how it is. This is the one I understand most people will assume to be what I’m saying. However, we are primarily dealing in perception here. I’ve shared one story, it’s my own, and that’s a narrow field of view. I haven’t done the research across the board. The fact it has resonated with many simply suggests I’m not alone. All the voices talking about it may be doing so because the gap between rich and poor is increasing in broader society so it’s an easy way for actors to hop an a hot-button issue that’s safe- no one but the fringes would criticise someone for being pro-equality, after all. But if titans of the acting business form what can be seen as a consensus on the issue, I have to assume they know what they’re talking about.
Finally, to close off this big bloom of ideas, the message at the heart of this letter is one of integrity. If the above is true, and these are just easy comments to make without fear of repercussions, with no intention of doing anything to change it, then that’s unacceptable. Any action (as distinct from speech) that is a positive action is to be commended. If you can take action and you don’t, I feel that should be challenged. If you say we must take action and you don’t, that then looks suspicious. If you’ve taken action and we don’t know, tell us. It’s not bragging.
I have faith in Mark Strong – I’m a fan of everything I’ve seen him do, and he was right to say what he said. But back it with action. Throw away such comments, and it undermines the very point being made. I understand this puts an onus on me to do what I can, too, and I think that starts with communicating with Equity on this. So thank you Claire for a sense of direction.
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