Category Archives: interview

Interview with the Director: Jake Murray

jake murray

Jake Murray was Associate Artistic Director at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre from 2001 to 2007. Alongside founder James Roose-Evans, he runs Frontier Theatre Productions, which aims to explore work dealing with the ‘Third Age’, or in other words, the period of life from 60 onwards. I interviewed Jake while researching this article for the British Theatre Guide about how the theatre world views older actors, but his responses were so insightful that I wanted to give them a bit more space…

Chris Naylor How did you get involved with Frontier?

Jake Murray I was invited to come on board a few years ago be a right hand man for James [Roose-Evans]. Finding him a kindred spirit and an inspirational person was part of why I said ‘yes’. The other main factor was a long-standing love for the late plays of so many great writers – Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen – all of which dealt with life on such a profound and beautiful level. As these great writers drew to the end of their days, they tended to distil their life’s wisdom into these extraordinary works; they are their final testimonies, as it were. Not only are they theatrically remarkable (who can deny the brilliance of ‘Oedipus At Colonus’, ‘King Lear’ or ‘John Gabriel Borkman’?), but the depth of understanding is second to none. As I think that Theatre should be dealing with our lives on as profound a level as possible, working on such plays seemed the right thing to do.

CN What are you hoping to achieve with Frontier’s work?

JM We want to bear witness to the fact that the Third Age is as rich and profound as any other phase in our lives. In the past, old age was seen as a great achievement, a time of wisdom and understanding, Now, because being old is not economically productive, does not make you sexually attractive, and reminds us all of our mortality, we have drawn a veil over it. As a consequence, a vast amount of people have been made invisible, when in fact the only thing that is ‘old’ is their bodies. We must give them a voice. That, I think, is what we want to achieve.

'Mercy' in rehearsal

CN Have you found it easy to attract actors to Frontier?

JM So far, yes. There is a huge reservoir of older actors out there very keen for work. We forget that this was the 60s generation, who made up the mainstay of our theatre, TV and screen work for four or five decades and still has much to offer.

CN Is it frustrating to discover that a lot of good actors give up too soon? Does this make it harder to find enough good older actors to cast?

JM I work a lot in drama schools and the drop-out rate of actors who leave while still in their 20s is mortifying. The profession is more brutal than ever. There is far less work out there than there was, even when I started out in the 1990s, and people were complaining about a shrinking workplace even then. Even with the work that is out there, the chances of being paid decently are minimal, worse than ever, in fact. It’s horrible seeing huge numbers of talented young actors struggling to keep going. ’Too soon’ is now two or three years after leaving drama school for a lot of them, let alone in their 30s, 40s or 50s. It’s very tough. I often say to my students: ‘Keep going. If you are good and you don’t give up, you will eventually find work, because the drop out rate is such that people will be looking for actors in their 30s onwards more and more.’ But can people wait that long? But good older actors still wait to be asked, so hopefully we will find enthusiastic actors of those generations. So far we have!

CN It has traditionally been harder for women to find acting work as they get older – is this still the case?

JM Well, yes and no. The canon has always had more male roles than female. However brilliant Shakespeare was for women, there is only ever a maximum of five parts for actresses in his plays, as opposed to nine or ten minimum for men. Also, women have suffered from the ‘Juliet/ Nurse’ syndrome, whereby people only write parts for young women in their 20s or in their advanced years, with nothing in between. This was partly because women in their 30s and 40s tended to have children, and so came back to the stage when they were older. As a consequence, a whole area of women’s lives have not been documented on stage.

Helen McCrory as killer Medea ©Alastair Muir

But I think things are changing. There is more interest in great roles for actresses; there are more writers writing great parts for older women, as well as women in their middle years. The appearance of more female writers is an important factor, of course, as is the appearance of more women directors (there are more female Artistic Directors in British theatre than ever before, I’m pleased to say), but male directors are also exploring these parts. Last year we had Gillian Anderson, Helen McCrory and Kristin Scott Thomas all playing major classical roles. I have always loved working with older actresses, because the energy, passion and wisdom they bring to the stage is so great. I tell writers to write for women, especially older ones, as there will always be more talented women in the profession than men, and so their work will be produced. We need more and more of this. We at Frontier are very keen to help redress this balance.

CN Do you think there is a difference in the employment landscape for older actors in theatre, as opposed to TV/film?

mark hamill

JM There is an increasing presence for big movies that deal with the older experience. The Marigold Hotel films are a case in point, and movies like ‘Quartet’ and ‘Amour’. We have Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill about to take the screen again in the new Star Wars movie. Throw in the dreadful ‘Expendables’ movies and perhaps it’s fair to say that age is not a problem in cinema! I think when people love a screen actor they enjoy seeing them still doing it in their old age, especially if they can be playful with their image. I remember Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster having a ball in a movie called ‘Tough Guys’ back in the 80s, which really was fun to watch.

CN Is the entertainment industry directed too much towards younger people?

JM Yes. Cinema is aimed primarily at the 13-21 age group, which is why there are so many Marvel superhero movies nowadays. I’m in my 40s and I feel totally alienated from the cinema now. I’ve become bored with having to pretend I’m down with the kids and enjoy the latest Avengers movie. I don’t. They’re awful. But Hollywood & Entertainment is all driven by money and demographics. If producers think the money is in the ageing population, that’s where they will go.

CN Do you think the profession has an obligation to provide more casting opportunities for older actors? If so, where does the responsibility lie?

JM We have a responsibility to provide more casting opportunities for all generations of actors. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the people with the money. Its lack of resources that chokes off theatre. When you can’t pay your actors, or can only afford to pay two per show, you are killing theatre as an art by not allowing it to breathe. I am very against quotas in theatre, but I do think that if we want a healthy stage world, we must fund it. That responsibility must come from the State in our modern society. Commercial theatre takes care of its own, but if we want our theatre to also deal with real issues in a deeper way, we have to support it from non-commercial sources.

CN Would you agree that theatre is a pastime that generally appeals more to older people? If so, should plays be telling more stories about older people?

JM This is highly complex. It’s partly generational – theatre was part of the older generation’s landscape more, educational standards were higher and more wide ranging back in the day and theatre didn’t have to compete with Netflix, Playstation, Facebook etc. But there is still a strong, dedicated young theatre-going audience out there.

In the end we as theatre folk have to bear testament to the whole spectrum of human life: that means telling stories of all phases of age. One of the things Frontier wants to do is present intergenerational work. We don’t want plays which hive off the old into some kind of inward-looking box, but which show how the old relate to the young, and how generations can learn from each other. We live in an atomised society which lies to itself about ageing and the process of life, so people don’t know how to deal with it. Many young people feel the lack of nourishing connections with older people, especially when they are facing life’s problems. It’s important we talk about this in our work.

Frontier Theatre’s production of Clare Whitehead’s ‘Mercy’, directed by Jake Murray, is part of the EverHopeFull repertory season and runs from September 1st to the 26th at 6 Frederick’s Place, London EC2R 8AB. Tickets are priced at £10.

Advertisements

Close Encounters with the Third Age

pigeon fancier

Who has a job for life these days? That fondly-remembered (probably mythical) era when you’d start work in the factory at 17 – the same place your father worked, and his father before him – safe in the knowledge that you’d be clocking on until you were 65 and it was time to retire and give your days over to your racing pigeons or the rhubarb in your allotment… Those days have now gone. Nobody can really expect to stay in a job for very long. But at the same time, the ‘default retirement age’ as it is known, which had been set at 65 for decades, has been phased out, and UK workers are under pressure to work for longer.

They’re all getting a bit more like the humble actor. We theatricals must be more familiar than most with this sort of work landscape. Let’s face it, much of the time in our profession, as soon as we get a job we’re preparing for it to be over, eyes always on the horizon. Along with a flexible attitude to work comes a very loose approach to retirement. If you stay the course and battle through those difficult early years, chances are you’re in it for the long haul. Most of us are not waiting for the day we can throw in the towel – it’s far more likely that we are travelling hopefully, always waiting for the Big One and fully expecting to keep going until we finally peg out live on stage. Tommy Cooper, Sid James, Eric Morecambe; the profession is full of romanticised tales of seasoned pros breathing their last in front of a paying audience.

But as we know, the profession itself often has other ideas. Despite our ageing population, the acting world doesn’t seem all that interested in old people. In an industry that is passionately infatuated with Youth, is there a place for an actor over 50, 60 or 70?

sam and auriol

I spoke recently to directors Sam Walters and Auriol Smith, who founded the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and ran it for 43 years. Sam retired as Artistic Director of the theatre in 2014, and although both he and Auriol are still active in the profession, he was sounding rather ground down. ‘My desire to be involved in the theatre at all has diminished enormously recently,’ he said. Describing himself as ‘considerably less enthusiastic’ about the profession, he decried the theatre world’s obsession with youth: ’The New is concerned with the Young. And the tendency is always to denigrate the past.’

Auriol Smith has always acted as well as directing, and says she is ‘just as enthusiastic, but more cynical about the way theatre is heading.’ The contribution Auriol and Sam have made to the profession over the past four decades can’t really be overstated, and yet they clearly feel side-lined.

There is much talk these days of the ‘Third Age’, which is defined as the period of ‘active retirement’, post middle-age. I imagine most actors in their late 60s and 70s would take issue with the suggestion that they are in any sort of retirement at all, rather that they are trying to engage with work in the same way as ever – we all know the stories of John Gielgud changing agents at 96 in his determination to keep working. But if the work isn’t there, how can actors stay engaged?

A number of recently-established companies are trying to grapple with this issue. The Visible Theatre Ensemble, under artistic directors Sonja Linden and Sue Lefton, is one such endeavour. Their intention is to create ‘exciting contemporary theatre that both represents and transcends issues of older age. Our vision is a future where the contribution of older actors is honoured by British theatre.’

WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE

Visible recently worked with playwright Sonja Linden and a cast of older actors to devise their very successful production, ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’, which was presented at Southwark Playhouse in 2014, and they are currently running a season of workshops under the heading ‘Gravitas’, for professional actors over the age of 60, led by seasoned practitioners such as Mike Alfreds and Max Stafford-Clark.

Visible contend that ‘there is a lot of negativity about being older in our society, and this is heightened for actors, continuously in the public gaze. What is missing is the recognition of what is their most powerful resource – life experience.’

james roose evans

Another company set up specifically to create work for older actors is Frontier Theatre Productions, led by veteran director James Roose-Evans. James’s extraordinary career spans 60 years; among many other achievements, he was founder of Hampstead Theatre, and adapted and directed the original production of ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ in the West End and on Broadway.

James told me that, while running a workshop in London with actors over 70, he’d had been struck by how open to exploration they were. ‘This set me thinking about what a huge bank of talented actors in their sixties upwards we have in this country, which is largely untapped.’

jake murray

James’s experience led to the establishment of Frontier with director Jake Murray, who was Associate Artistic Director at Manchester Royal Exchange from 2001 to 2007. ‘The Third Age is as rich and profound as any other phase in our lives,’ says Jake. ‘In the past, old age was seen as a great achievement, a time of wisdom and new insights. Now we have drawn a veil over it. As a consequence a vast amount of people have been made invisible. We must give them a voice.’

mercy

James and Jake hope to achieve this both by reviving plays, but also finding new writing. Their latest production is ‘Mercy’ by Clare Whitehead, part of the So And So Arts Club’s EverHopefull Repertory season. ‘Since Frontier was launched, we have been getting scripts from New Zealand, Australia, America, Canada, as well as from the UK,’ says James. ‘Clearly we have touched a nerve.’

James is also keen to involve younger actors in Frontier’s work, to give them the chance to learn alongside older actors. ‘Clearly older actors, if they have talent, have a greater experience of the craft of acting, which they can impart to younger actors.’

There are plenty of young actors out there, of course, but one of the industry’s main preoccupations has always been the need to attract young audiences. This in turn has fed a negative attitude towards older theatre-goers – the cliché of the ‘blue-rinse brigade’. During their time at the Orange Tree, Sam Walters and Auriol Smith built up a fiercely loyal – and very theatre-literate – audience. ‘Theatre-going is a habit,’ Ariol points out. Sam agrees: ‘It is something they have known and grown up with. For the older members of the Orange Tree audience, their theatre-going was an important and meaningful part of their lives. That is why I always reacted strongly to any disparagement of them.’

I asked James Roose-Evans if he thought theatre was generally more appealing to older audiences. ‘I don’t agree with this. When I directed Christopher Fry‘s ‘Venus Observed’ at Chichester, Patrick Garland included it in the season but not expecting it to do well at the box office. The production was sold out, and what amazed Patrick and myself was how many young people responded, discovering Fry for the first time‘.
Jake Murray believes it is a complex issue. ‘It’s partly generational, as theatre was part of the older generation’s landscape, educational standards were higher back in the day and theatre didn’t have to compete with Netflix, Playstation, Facebook, etc. But there is still a strong, dedicated young theatre-going audience out there who are excited by what they see on the stage.’

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Discrimination against older performers is also being raised more and more – actress Maggie Gyllenhall recently spoke out against ageism in Hollywood, and revealed she had been told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year old male actor. She is 37. It is certainly still true that women have a far tougher time of it as they get older. As James Roose-Evans observes, ‘After sixty, women tend to become invisible.’ His work with Frontier hopes to improve this state of things by producing new work specifically designed for older actresses. ‘One example which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been tested in the theatre,’ says James, ‘is the rich relationship between grandmothers and granddaughters who are in their late teens, early twenties.’

For his part, Jake Murray is optimistic. ‘There are more writers writing great parts for older women,’ he says, ‘and not just female writers, but men too. I tell writers to write for women, especially older ones, as there will always be more talented women in the profession than men.’

In cinema, as Murray points out, the ‘grey pound’ is being served targeted more than ever:
‘There is an increasing presence for big movies that deal with the older experience. The ‘Marigold Hotel’ films are a case in point, and movies like ‘Quartet’ and ‘Amour’. I think when people love a screen actor they enjoy seeing them still doing it in their old age, especially if they can be playful with their image.’

Diana-Rigg game of thrones

Television, most of all, seems willing to embrace its older audience. Shows like ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ and even ‘Game Of Thrones’ clearly recognise the value of casting older actors –performers like Diana Rigg and Julian Glover bring decades of experience, but also carry with them the weight of earlier roles.

The entertainment industry deals in dreams, ideals and fantasy, which often means avoiding the harsher realities of life. But we have an ageing population – a community which can’t be ignored and which has an abundance of life experience, time to consume entertainment and in many cases, more money than the young. And perhaps the tide is turning after all. Companies like Visible and Frontier are showing that the older actor still has an important place in the theatre, and one of the hottest tickets in recent years has been Theatre Royal Bath and Tricycle Theatre’s production ‘The Father’, starring Kenneth Cranham, which explores the devastating effects of dementia on an 80-year old man – although, there is a danger that the theatre treats older characters only in terms of declining faculties: as James Roose-Evans warns, ‘It is not all about Alzheimer’s.’

It’s time we embrace fully just how important stories about older people can be to our culture – and this means we need to support older storytellers, both actors and writers. Theatre should be a window onto the whole of life, not just the first part.

Frontier Theatre’s production of Clare Whitehead’s ‘Mercy’, directed by Jake Murray, is part of the EverHopeFull repertory season and runs from September 1st to the 26th at 6 Frederick’s Place, London EC2R 8AB. Tickets are priced at £10.

Interview with the Casting Director – Hannah Miller – part two

hannah miller 2

Chris Naylor How did you start? Did you act at all?

Hannah Miller No I didn’t. I think it’s quite useful to understand more about who casting directors are; I joke with drama students that we don’t just come out of an egg. Quite unusually, it was pretty much my first job – I went to Hull University and did a drama degree, and probably thought I wanted to be a director at that point; I didn’t do any directing for at least a year-and-a-half, and felt everyone else was probably much better at it than I was, and then also realised I didn’t particularly want a freelance lifestyle. I think I realised at 21 that probably wasn’t the lifestyle for me. And then I started thinking about what sort of jobs I might be interested in – I wanted to be able to support people who were really talented, essentially.

CN In theatre, specifically?

HM Well, yes. I didn’t do much theatre – I wasn’t a performer at any point in my schooling really, except at primary school maybe – and we didn’t go to the theatre much as a family, so it wasn’t really part of my life.

Twin Peaks

TV and film, as a child of the 80s, was where it was at for me – I really loved David Lynch actually, ‘Twin Peaks’ changed my life – and how creative you could be in TV, which of course now is a bit of a given, suddenly, but at the time it really wasn’t. And so I went with that much more in mind, but at Hull I did 33 stage productions in 3 years, doing all sorts of things from design and lighting and sound, to producing, building the sets – tiny, weeny bit of acting, just to check I didn’t want to act –

CN – That it wasn’t a hidden passion?

HM Exactly, and I had no idea what I was doing, so that was fine!

CN Good choice, then.

HM I was in a year with a lot of really interesting, talented people, and I thought about wanting to support them and give them opportunities, and I thought, ‘Maybe an agent, maybe a producer’. Then I heard about this thing called casting at a workshop in Edinburgh, that the National Theatre Studio had put on. I went along and thought, ‘That suits the sort of things I like and the things I think I’m good at’, and I ended up at Cheek By Jowl on a work experience placement, which I’d got through an admin award at the National Student Drama Festival.

Matthew Macfadyen  Much Ado

When I was there, I asked to go along when they were casting – they were starting to cast a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, with Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan, about ‘97/’98. And I worked with Serena Hill who was casting that, and the following January, because her assistant at the National had left, she asked me to temp for a month, and I stayed for 5 years.

CN So you found yourself in an institution?

HM Very unexpectedly. I left university thinking I’d work for someone like Complicité, and sort of find my feet and take it a bit slow. Suddenly by the January after I graduated I found myself casting assistant at the National Theatre. And within the first couple of weeks I suddenly understood that that was something I could do well. I really loved working in that environment; I consider it to be more than an apprenticeship – I worked with amazing casting directors, extraordinary directors and writers, and we had the most amazing actors walking through the door every day.

CN Did you sit in on auditions from the start?

sleep with me NT

HM Not too early on. I remember really clearly the first time I had to step in – I hadn’t been there very long. Wendy Spon was there as well at the time – Serena and Wendy both had other commitments in the evening, and I had to just go in and run the auditions for Hanif Kureishi’s play ‘Sleep With Me’, which Anthony Page was directing. We had to do scenes which involved coke-taking, a seduction scene, and that was my baptism by fire.

CN And clearly didn’t put you off?

HM No! I think it often takes quite a while before you are the person in the room – that’s not the primary part of the job, but by the end of my five years I did work on a lot of the musicals, and I cast things as well as doing the administration. So it was an amazing time.

CN That admin side of it must have been an eye-opener for you at the National – I imagine the volume of submissions you get is pretty impressive, and here similarly.

HM Yeah, and I encourage people to send their details. I consider it to be part of an actor’s job, they shouldn’t worry about what’s happening at the other end. But we look at absolutely everything and, as a publically-subsidised organisation who has an in-house department with a team of people, we can answer queries on the telephone, and look through correspondence, and use every part of the material that comes to us to help us do our job.

CN From an actor’s point of view, you’re never really sure of how well-received your submission will be, and there’s always the fear that your agent will not want you to do it.

HM I think that’s true. But an actor’s role, when you’re not in front of a camera or on in rehearsals or on stage, is about telling people that you want to work with them. I think there can be a tendency to think that we can find everybody; it is our job to try, but if you consider a line of however many tens of thousands of people and just me, it’s a lot easier for any one of those people to communicate with me, than for me to have knowledge of every one of those actors.

me and ed

CN I remember working with Ed Bennett – we did ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’ in York [Edward Bennett – the finest Algy there will ever be], and he was talking about the National, and he said, ‘They know. They know what everybody’s doing. They keep tabs on all of us the whole time; at every stage in your career’. And I thought, ‘Is that really true?’

HM Well, we try, and I think there was a time when people really could do that. But now there are a lot of people working, and it’s not physically possible in the way that it once was.

CN Even though one of you is seeing something every night of the week.

HM And watching telly, and going to drama school showcases, and reading everything that comes in, and keeping an eye on reviews. We’re keeping an eye on a lot of people, but it’s still valuable to put your head above the parapet to say, ‘Hi, I’m over here!’ because you’re just drawing attention to the fact that you want to work with us. Particularly with people coming back into the profession – or who perhaps have said, ’Actually I can’t come up to the RSC’, when that situation changes – you know, those kind of things. If I went freelance tomorrow, you would expect me to write to the people that I might want to work with. You wouldn’t expect me to just sit at home and wait for the phone.

CN I think there’s a fear from actors of being the little irritant – you don’t want to phone your agent too much, because they’ll get irritated with you, and you don’t want to be the person at the party who goes, ‘Hi, are you casting anything at the moment?’

HM But I think that’s just about using a bit of common sense, but it’s also about not being too paranoid – just because you haven’t got a response, doesn’t mean it was irritating. For example, when I was freelancing and working for Birmingham Rep I didn’t have any help, so I was at auditions all day, went to the theatre, came home, then looked at my emails, typed up the list for the next day, printed out all the CVs, went to bed at 2.00 in the morning, got up at 7.00 and did it all over again. So there isn’t time to respond to anything that isn’t immediately about those auditions. There isn’t time to write to somebody and say, ‘Sorry I can’t see your show’. That just doesn’t come close to being possible.

And it’s not irritating if you’ve got something new to say; if you’re saying, ‘I’m going to be on television on this day’, or ‘I’m in this show’, or, ‘I know you’re casting this and I would love to be considered’, that’s all news.

CN So if you’re casting, for example, ‘Henry V’, and an actor thinks, ‘I’m right for this, I’d love to play that part’, would you encourage them – if they’re going to write to you – to be specific and say, ‘Would you consider seeing me for the Dauphin‘?

RSC Henry V

HM Yeah, I think it’s always good to know that people know and understand the play and have a sense of what they potentially could be right for, and to make a pitch. It doesn’t mean we won’t go, ‘Ooh, not that part, but this part’. We’ll do the work ourselves, it’s not like we’d be so blinkered to go, ‘You’re not right for that part, you’re not right for anything’. Or going, ‘Actually we’ve cast that, but I know that in 6 months’ time we’re going to be casting this, and you might be really right for that’, and I’ll put it in a file. It’s all just a huge melting pot of communication. You never write anyone off.

CN So even if somebody buggers up an audition terribly?

HM Well, the chances are we’ll get them straight back in for something else. If you’ve seen an actor at some point and liked what they’ve done, then you’re much more likely to assume that they will do that again. That’s the important thing to remember – if you’re being invited to an audition, we’re only bringing you in because we think you can do the job.

CN Have you ever fought an actor’s corner, or had to persuade a director to see someone?

HM Not to see them, because they don’t decide who to see. We decide who to see. I mean, generally speaking, some directors know a lot of actors and are very involved in who they want to see, and if a director knows an actor, of course I’ll say, ‘Do you think they’re right for this?’ But a lot of the time we’re making the decision as to who to bring in. You hope that you’re developing relationships with directors where they value your opinion, but ultimately of course it’s the director’s final decision, and we will sometimes have very robust conversations, and sometimes be in complete accord. And then we sit on first night and see who was right – no, I’m joking!

CN Where do you get most job satisfaction?

HM It’s where my initial impetus lay when I was 20 – when I know that it was down to me that somebody has been given an opportunity that makes a real difference. A real difference because it’s a role that nobody ever thought of them for before, or because they haven’t worked in a while, or because they’ve always wanted to work at the RSC. And the RSC features very heavily for a lot of people in why they’ve become actors. I do appreciate that – you can’t carry that around constantly, you need to be able to just get on with your job, but I am conscious of it. And obviously someone’s very first job is quite special, particularly when they don’t have an agent yet and you have to ring them directly. Absolutely wonderful. A job that you know means a lot to them, it’s wonderful that you can facilitate that. It is a privilege.

CN It’s an extraordinary place to work, and to facilitate that – what an honour.

White Devil Kirsty Bushell RSC

HM And then the real job satisfaction is when you see them six months later and they’re having a wonderful time, a bit tired but really loving it – and making the most of it, you know? When you see actors really figure out how to get most out of time here and in Stratford, and see them just grabbing every opportunity, and getting a huge amount of satisfaction – in turn that gives us satisfaction.

Interview with the Casting Director – Hannah Miller – part one

Hannah Miller

Visiting the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London offices involves a climb up many flights of stairs, and I think serves as an effective pre-audition test – if you can survive the climb, then you clearly have the stamina for a year at the RSC. Hannah Miller has been the RSC Head of Casting since 2008, and an audition with her is one of the most desirable appointments in the acting profession.

Chris Naylor You have a very privileged position at the RSC – it’s a place where most actors really would love to work.

Hannah Miller
I hope so!

CN I wonder how you view that position, in terms of the feelings of people who want to work with you?

HM It is a responsibility, and whilst it’s a responsibility to the acting profession, it’s also a responsibility to directors, to the audiences, to our writers – Shakespeare included but not exclusively. Those three letters – RSC – do carry a great deal of connotation, both positive and negative. They can feel like a barrier to some people, they can cause our work to be misunderstood sometimes, they are a mark of excellence, we hope. Obviously we take very seriously the need to maintain that. And then there’s the fact that it’s a subsidised company as well, so you’ve got a responsibility to the sector, you’ve got a responsibility to be cultural leaders, to be always working in a way that is best practice, and we do take that really seriously.

CN The whole public company thing – everything you do has to be very accountable, doesn’t it? Does that place responsibility on you, to be very open about how you cast, or even to try and be more inclusive in who you meet?

HM Yes, and you know, hopefully I would want to work in that way wherever I was. The other thing, as the casting department for this organisation, is the work we do that maybe isn’t visible –the fact that we go out and see as much theatre as we do. We worked out, in four weeks between us, we paid 75 visits to the theatre. And not all of those visits would even be in a way that anybody was aware of – you know, we just took ourselves off.

CN Probably better for the actors as well – like when critics don’t come on the first night, they might see a more relaxed show.

HM Exactly – as a guest with an agent it’s lovely, but sometimes we just want to go to the theatre. I explain to students that it’s our job to get to know as many actors as possible; that is our core, basic job, and that isn’t always visible. We can apply that knowledge to the visible bit, which is who we’re bringing in to meet. But the knowledge is the important thing. So it’s not all about the here and now – I might know somebody for 10, 15 years, before I have the right job for them.

CN Are there actors that you have stored, thinking, ‘I’ll just wait three more years and she’ll be right?’

HM It’s not necessarily that strategic – and it’s not that someone is or isn’t right now – but at the end of the day there are only so many people that I can bring in for a part. And even if it’s ten, and we’ve got a company of 22, that’s still 220 people. 10 people for one part doesn’t sound a lot, but auditioning 220 people for a company takes a lot of time, because we do 20-minute meetings minimum. The hard bit of the job is that you could bring in 50 people, but you’ve only got time to bring in 10.

CN That’s tough, isn’t it?

HM And it’s instinct, it’s about bringing in a diverse group of people who your instinct tells you will make lots of different offers of how they might interpret that part, and what they bring in terms of their skills and experience, and their way of thinking as an actor, that I think might be a fit with that director and that project, and with anyone else we’ve already cast.

Gregory Doran Linda Nylind - GuardianErica Whyman

CN So when a season is decided on and the plays are set out, how does it work? Are you brought in or do you start earlier than that?

HM I’m part of the group of Heads of Department who are on the artistic planning team. We get together with Greg [Doran, Artistic Director] and Erica [Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director] and the producers to discuss the artistic planning of the RSC. So we’ll be aware of projects that might be upcoming, and suggesting whether we want to cast people before we confirm projects, sometimes. So early on I’ll be aware of the sorts of things that we might be doing, and be ready to get going as soon as we have projects, dates and directors confirmed. And sometimes we might want to look at casting people in leading roles before we can confirm a date, so we can work around people‘s availability, for example, but generally speaking we want to have those three things in place. Then I’ll start talking to the directors about their individual ideas, and their initial instincts about the story they want to tell with the production, and sometimes getting into quite a lot of detail on people that they’ve admired, people they’d like to work with, people they have worked with, or just reference points for characters, those kind of conversations.

CN So at that point presumably you’ll start going, ‘That makes me think of this actor…’

HM Yes, but obviously here most of the time we’re casting one company to work on two, three, maybe even four productions, so I’ll be having those conversations as early as possible, talking about any really strong choices that they want to make – for example, about the gender of characters – and if I have those conversations with all three directors then I can start to see how those productions might influence each other, and start to propose ideas of how different parts might work together. I always do that just to prove we can, it’s not fixed in stone in any way, because then real people walk through the door.

We meet actors that directors want to work with, and lots of actors that are all right for the same part in one play, but everybody would love them to be in the company, so we start to shift how those parts join up, and make lines of parts and opportunities for as many of the actors as possible.

CN So you’ll try and balance the size of parts?

HM Yeah, exactly. We don’t want to be saying, ‘You can’t work with that actor because…’, we want to say, ‘Can we think laterally about how this company can be formed, so that everybody has a fulfilling and interesting line of parts?’

Lizzie Hopley

CN [Actress and writer] Lizzie Hopley was talking recently about ‘Girl Fights’, the play she developed while she was working at Stratford, and saying what a supportive atmosphere the RSC is. What she described was almost like a theatrical village, where there’s a great community that will support and help any project. In a way you’re populating this village, aren’t you? You’re trying to create a little community that will work together.

HM Absolutely, that’s a very interesting way of putting it; I like that, populating a village.

CN I’ve been reading Antony Sher’s book ‘Year Of The Fat Knight’, and Stratford does have such a strong identity, it’s almost like a character in the diaries.

Sher Fat Knight

HM The environment for working is pretty special, I think; it’s not going to be for everyone, but I think the vast majority of people that work there have got a lot out of that. It is a bit of a bubble, but consequently it’s an incredibly supportive environment and well-populated in every department – there are people around to support you in every aspect of your work. Plus, as Lizzie brilliantly made the most of, for those people who have other interests, you’re there with lots of other actors who are also away from home and have a little bit of extra time to create projects and try things out, compared to being in London where everyone just goes home at the end of the night. There is an environment of creativity – people work very hard, and we know that. We put a lot of demands on our actors in Stratford, and there’s a lot that we’d like them to get involved with, as well as the shows. And I’m conscious of that being right for people at different moments of their time and career.

I was with drama students yesterday and they were talking about, you know, ‘How often is it somebody’s first job?’ It varies from year to year, of course, depending on the plays we’re doing, but quite often there’s at least between one and five people who are in their first year after graduating. But I know a lot of people who get more out of it five or ten years into their career, or even beyond, because it’s about a return to a sense of being able to learn and stretch and work really hard.

CN That absorption in the craft.

HM Exactly.

CN When you’re auditioning, can you get the sense that this person won’t like that total immersion, and being away for a long time?

HM I think most people, when they come in to audition, know what it’s like, and people are honest about whether they are ready for that, or if it was only one or two plays out of a season, but not three or four.

CN Do you have that flexibility?

HM Sometimes we’re at a point where we can be flexible about the way the company forms, and sometimes we can’t, but it’s often a question.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

CN Being quite a way from London, being separate from all the rush and the career pressure and – for actors, anyway, that ‘missing out’ thing – it’s an interesting mixture isn’t it? It’s such a prestigious place to work, and yet you’re away for quite a while.

HM I think it’s a societal thing generally in 2015 – everyone always thinks they have to move on. I’ve got friends in completely different industries who are like, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be in this job for longer than, you know 3 or 4 years’. It’s certainly incredibly prevalent in our industry, which I find hilarious, because none of us is going to have a pension and we’re all going to be working into our eighties, so I don’t know what the rush is. I am not sure that I buy any of that, personally.

Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned; I think there is room for focusing on the fact that this is a company that you want to be part of; that you want to go back to some basics of technique and craft that you once learnt or haven’t had the chance to develop. It is about fulfilment and satisfaction and creativity, and working with amazing people; working for a company that can support you and is prestigious, rather than, ‘But what is this credit going to be and who’s going to see me do it and –’

CN ‘What’s next?’

HM I’m sure for some people it takes a while to get used to a freelance life, and so to interrupt that isn’t always going to be easy. Of course there are some people who love that – it doesn’t suit them to do the same thing for 9 months or a year, and they like to go from one thing to another. I don’t want us to pretend that our work isn’t what it is, and yes, normally the contracts are 6 months minimum, often over a year. They have a different flow, a different workload, and if that isn’t right for somebody, I don’t want anyone to pretend that it is.

shakespeare's globe

CN It seems from observing the shows over the years that – much like the Globe, for example – there are actors who love it, and feel at home and want to return. That’s a rather wonderful thing isn’t it? It’s not something that we are often able to do in this country.

HM Absolutely, it’s that sense of getting to know a group of people. I’m talking to a lot of drama students at this time of year – having worked with the same people for three years, what they’re very excited about is, ‘We’ll be working with complete strangers, won’t that be so weird?’

CN ‘Of the right age!’

HM Yes, exactly! And working with people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, and of course often with people who have been with the RSC before. On the other hand, this spring we looked at everybody who was on the payroll, and 66% of the company were on their first ever contract with us, out of nearly 200 people. And I think that’s another thing that surprises people – sometimes you can look at it and say, ‘They only ever have new people and they’ve never asked me back’, or, ‘They only ever work with the same people’ –

CN Depending on your attitude?

HM Yeah, it depends what people want to see. But actually the truth of it is that it’s very even. But also that the people returning range from having been here in the season immediately before, to not having returned for 15, 20 years.

CN That must keep it fresh – give it a sense of continuity and freshness at the same time.

HM And that combination is really important, I think. Because younger actors working here for the first time do appreciate having people around who can say, ‘Oh well, it never used to be like this’, or, ‘That’s always what you get’ or whatever.

CN And also for the older actors, seeing it through fresh eyes.

HM Exactly, it works both ways.

In Part Two, Hannah talks beginnings, how to approach a casting director and ‘Twin Peaks’…

The Comeback Kids – # 2: David Whitworth

David Whitworth

David Whitworth and I acted together in ‘Mary Goes First’ at the Orange Tree Theatre in London in 2008. After 20 years as an actor, David and his wife, the director Jane Glassey, took over the running of the Richmond Drama School from 1987 to 2007. He then returned to acting and has worked extensively since, in productions such as ‘London Assurance’ at the National Theatre, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Regent’s Park and ‘The Second Mrs Tanqueray’ at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

Chris Naylor How did you end up moving from acting to running a drama school?

David Whitworth There was a sort of gradual process, I guess. I was just a jobbing actor for 20 years, but I’d always done a lot of teaching to exist as an actor.

CN Where did you train?

DW I didn’t train, I just went to university and did plays, and then got a job as an acting ASM at Leicester. So I went through the repertory system and spent about 3 years working in different towns – Leicester, Bolton, Harrogate. When I got back to London, we’d got our first mortgage and so suddenly there was this responsibility of actually paying 30 quid a month.

CN You’d got married…

DW I was married when I was a student.

CN So you went into the career knowing that you were part of team.

DW Yes. Jane did the proper thing and trained as an actress, and I did the improper thing and went to university, and I became the actor and she became a director. We went to Leicester, and Jane got pregnant, and then I got Pitlochry

pitlochry festival theatre

– our first child was born – I was going to say on a croft, but we were living in a croft. He was born in Perth hospital.

CN Did you feel any pressure – now you suddenly have a very important person in your life to support, in what was even then a very precarious profession?

DW When you’re that age, I think you just cope with whatever comes at you. Once we’d got a mortgage I sometimes used to wake up thinking, ‘How am I going to pay this every month?’, but I’m very glad I took the advice of my tutor at university, Dr Worth. I remember she said, ‘You must stay and get your degree, because that will help you to be an actor’. In those days, if you’d got a proper honours degree you could be a teacher. So I did years of supply teaching.

CN In regular schools?

DW Anywhere really, but I was lucky enough to make a very good relationship with a school, and any time I was out of work, they always took me back as a floating teacher. So I would cover for anybody who was away, teaching everything. In fact, at one point they offered me Head of English, which would have absolutely changed my life, because I had just been doing bits of teaching when necessary and acting whenever I could. And I did agonise for about 10 hours.

CN It’s an interesting dilemma. It does happen doesn’t it, when they say, ‘Stay on’, and you think, ‘Well, I could get benefits, I could get security – ‘

DW A pension…

CN But you said no to that.

DW Well, that was in the early 70s. I’d only been acting for about 5 or 6 years, and I just didn’t feel I’d done enough, I was still burning up with ambition. I did about 20 years of anything else I could to earn money. I used to mark ‘O’ Level papers – these kids whose parents had paid a fortune for their education, and there was I, sitting in the dressing room at Bath Theatre Royal marking their ‘O’ Levels. But we needed the money – it think it was something like 10 shillings a script, so you’d make a few hundred quid at Christmas, which was…

CN Not to be sniffed at.

DW It wasn’t to be sniffed at. Supply teaching was so much better paid than acting – I mean, you’re hard pressed to find anything as badly paid as acting – but it did enable me to be an actor.

CN So you got to the point where your mortgage was pressing on you?

DW It was the children – we had 3 you see, and by the time our youngest was about 9 or 10, the others were coming up to university age. Children going to university, they’re going to cost you money.

macbeth new shakespeare company
I’d been working from London and doing tours occasionally. My main employer was the New Shakespeare Company, Regent’s Park, I did an awful lot of work with them.

There was a period of my life when I was very involved – because when I was working for them once, David Conville, who used to run it, came into the dressing room and said, ‘I don’t know what to make of this, there’s a man at Lloyds Bank and he wants to give us some money, but he wants education work. You know about that sort of thing – go away and draw up some plans.’ So I started writing workshops for a group of actors within the company – interactive workshops with students, but entertainments in themselves. I wrote a script which included great chunks of the Shakespeare which we were doing, illustrating themes, and this was the idea I sold to Lloyds Bank.

david conville new shakespeare company

I spent years doing this all over the place when the company was on tour. The very first one was ‘Julius Caesar’, and we did it in different theatres, packed with students: I got half of them supporting Brutus and half supporting Anthony. They were a huge success, and Lloyds Bank started just throwing money at us, because they thought, ‘We could develop this, you could do educational videos’. The Inner London Education Authority had their own television studio in a converted school in Battersea, and so they linked us up with them, and I spent the next 2 or 3 years writing and directing videos – distilled theatre workshops, on the Roman plays, the Tragedies, the Comedies. As we went on, they started entering these for festivals, and we won some gold gong at the Chicago Film Festival, so Lloyds Bank thought, ‘That’s even better, we’ll give you some more money – you can try and get other actors in’.

Renee Ashersonjohn nettles

I got Renee Asherson playing Volumnia, and John Nettles playing Coriolanus. So this was wonderful – it would take up a great chunk of my year, writing and planning and usually working in the summer for the Shakespeare company.
Then the new guy came in and said, ‘No, we don’t want to spend money on theatre, we want to spend it on music’. And suddenly, this regular second career which kept the acting going and was very good to do, it all stopped.

richmond drama school
CN How did you end up running Richmond Drama School?

DW I had been working for Sam [Walters] at the Orange Tree Theatre, and he was trying to run this drama school across the road, the De Leon drama school, to see if he could make it work. But he didn’t really have time, so he got Jane and I involved – Jane as the acting teacher and me directing plays, and I gradually got more involved. We loved doing it.

CN Was your attitude that you were preparing people for the profession?

DW We ran it as a professional training course, because we thought some of the really good ones could make a go at of it.

Tom-Hardy
Tom Hardy went on to huge fame and success – he was great for me and Jane, we got on really well.

CN Could you tell he had a target in mind?

DW I don’t know whether he had a target, but he had a huge talent. I remember him standing up in the first week and doing the first exercise, and he was shaking with apprehension… He has got a kind of magnetism, charisma, especially on film.

CN What sort of ages would you take?

DW All ages. I had an actor who was very good, worked in business – a very cultivated, interesting man, but he’d always wanted to be an actor. He was the oldest I ever had, he was 60-something, and he went on and had a bit of a career. I saw him in some good plays on the fringe; he was doing what he wanted to do all his life.

CN When you weren’t acting yourself, were you able to get satisfaction from bringing it out of other people?

DW I found I loved teaching, I loved working on texts with students and introducing them to Shakespeare. One South London boy – who is now a film actor and writer, doing really well – I remember him shaking my hand and saying, ‘I never did any of this at school – what an eye-opener to have this world of Shakespeare opened up, thank you’. When we look back and think, ‘What were we doing all that time?’ you think, ‘Well, it if we hadn’t, those people wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing now’.

CN When you went into it, were you thinking, ‘At some point I’m going to go back?’

DW Well, I thought I’d just do it for 2 or 3 years. I naively thought I could combine acting and this job. But that’s very difficult; I mean, teaching is a huge commitment.

CN I imagine you started to think, ‘Well, I’m here now, there’s another term coming up…’

DW Yes, it creeps up on you, but I always thought, ‘There’ll come a time when I’ll be able to go back,’ because acting is like that.

CW It’s very seductive, isn’t it?

DN There isn’t a career path, is there? People do come in and out of the business.

CN At what point did you think, ‘Right, I’ve had enough, I want to act again’?

DW There was a combination of circumstances – they were gradually getting rid of things that were not going to bring the college money, all the creative stuff was disappearing. Music, art and drama were being squeezed because there was always pressure on us to take more and more students and charge higher and higher fees.

CN So you were becoming more frustrated?

DW Yeah, I became more and more disenchanted – not with the job I was doing, but with the place. Every few years in these institutions, they restructure and you have to apply for your job again, and Jane was forced out, her job disappeared, so my ally had gone. Jane had been the heart of the drama school really, so I knew the students weren’t getting the same good basic acting training. I staggered on for another two or three years; in the end, I sort of forced them to make me redundant, so that gave me the statutory redundancy payment, which was enough money for me to have breathing space. I immediately had some photographs taken, wrote to everybody I could think of and tried to get an agent.

CN So, in a way, you were starting from scratch. Was that daunting?

Timothy Sheader by  David Jensen

DW Yeah it was, but my attitude was, everything’s a bonus, even if it’s just a little bit in a TV series. What I really wanted to do was plays, but I wasn’t sure how. I wrote to people I knew, like Tim Sheader and Sam, and both of them came up with jobs. And once I got going, it was easier to get an agent. I thought I would just get the odd days’ work here and there – I was absolutely amazed that I earned more money than in the previous year teaching. That was just my first year back.

CN A wonderful year, to welcome you back.

DW It was, and that’s because of calling in favours.

CN It must have been very strange – returning after such a long time. Did you notice a difference in yourself?

DW A big difference. I’m much more confident now than when I was young, because I haven’t got so much riding on it, and although it’s hurtful not to get work, as it always was, it doesn’t bother me in the same way.

CN How do you think the business has changed?

DW Well, the most marked thing is all this unpaid or very low–paid work. When I started as an actor, you weren’t paid a lot, but you were paid. And you didn’t work if you weren’t paid. Now there’s been this explosion in fringe theatre work; I think, should we be doing any of this? But these young people trying to start acting, they won’t get any experience if they don’t do that, unless they’re lucky enough to get into the RSC or something. There aren’t any theatres where you can go for 6 months, doing play after play.

CN Do you think your priorities in life have changed?

DW Oh yeah, I’m sure they have. I’m still very keen to do it, I mean it’s so exciting to get a job isn’t it? When they phone up and say yes, they want you.

CN I find there are enough wonderful points of delight and joy amongst the terror or the grind to pull you through.

DW Especially in theatre. My experience of going back has been mostly theatre. I’ve done one advert in Romania, and those are ridiculous jobs, aren’t they? They fly you out, put you in an expensive hotel, you go to some studio and you do a day’s work, and then you come home again and it’s several thousand pounds. Those are silly jobs.

CN That’s one of the many wonderful things about this profession, that it will take you somewhere you never expected to go.

DW It’s a treat really, a little holiday.

CN Would you say that’s how you viewed your return? Because I suppose you didn’t have to come back to acting, did you?

DW No, I had a pension, and then very soon I had my old age pension.

CN Which must help in terms of taking jobs.

DW Yeah, it really does. I couldn’t have done most of the work that I’ve done without that. If I was still having to pay a mortgage, it wouldn’t be enough money.

CN Do you think it benefits an actor to take some time out?

DW Well, it might make you a better actor, but I don’t think it helps you get more work, because I’m up against people who are my age but didn’t take that break, and are much better known. So I’m very much an unknown quantity.

CN There’s this big debate flying around about middle-class acting – I think it’s a fairly middle class profession anyway, and probably hasn’t ever really been open to everybody.

DW I was working-class, I didn’t have any sort of connections to theatre at all, hardly ever been to the theatre.

CN Did you have a teacher that inspired you?

cosy nook theatre ian grundy

DW When I was at Newquay grammar school, a teacher got me involved in the school play in the first year or second year, ‘The Miser’ by Moliere. And I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ But as a child I’d been in ‘Peter Pan’ at the Cosy Nook Theatre in Newquay, so I trod the boards very young. I did know quite early on that that’s what I wanted to do.

CN It’s terribly exciting isn’t it? It’s like a little secret, thinking, ‘Wow, I could do this’.

DW I remember my Uncle John – we were talking about what I might do with my life; I said, ‘I might be a barrister or something like that’. He said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, you wouldn’t be any good. But you might be an actor’. I can remember where we were walking when he said that – and I thought, ‘Yes of course, that is what I want to do’. And I just seized every opportunity I could – my three years at university were spent doing plays, and doing a bit of Beowulf on the side.

CN It’s a very good use of three years, isn’t it?

DW I think those years are important for any young person to find out what you want to do. Most people in life don’t find what they really want, and end up compromising and being generally unhappy. You can be unhappy as an actor, for different reasons, but when you’re working it can be fantastic. I mean that job I’ve just done in Sweden, it was the best thing.

The Woman in Black  David Whitworth Gary Whitaker

CN ‘The Woman in Black’! What a job, what a play.

DW I just absolutely loved it. To play that part, or those parts, it’s wonderful. I felt quite bereft when it all came to an end. I loved being in Stockholm, but what I carry with me will be doing the play, and the effect it had on the audience. It’s just a fantastic piece of theatre.

CN I always felt like it was pure theatre in many ways; it was almost like a lesson in acting, and a lesson in how to be an audience.

DW How to use your imagination. Because there’s nothing there, a few props.

CN When I’d got the part, I went to see the play – I’d started to read it, I’d started to learn it – I knew what was coming, and it still terrified me completely.

DW I’d much rather be in it than watch it, because it’s too frightening.

CN Absolutely. There was a point when I was covering my ears thinking, ‘Please let this stop, because I don’t think I can cope’.

DW When the door opens…

CN Oh God! So wonderful, I loved doing that show.

DW it’s almost spoilt me for anything else, I enjoyed it so much.

CN Thank you David.

EXODUS! Movement of the thespians… (or Why Actors Should Leave London)

exodus!

London. Wonderful place, greatest city on Earth. When you’re tired of it, etcetera etcetera.

I grew up a half-hour train journey outside London, and spent all of my youth dreaming of the day I could finally leave the provinces behind and arrive in the Big Smoke to make my fortune. My school made frequent trips to the National Theatre and to see the RSC at the Barbican, and my dreams were filled with thoughts of moving to London to study at drama school.

LAMDA at tower house

Happily enough, this came to pass – the Three-Year Acting course at LAMDA, from 1995 to 1998. A wonderful, inspiring time, surrounded by amazing actors who became amazing friends, spending our days immersed in the one thing we all wanted desperately to do. We used to rehearse in Chiswick, so naturally I rented a flat there – or, to be specific, a knackered bedsit. In fact, most of us ended up renting flats or rooms in West London as we trained. It seemed sensible enough – in those days, LAMDA was based in Earls Court and there was no sense in straying too far. Gradually though, as we left training and money started to be more of an issue, people started to flee to the less-expensive parts, or leave London altogether – although this often seemed to coincide with them also leaving the profession.

And there’s the rub. It has always been an accepted fact of the industry that if you want to be a working actor, you have to live in London. After all, that’s where the work is, isn’t it? All the top drama schools are there, all the best agents; it’s where all the important auditions are held, and where you’ll find the headshot photographers, the show reel and voice reel studios, Equity, Spotlight, the Actor’s Centre – Theatreland itself. How can you even contemplate being an actor if you don’t live in London?

But let’s look at some rather scary figures. According to an Equity survey from 2013 quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 56% of its members earned less than £10,000 in 2012/13. Anything less than £13,000 a year is deemed to be below the poverty line. To rent a flat in London (let’s not even bother talking about buying a house in the capital) you will be paying an average of £1,160 per month (September 2014 figures).

For many of us, something has to give, and that something is usually acting. After a few years of trying to establish yourself, the financial burden becomes too great, so you pack up and leave London, knowing that probably means leaving the profession too. It’s hard to justify persevering with such a precarious career when you see your bank balance emptying, especially as the years go by, and you become conscious that this might be your last chance to make a career change. Hard too if you have a family, or want one.

Priyanga Burford 2 by Michael Shelford

I spoke to actress Priyanga Burford recently about this: ‘I think it’s a ridiculous demand to make of people to be living in one of the most expensive cities in the world on the off-chance that they might get some work,’ she told me. Pri and her husband Tom have two children, and made the decision to leave the capital: ‘We couldn’t afford anywhere in London that was big enough or nice enough to have the family life that we really wanted. You just have to make tough choices.’

Paul Miller Photo Mark Douet

Paul Miller, artistic director of the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, told me: ‘I think there is a lot of burn off. You can see that in the proportion of people who are in Spotlight of a certain age. The people who get burned off are the people who can’t afford to pay rent in London.’

The Stage recently quoted Justine Simons, head of culture for the Greater London Authority on this issue: “London is now the biggest it’s been… and that has put a real pressure on housing. We all know how expensive it is. It means we are facing a crisis… which is compounded by low wages.”
She added: “We don’t want a city where there are no artists or creative people, but left to its own devices, London has a habit of extinguishing creativity.”

london is changing

We thesps are not alone, of course. Across the professions, there is an exodus from London as people battle the curse of gentrification, and the rising rents and cost of living that follow it – see the London Is Changing project, set up by Rebecca Ross, MA communication design course leader at Central St Martins art school.

But if leaving London means stopping acting, who is left behind?

The media has recently become preoccupied with the apparent rise in middle- and upper- class actors, something I have written about before, and the suggestion seems to be that there are simply too many posh people being accepted to drama schools. These stories, and the subsequent eagerness of various drama school principals to parade their working class students, seem to me to be missing the point. Getting through drama school is one thing – there are student loans, part-time jobs and willing parents to help.

The real problem comes after graduation, when all those students are propelled into a harsh profession. It’s fine if you immediately get work – provided it’s well-paid, and provided it’s followed by more. Even better, of course, if you already have money behind you – and this is where the ‘class’ issue comes in. Who can afford to live from day-to-day in London, waiting for the phone to ring, unless they either have one of those elusive super-flexible day-jobs, or they are somehow liberated from the pressing worries of finding the rent and the council tax? It seems that increasingly it is only those with parents willing to subsidise them who can afford to sustain a career based in the capital.

So are we really seeing a trend emerging in which the business comes to be dominated by people from wealthy families? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a healthy and diverse artistic community to me. What about a vibrant industry, made up of people from different backgrounds, with different influences?

Some will no doubt argue that this is natural selection at work, and that those who can’t afford to be actors deserve to drop out. I mean, you chose the job, didn’t you? You know the score – if you were any good, you would be getting the work, wouldn’t you?

Let’s say you’re one of those drama school graduates who works a fair amount, but can’t stomach the cost of living in London any more. Like so many before you, you decide to pack up and leave.
But what if you don’t want to stop acting? What is it like to live outside the capital and still pursue an acting career?

sushil chudasama

I studied at LAMDA alongside Sushil Chudasama, who moved to Manchester to work (near his home town of Blackburn) shortly after we graduated. His experience is very informative, both in his frustration with the pressures of living and working in the capital, but also as a great lesson that it is possible to break away from London and still have a thriving career.

Chris Naylor How long after LAMDA did you decide to leave London?

Sushil Chudasama It was the first year after drama school, 1999. I got three jobs in a row all in Manchester, and all near to where I am originally from in Lancashire. I was not planning to leave so quickly, but as I was paying rent for a room where I hardly was, I thought it made financial sense to leave. I was planning to come back at some point but the opportunity never arose.

CN Did you have any doubts yourself about moving?

SC At that time I was excited about working as an actor – if I needed to move back to London then I would, and probably easily could. Other friends however did express that it could be detrimental to my career if I moved back ‘Up North’, but I was just thinking short term at that time.

CN Do you find the majority of your meetings are still in London?

SC With the BBC now in Manchester, I find I audition equally up North and in London. I am probably in London once or twice a month and have 2/3 auditions a month outside of London the rest of the month.

CN What effect do you think it has had on your career – for example, have you turned down auditions in London because of travel? Or have you missed out on work because you’re not London-based?

Four_Lions_poster

SC The only time it has really been an issue was when I was auditioning for ‘Four Lions’ by Chris Morris. I’d already had 5 auditions for the film and I’d had to travel to London for each one of them. I even met Chris Morris for the last of these, and filmed a couple of improvisations with him. I was equally delighted as annoyed that they wanted to see me yet again; I had already paid out about £300 in travel fees for this one job, so I asked my agent if she could ask the production company to reimburse my travel, which I thought was a reasonable request – normally if you get a recall you get your travel covered, but I’d had none of my travel reimbursed at this point. To my disgust they decided they didn’t want to see me either way – not just a no to the money, but they didn’t want to see me at all now – probably because I’d asked for my costs to be covered! That was the one time I felt discriminated against as a non-London-based actor.

CN Is there a good actors’ network in Manchester?

SC There is an amazingly supportive network in Manchester. Everyone is always posting about jobs and events on social media, and I even started a network on Facebook called mAnCTORS, which started out just for Manchester actors, but now anyone in the industry can join. The scene is very different to London. When I was in London, I found people were very cagey about what they were being seen for and what they were doing next, which I didn’t really warm to or agree with. There seemed to be a very individualistic attitude from people in London and in their attitude towards others. I find people have less time for each other, and that really turns me off. Up in Manchester, everyone is always trying to get their mates involved and putting each other up for jobs, and genuinely wants everyone else to be working. I think we have more of a social attitude towards work, and I definitely prefer that model than the London one I know. We really do believe we’re all in it together and we try and keep each other struggling together too.

CN Have you ever considered moving back?

sushil as scooter

SC With average rent hitting £1500pcm now, that option has been taken away. Even when I was on Corrie that rent would have been a stretch, so now I don’t think I will be back. When I am in London I look around and think to myself, “How are you all living here, and what have you had to give up to live in these conditions?” I absolutely love visiting London but it drains me of my humanity for others, and my money seems to fly out of my pockets quicker than I can earn it. It’s a shame, as I would consider moving back one day, but what would I have to give up in order to live that lifestyle? At the moment there is nothing that would drag me back to that. The arts scene is unrivalled there, I know, and I love that something is always going on, but I don’t think I need to be there to work, and most importantly, be content.

CN Thanks Sushil.

Let us try and develop some real respect for acting and actors. We need to tell our agents, casting directors, directors and the rest of the profession that if we choose to leave London, and thereby actually achieve a decent quality of life (a garden perhaps, a room for our child to sleep in, some fresh air) we don’t expect this to signal a change in their attitudes towards us.

Most importantly, the industry should be prepared to support us – it profits from actors, and relies on having a steady supply of talent, so it ought to do something concrete to prevent a large proportion of that talent disappearing. On a practical level, this might include things such as arranging auditions for later in the day when it is cheaper to travel into London, or expanding the practice of auditions via Skype – then everyone can stay at home and nobody has to pay for train tickets or room hire.

And for those occasions when we must travel long distances to audition, how about paying expenses? Sushil’s experience of travelling to audition for ‘Four Lions’ is a glaring example of the financial burden this can place on actors. I’ve made journeys up to York and Liverpool for meetings – I even once endured two hellish National Express trips in one day from London to Manchester to audition for a rehearsed reading – my journey home was accompanied by the sound of the man behind me vomiting into a plastic bag. Not a penny of my expenses from those trips was reimbursed.

How about more auditions outside London? In particular, let’s encourage those companies that receive a lot of public funding to be truly National, and hold auditions at different regional centres around the UK – casting days in Manchester, Glasgow or Plymouth, for example.

Perhaps this is all a fantasy. But why should acting be just a London profession for rich kids? Why should we just accept that London’s dominance as the centre of the acting industry can never be challenged, and that if you really want to be an actor, you have to live here and take the financial hit?

Actors should leave London, if they want. We shouldn’t have to put up with living beyond our means, probably in less-than-desirable accommodation, or if we do leave London, be forced to shell out to travel back in for auditions all the time. We should be able to find a better quality of life, and still pursue the job we love.

The Comeback Kids – # 1: Priyanga Burford

Priyanga Burford by Michael Shelford

Actors are much like sharks. If a shark stops swimming, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and drowns. In the same way, if an actor stops acting, his career dries up.

Except, of course, this is nonsense. Plenty of sharks seem quite happy to laze about on the sea bed while delicious-looking fish swim by, only to resume their sharking activities wholeheartedly when so inclined. Might the same be true of actors? Is it possible to take time out of an acting career – even a few years – and revive it successfully? Could such a hiatus even be beneficial?

I recently had a break of my own to help look after my father, who has dementia, and having returned to the fray I was keen to speak to other actors who have made a similar choice.

Hair LAMDA 1998 - Me and Pri

Priyanga Burford and I were in the same year at LAMDA (class of 1998). Since graduating, Pri and her husband Tom have had two children, Danny and Oscar. After taking time to raise her sons, Pri has made a successful return to the acting world, with TV appearances in shows such as ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘Veep’. Earlier this year she took the lead role of fictional UKIP candidate Deepa Kaur in the Channel 4 spoof documentary ‘UKIP: The First 100 Days’, and is currently in rehearsal for the Sheffield Crucible production of Lucy Prebble’s play ‘The Effect’. I wanted to speak to Pri about choosing to step back from acting to raise her family, and her experience of returning to the profession after a long time away.

CN So, how did it work? Were you intending to have children and take a break, or did Danny come along and you just…

PB I didn’t have a plan. We knew we wanted to have children. I think I had a slightly unrealistic idea that it would somehow all fall into place without too much trouble. Because of course, before you have children you can’t know what it’s like – I hadn’t accounted for the physical tiredness and all the rest.

CN How long had you been acting after LAMDA when you had Danny?

PB Four years. I went back far too soon to do things, I really did, I think I went a bit nuts, because your whole life just turns upside down and you become a different person. You have this different identity suddenly as a parent, and there’s this whole other part of you. So I wasn’t ready to go back to work, then when I did, I felt like an alien and it went quite badly.

CN What did you do?

PB I did short film, which I had a very small part in, but even the small part was too much.

CN Did you think there was an element of panic that things were slipping away and that you had to do something?

PB Yes, there was definitely that: if I disappear for five minutes, everyone will forget who I am and I will never be able to act again. And nobody contradicted me, actually, nobody professionally said to me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine, go away and be a mum for a bit, and when you’re ready, come back’. My agent certainly didn’t say that – he’s not my agent any more – and I wish he had, because he knew the way I was feeling.

CN Can you remember what his reaction was when you told him you were going to have a child?

PB Well, he was delighted, but I remember him saying to me the first time I went to see him after we got married, ‘Don’t have kids, not yet,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you’re really running my life here’. So yeah, I know I went back too early, but I’m very glad that I did the little bits I did, even auditioning.

CN What would you audition for?

PB Just little tiny bits of telly – a scene or two in ‘The Bill’ or something like that.

CN And radio?

PB Yeah, that was brilliant – when I was pregnant, I had the contract with the Radio Drama Company to cover me over the time when I was, you know, unfilmable, and I couldn’t be insured.

Priyanga Burford and Fenella Woolgar in Ambassador B on BBC Radio 4

CN Thank God for the BBC, as ever.

PB Exactly. It was just really hard – and I think it’s moments like that when you really say to yourself, ‘How much do I actually want this?’ I remember trying to take a little baby in a pushchair on the tube, up the steps of the underground station, and actually by the time you’ve arrived at the meeting you’re exhausted… The meeting seems like a complete sideshow, and of course it’s what you’re there for. But the big achievement, I started to realise, was actually getting both of us there, getting ready, learning the lines for the meeting, and getting home safely. So I didn’t get a lot of work during that time.

CN So you had in your mind a return to the profession?

PB Yes, if they let me!

CN Because then you had another son…

PB Yes, five years later I had Oscar. And in that interim period again it was just dribs and drabs, so actually most of my thirties has been about having and rearing these two boys, with a bit of acting thrown in.

CN But it’s a good use of your thirties, isn’t it?

PB Yeah, making people, that’s good! But at the time I didn’t see it that way, at the time I did panic. There wasn’t anyone saying to me, ‘No no, it’s fine, people have kids, it’s life’. There was always rather this impression that actors don’t have lives, they don’t have children, relationships – you know, they’re just machines.

CN It’s a strange thing isn’t it, it’s almost like actors are children – that we aren’t suited to a life of adult responsibilities.

PB There’s certainly a part of an artist which is a child, because they need to play and be vulnerable and open, so you need to have those child-like elements, but they need to be encased in an adult, professional framework, and that comes with maturity. That doesn’t mean necessarily age, but perhaps maturity of attitude – you know, I could have been 26 and had a mature attitude, I just didn’t. Actually, half of what you do is maintenance and work creation, keeping your networks going and all that, which is something I learnt from my brother, who’s a freelance journalist. I spoke to him about his life, and realised when he’s not working, when he’s not being paid to write something, the rest of his time is pitching ideas and sniffing around to see what’s out there.

CN Was there a point when you thought I could leave this, I could stop?

PB Yes, I became very angry, very demoralised, and the only place that led me was to more of the same, just feeling worse and worse, angrier and angrier and I had no one to shout at.
I’d fallen into this trap of throwing my hands up and going, ‘Oh well, it’s all just a kind of boys’ club’. I had started to ignore the resources there out there, so I got back in touch with Spotlight and actually read the emails they were sending me. One of the turning points for me was a casting symposium at the BFI with Lucinda Syson and Reg Poerscout-Edgerton.

Lucinda Syson by Sean SmithReg Poerscout-Edgerton

The atmosphere was very professional and I thought, ‘This feels right’ – it’s really good for the soul to go to something like that. I hadn’t realised, after taking time out, how much the industry has changed – they will get people sending their iPhone video stuff in from all over Europe and America and Australia for the same role. So you are competing globally. Just talking to my agent today – in America it’s far less common for people to be in the room; they might sift through 500 tapes from all over the world for a TV series. That was a big eye-opener for me.
I feel like the industry’s progressed a bit; it does demand that when you walk into a room, you’re ready, you’re prepared and you’ve done your homework.

CN It’s a lot more professional.

Shonda Rhimes by Patrick Ecclesine

PB Yes, particularly in America. You hear about someone like Shonda Rhimes, who is a massive showrunner over there for ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ and ‘Scandal’, and she just sacks people. She’s not having any actor shit, any egos; she’ll go, ‘OK, ‘bye then. You’re not doing this to this piece of work’. And I think the more professional our industry gets, the better for everybody. People won’t tolerate that sort of behaviour any more. I suppose I’m harking back quite a few years, but you can’t just turn up pissed, having had a couple of fags and just sort of create.

CN Do you think having taken some time before you returned to the profession – I wonder if that was useful as a sort of recalibration, a re-adjusting of your attitude?

PB Definitely, I’m really glad I had that time, because I see it almost as professional development. I think it’s true of most artists actually, that the richness of your life experience does feed your art, and those years that I was doing other things – life stuff – has meant that I’ve got a very different perspective on what I do.
I used to always feel slightly ashamed of being an actor, that it was a slightly laughable thing to do with one’s life, and actually having taken that time out, spoken to other artists, having time to think about my own attitude to my whole industry and a re-examination of why I’m in this in the first place, I’ve found it really strengthening. And I learnt more about my process.

CN Doing something as important as raising a family, I wonder if that shift in your life allows your perspectives to shift as well? The sort of things we get hung up about, like a bad audition or a bad rehearsal, does it make it easier to deal with those things?

PB I don’t know if it makes it easier, but it certainly stops you from indulging it. It still hurts, but it becomes more like a bad day at work, because you have kids and you realise that you cannot bring it home to them, because why should they have to deal with it? It’s not their problem at all. So it’s still upsetting and frustrating but you have to learn to put that away. You can’t be grumpy and stomp around, and I certainly think that takes you out of yourself in a very healthy way.

CN And maybe it allows you to truly take responsibility for choosing this job – the buck has to stop with us, doesn’t it?

PB Yes, no one’s holding a gun to your head – at the end of the day, you don’t have to do this.

CN As you said, the rewards, maybe not financially, but the rewards from the work are so great.

PB I think that’s why people get so pissed off with actors when they start moaning. Because really, who else gets to follow a passion – or even know what their passion is?

Luvvies - Jeremy Irons

CN I wonder if you come to realisations when you take some time out that you wouldn’t otherwise have come to? So it’s actually a way of appreciating the job more.

PB Yes, and I have more of a sense of who I am as me, rather than just as an actor. There’s a richness that’s happened with life experience and having kids – just getting older – that has built a lot more confidence to be able to walk into a room and do the job, without all the extraneous useless thoughts of, ‘Oh maybe everyone thinks I’m crap, maybe the director’s regretting casting me’. That just really doesn’t happen to me any more. I used to feel very unsure of myself early in my career. After drama school, when you get into a professional context you’re so keen to prove yourself, you’re so acutely aware of the fact that, ‘I can’t piss this director off because they’ll never work with me again’, and actually that takes away from the really important process of trying stuff out and failing. You need to have confidence to be able to say to a director, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing here, you’re going to have to help me’.

CN Which ties in with the idea of understanding that it’s work – that discipline that you were talking about, being able to balance that play with the serious point of, ‘There’s an opening night’, or someone’s going to say, ‘Action!’ at some point.

PB The more I thought about it as paid work, that’s a really good way of getting over yourself, because you just think, ‘Look, they are paying me to do this, so I’ve just got to shut up and get on with it. No one gives a shit if I’m feeling insecure’. And why should they?

CN I’m sure most productions don’t grind to a halt if an actor can’t do it. There’s always another actor.

PB I’m about go up to Sheffield and do a play called ‘The Effect’ by Lucy Prebble. I haven’t actually done any theatre in 5 years, and that’s because I’ve had to say, ‘No I can’t, because my kids are too young and I just don’t feel like I can leave the family at this point’. There’s something quite empowering about being able to say that – you feel as an actor that you have to say ‘Yes’ to everything.

The Effect poster

CN How are you feeling about it? Will you be attempting to commute in any way?

PB No, I’m going to live up there and they’re coming up for weekends. That’s the other thing, you’ve got to have a partner who gets it, and Tom really does get it. We just work as a big team: ‘Is this going to work?’ – and you try it and see. Professionally I’m a little bit nervous about going back on stage after 5 years, but also it’s a new phase in our family life, it’s the first time I’ve been away away – you know 2 months, it’s a long time.

CN It will be an interesting test to see how you can accommodate everything.

PB And actually I couldn’t do this if I hadn’t done telly at the back end of last year, because theatre wages are still so rubbish, I could not have afforded child care at all. I think that’s another way things have changed; it’s why so many TV actors are on the stage, because how else can you afford to live on theatre wages unless you’ve got money?

CN It’s never easy, is it? It’s never going to be easy, but you have to find a way to make it work, if you want it to.

PB You do, you have to find a way. That’s what I said to my agent – if it’s worth it we’ll find a way. I think the whole thing is about just working bloody hard.

CN And it’s a good way to spend your life, isn’t it? You may as well.

PB You may as well, because there are so many people who hate their jobs, who would give a limb to have my problems. The other thing about taking some time out was the people I met with ‘ordinary jobs’ who really hated them, or going to work was so perfunctory. I have never woken up for a day of my work and felt anything other than really excited about what I was off to do, and I got a true sense of how rare that is and how incredibly fortunate I am.

‘The Effect’, directed by Daniel Evans, opens at Sheffield Studio Theatre on June 25th 2015.