Next Sunday there will be a big toff-shaped gap in the television schedules – ‘Downton Abbey’ has come to an end. But all those upper-class types released back into the wild should have no problem finding their next gig. It seems there is a healthy appetite at the moment for posh actors playing posh characters in posh stories.
There has been a lot of debate about whether this means that acting itself has become – well, posher too. Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Controller of Drama Commissioning, noted that ‘acting has become a very middle-class profession’, and Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, says that public school-educated actors are ‘out of all proportion’ to those from less privileged backgrounds.
On the other hand, Edward Kemp, Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, disputes this, pointing out in The Independent recently that ’36 per cent of last year’s intake of students at RADA came from families earning less than £25,000.’ He makes the claim that ‘there is absolutely no evidence that people from poor backgrounds aren’t coming to drama school.’ This is despite RADA charging fees at the upper limit, i.e. £9,000 a year. Mr Kemp also notes that his school is receiving more applications from ‘working-class’ students than at the start of the century.
To this I say: Fine – students from varied backgrounds may somehow find the money to pay their way through three years at drama school, but what happens next? I would be surprised, to put it mildly, if those students from low-earning families were able to cope on an actor’s salary.
Obviously actors need to be supported when they start out, and many colleges offer generous bursaries to help less well-off students, but the real problems can begin when those students are thrust out into a harsh profession. I would suggest that this is when actors really need help.
It is increasingly expensive to embark on a career in the theatre. Many drama schools are based in London, the most expensive city in the UK, and we are told that we must stay here once we graduate in order to develop our careers. But the reality of attempting to survive on an actor’s wage can be absolutely prohibitive to many people contemplating a life in the theatre. I graduated from LAMDA in 1998, in a class of 29 people. Sixteen years later, probably less than a third of us are still pursuing acting in earnest. This is no great surprise; I’m sure the story is the same with every graduating year from every drama school. And things weren’t so pricey in my day, sonny.
The average monthly rent (note I don’t say mortgage repayment) for a one-bed flat in London is £1211 (January 20114 figures), whereas, according to the most recent Equity survey from December 2013, more than 56 per cent of its members earned less than £10,000 a year. This is officially classed as below the poverty line. Once you factor in utility bills, council tax, food, travel – it isn’t very surprising that many actors are forced to give up after just a few years. Faced with these obstacles, acting can start to look like an expensive hobby.
So who can afford to act? While I’m sure there are some actors lucky enough to go from job to job, peppering meaty stage roles with a bit of lucrative film and TV work, and paying their way from acting alone, I would respectfully suggest that this is not the norm. Most actors have gaps between roles which have to be filled with ‘day jobs’, and unfortunately the temptation to start relying on those jobs and say goodbye to acting can be all too powerful, especially if you want to start a family, save to buy a house, or just go on holiday once in a while – you know, normal stuff.
Some might say this is theatrical Darwinism at work, and that those who choose to step aside don’t have the necessary resilience, commitment or, dare I say, talent to succeed. But I’m not sure this is the whole truth. Far too many seriously talented people are lost to the profession because they simply can’t afford to support themselves.
In recent years, however, I have noticed that many of the younger actors I have worked with seem not to be struggling that much. Indeed many own flats and cars. These are actors in their early twenties who can afford to buy property in London and, at the same time, are somehow able to take low-paid jobs in one of the lowest paid professions there is. And afford to buy lunch every day from Pret or Whole Foods – if I’m working in the theatre I survive on a packed lunch of a ham sandwich, a yoghurt and – my one concession to fine dining – one of those lovely Bonne Maman madeleines. Well, it can’t all be self-denial, can it?
On one recent theatre job I was thrilled to find that I could walk to work (40 minutes each way) thus saving myself nearly £30 a week in bus fares. But I still struggled to find any spare cash after paying the rent and bills. I have generally attempted to be pure in my approach to acting, never signing on the dotted line for a permanent ‘proper’ job, always ready to drop any other work as soon as acting comes up, always ready to say yes to anything, even in the face of red bills and a burgeoning overdraft. The result of this is that whenever I get an acting job, the over-riding emotion I often feel is not joy, but relief, much like the drowning man who manages at last to haul himself onto the life raft. But I wonder if it’s different for those Pret-munching young actors. Many of them are privately-educated and come from well-off middle-class backgrounds, so just don’t feel the same petty money worries.
Now this is not a class war; I am not saying that working-class actors are better than upper-class ones. John Gielgud is my hero, and you couldn’t get posher than him. And anyway, I sit squarely in the very middle of the middle-class. No, this is about money, as it always is. It’s a simple fact that those who are able to afford an actor’s life are the ones whose careers will last longest. This could be because they work a lot, or perhaps they just don’t mind sacrificing everything else for their art. But more and more these days, it seems to be because they either have money already, or they are subsidised by their families. Lucky for them, but not so lucky for an art form that is meant to be about representing all facets of society.
Of course, the acting profession has never had enough work to sustain the number of people who want to be part of it; it’s always a minority of each graduating year that is able to maintain a career for life. But now that we have a higher number of drama graduates joining the profession than ever before, it does beg the question – do drama schools and the wider industry bear some greater responsibility to the acting community? Shouldn’t there be a more established mid-career support structure in place?
Of course we mustn’t go blindly into the profession, expecting money and fame to be drawn to us by the inexorable magnetic tractor beam of our talent. Just to be able to act for a living, even some of the time, is a privilege in itself. But after three years of very expensive training it sometimes seems as though the business is happy to leave us to the vagaries of fate. There is often so much clamour to identify the hot young talents, to be known as the school that produced the big new stars or the casting director that discovered them, that if you are an actor who doesn’t fit into that category, as most of us don’t, you are left to fend for yourself.
Actors are the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Surely those parts of the business which feed off that blood supply should feel obligated to do what they can to keep it flowing.