Tag Archives: drama students

Where Are We Now? (or ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Career?’) – part two

Continuing my article surveying my fellow graduates from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Class of 1998…

Fritha Goodey (with Duncan Bell) in Remembrance of Things Past at the National Theatre

Fritha Goodey in ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ at the National Theatre

What were our expectations of training and the life beyond LAMDA? And how reasonable were they? Were we really prepared for the realities of the profession?

I think we all knew it was a tough world, and we had all heard those oft-repeated statistics about how many actors are out of work at any given time. But I wonder if most of us thought, ‘Well yes, but that won’t be me – I’ll be fine’. I know I did. After all, I’d been chosen from thousands to attend one of the world’s finest drama schools, that had to count for something, didn’t it? And what’s more, I loved acting – we all did. But, to quote the big man himself, ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’… What happens if your love isn’t requited?

 

 

More than half of my respondents no longer regularly act, although things aren’t always quite so clear cut when I ask if they still call themselves actors:

– I call myself self-employed – that’s it.

– Hmmm… Sometimes!
– I never say never. I’m not acting and don’t plan to, but I might start again in my sixties!
– I don’t know. It is still something that I want to do, have a passion to do, hope to do, crave to do, but don’t do. Are you entitled to keep the title after so many years?

 

 

Of those still in the profession, only one said they had funded themselves solely from acting in the 19 years since we graduated. Other answers ranged from ‘ZERO’ to ‘about 7 years’. I liked this response:

– It took me 16 years to make a living.

All but one of those still in the profession said they have, or have had second-string jobs alongside acting, ranging from copywriter to fitness instructor – although as one respondent says, ‘These are jobs though, not crafts or careers.’ Another friend points out, the ratio between acting work and other jobs ‘differs month to month, year to year’, and the same is undoubtedly true for all of us:


– Currently 5% acting and 95% the other work.

– About 50/50.
– I’m now lucky enough to be acting 100% of the time.

 

 

Of those who no longer act, most stopped within ten years of graduating from LAMDA, and their reasons were mostly to do with changes in lifestyle:

– The requirement of securing a regular income to support a young family.
– I wanted stability for my kids.
– I had got married… My lifestyle and outlook had changed.

Although ‘the pram in the hall’ wasn’t the only culprit:

– It just wasn’t going anywhere.
– I fell in love with directing.

One response will strike a chord with many actors, I’m sure:

– I just became jaded by the business… I was in a play and I remember a fellow actor in his late 60s without any money/house/family, and he was saying, ‘This time next year I’ll be in films…’. I didn’t want to be like that.

When asked if they regret stopping, most said they didn’t, although some still feel a pang…

– Yes, enormously. It felt, and still feels to a certain extent, like something of a bereavement.

 

 

And again, when asked if they hoped to return to the profession, most said no but some were more ambiguous:

– Always.
– I never say never.

– Yes, I have so many stories and ideas whirling around.

When we were students, going to the theatre was an essential part of our lives – to professional productions, as well as endless in-house shows at LAMDA. I shall never forget one performance of ‘Macbeth’ by some of the One-Year students, in which the witches’ brew made a particularly gruesome crunching sound as the weird sisters stirred it up. Unfortunately, we discovered that the cause of this grisly effect was nothing more than a handful of Wotsits, revealed when some rather over-enthusiastic grinding caused one to fly out of the cauldron and land on the floor. My friend Jack Tarlton and I spent the rest of the show waiting with bated breath to see who would tread on the offending cheesy snack first… In the end, as I recall, it was the Scottish King himself. Cursed from the very start.

wotsits

We probably saw more plays in those three years than most people will see in their whole lives, but I wanted to know how frequently my fellow 1998-ers visit the theatre today:

– By choice I’d never go, but I’d go to the cinema every day if I could!
– Straight theatre rarely.
– Once a month.
– Between 6 & 10 times a year if I’m lucky.
– Hardly ever! Not because I’ve lost interest, but I have 4 young children.
– When I can afford to, or if mates can get me in cheaply.
– NOT ENOUGH!!!! A few times a year…3 or 4.
– At the moment, only once or twice a month. But usually I try to go more than that. It’s really important.
– 2/3 times per month.
– 4 or 5 times in the last 16 years.
– 3, 4 times a month on average.
– I never used to go as it was too painful – watching others doing the thing I wanted to do – but now I go as often as I can.

 

 

In many ways, it feels like a lifetime since we left LAMDA, but all those who still act said that they consciously use elements of their training when they work:

– I use my training all the time.
– DEFINITELY.
– It feels more integrated than that now, but yes, my training has influenced who I am as an actor.

Those among my respondents who no longer act felt that the training was useful in other areas too:

– It gave me the confidence as I grew older to stop judging myself.
– Awareness on so many levels.
– Drama school improved me. Made me a better version of myself.
– It taught me about me.

 

 

So maybe a drama qualification is just another applicable skill after all. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to lead to an actual acting career. Come to think of it, I do remember one of my year being told that their training could still be useful, ‘even for amateur acting’… Those skills that make a good actor – confidence, sensitivity, an understanding of human nature – are eminently transferable and highly valued by employers. And after the indifference of the acting world to most of its fellows, and so much relentless rejection, it is good to feel appreciated at last.

When I think of those 28 people I trained with, I know that they are the most capable, intelligent and talented people I have ever met, any one of whom had the skills to have a thriving acting career. But they also were capable enough to have a good career in any other walk of life, as many of them have since proved.

 

 

It is hard sometimes to think of any other profession that trains its students to such a level, that boasts so proudly of the talent within its ranks – indeed, claims to be the best in the world – and yet offers so little support to those talented people as they try to develop and maintain their careers. I have written about this before, but I really feel that, if the showbusiness world values its actors so much, it should do more to stop so many of them from giving up. Or, as one of my respondents observed in Part One, it should consider training fewer students in the first place.

Perhaps this is all just so much luvvie whinging. Nobody said it was easy, snowflakes! Life is hard, get used to it, etc. True, you really should enter a career as insane as acting with your eyes open. But that’s harder than it seems, certainly at the beginning. Everything about the profession is seductive. Oh, the lights, the glamour, the applause… A good drama school like LAMDA inevitably offers an idealised view of the profession. For three years, you are constantly ‘in work’, playing good parts that challenge and stretch you. How many actual careers can ever match up to that?

 

 

In such an unequal, unfair walk of life, it is hard to stay positive and resist cynicism. I wanted to know how my friends – whether still acting or not – viewed other actors, and the profession as a whole:

– I am quite weary with the industry but still not at the point of turning my back on it – though I am close.
– I’m amazed at actors’ bravery… Full of admiration.
– I have the utmost respect for actors.
– I’m most moved and impressed by those who consistently produce work of great sensitivity and integrity, though they are often not truly recognised for it.
– I don’t really follow what happens any more.
– I will always treat other actors with total compassion. I see them as so delicate.
– The profession is brutal and requires an enormous amount of work and dedication. I respect actors who put in the work and I recognise the shysters a lot quicker.
– I realise how much you have to do to generate work, and how important it is to network. I couldn’t bear that before – I used to hide in the loo after shows at LAMDA when the agents came. As for other actors – I think I’m less judgemental now.
– I am less scared, I feel less competitive.
– It’s painful but today I’m far better at championing others – if one of us gets there (wherever there is) then that’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?
– It’s the ones from our year and countless others… who still yearn to tread the boards, those guys are the ones I admire.
– I also have huge respect for anyone that has had the guts and perseverance to stick at it.

– I was living the dream…but reality will hit you hard in the face once you leave those walls of safety! Good luck to them if they go into it not expecting anything. Because more than likely the skills you learn won’t be for the industry you want to be in!

 

 

Trying to maintain any creative career is a journey of constant rediscovery, of questioning yourself and asking if you still want it. Even though there are certainly days when I’ve had my fill, and often given serious thought to what else I could be doing with my life, it doesn’t take much to reaffirm my love for the job.

But, at nearly twenty years distance from our graduation, all the illusions we once held about the acting world have fallen away:

– I put a strange pressure on myself when I trained. I kept trying to be what I thought they wanted. It’s taken me time to reconnect with my own instincts.
– Fame is bullshit. Nobody should do this if they want to be famous – go on Big Brother, because it’s just a lot easier.

As far as sticking with the job is concerned, does it really just come down to that one rather patronising cliché, ‘You have to want it enough’? Should it not be, ‘Is there anything you want more’? To stay in the profession for 20 years means making sacrifices in many areas of life – family life, holidays, money – all of these things can suffer or just pass you by entirely.

Finally, to address the question in my title, ‘Where Are We Now?’ – the answer is that we are all over the world. My fellow 1998-ers who are still treading the boards could be found this year on stage at the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Lyric Hammersmith and overseas in Boston Bridge Repertory Company and on Broadway. Others have headed for the screen, and featured in recent major TV hits such as ‘The Night Manager’, ‘Hannibal’ and ‘London Spy’, and films like ‘Selma’ and ‘The Imitation Game’. Those who have stopped acting have carved out a wide variety of careers: some have stayed in the arts as writers, directors and film-makers, while others run successful businesses as varied as production companies, ice cream parlours and fashion houses. I’m deeply proud of all of them.

 

 

I’ll bring this to a close with two of my respondents who have very contrasting attitudes to life as an actor. The first left the profession, the second is still acting:

– I failed at being an actor because it wasn’t the last thing I thought about at night or the first thing I thought about when I woke up. I wasn’t in love with acting. I wasn’t in love with being an actor.
– I still think working with a great bunch of like-minded actors on something that everyone is excited by is one of the best things ever to do in life.

Many thanks to all my respondents for their contributions.

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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.

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.

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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?’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’…

A Privileged Position?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.