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

 

tower house

LAMDA at Tower House

I first moved to London in 1995, when I won a place on the Three-Year Acting course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). During those next three years, I got to know West London pretty well. Earls Court, High Street Kensington, Hammersmith – my fellow students and I owned those mean streets. We strode down Chiswick High Road in our baggy dance trousers and character shoes, talking too loudly about David Mamet and Alexander Technique, confident in the belief that in just a couple of years, we would be far too famous to get around without security and a smoked-glass Range Rover.

But there was one place we got to know better than anywhere else. From our first audition to the very last performance, all the most significant events of our time at LAMDA took place at the MacOwan Theatre. If I walked through those doors today – the scene of so many pivotal moments in our young lives – I could still confidently give you a comprehensive tour of the place.

Macowan theatre

LAMDA’s MacOwan Theatre

Except, of course, I couldn’t. The MacOwan Theatre no longer exists. LAMDA moved from Earls Court to its current location in Baron’s Court in 2003, and finally sold the MacOwan in 2011. The bulldozers moved in, and now its place has been taken by the usual block of West London luxury flats (Logan House). Which no actor could ever hope to afford.

When I read about this a few months ago, it set off a little chain reaction of nostalgic explosions in my mind, so it seemed like a good time to track down my fellow Old LAMDArians, and try to find out what we all feel about our time there – and the years since.

Hair LAMDA 1998

LAMDA class of 1998 in ‘Hair’

As is inevitable with any year group, we have scattered far and wide in the years since we graduated – Wales, Mallorca, New York and – yes – LA. A few still cling on in London, while many have succumbed to the verdant charms of The Regions. There were 29 of us when we left LAMDA in 1998 – now, a quick survey of Spotlight shows that 15 have kept up our subscriptions. Not too bad a showing, I suppose, but I wanted to dig a little deeper to understand the forces that have either kept us in the profession, or driven us out. So, I sent off a list of questions.

Not everyone responded, but in the end I heard back from more than half – 15 in total, and they were all very honest and frank – on the promise of anonymity.

I started at the very beginning, and asked why they had wanted to act in the first place…

LAMDA word cloud

When we started at LAMDA, we ranged in age from 18 to 26 – some fresh from school, some straight from University. I was 23.

IMG_3455

Your author at LAMDA in ‘Hair’

I look back on our LAMDA years with great fondness. I felt I was at the centre of everything I wanted to be part of, and I spent those three years feeling stimulated and challenged. Inevitably, when I asked my friends what their own feelings are about that time, it elicited a range of responses, some very positive:

– It was the first time that I really learned ‘how to learn’.
– I met some wonderful people who have stayed in my life for a long time.
– I was as happy as a pig in shit. Sooooo happy to be there. One of the most profound and rich experiences of my life.

LAMDA 1998 3

Some of the LAMDA class of 1998

Some less so:

– I found it quite tough… I found their methods for the most part to be very undermining.
– I don’t think I was rated particularly highly by the staff, and as such often felt somewhat overlooked and neglected at times.
It certainly seemed to be the case that the squeaky wheels got the most attention.

Some felt they hadn’t taken full advantage of their time at LAMDA:

– I didn’t make the most of it. I was very young – first time away from home.
– I could have gotten so much more out of it if I hadn’t let my self-doubt and lack of confidence get in the way.
– I do regret not making more of the opportunity.

I asked what they valued most about the training they received:

– The opportunity to work continuously on productions for a year is something outside of the RSC or NT you rarely have the opportunity to do.
– LAMDA allowed me to love what I do. In a messy, imperfect but deeply passionate way they put me on the track to my profession.

– It was a celebration of one’s idiosyncrasies.
– The cleverness of people. The humour. The importance and value of work. As Colin Cook said (this is my working mantra to this day) ‘Work is your armour’. And above all I think – my friends. It doesn’t matter where we are or where we go – I would do anything for any of those people that I shared those three years with.

LAMDA 1998 2

More of the class of 1998…

This is a view I share. It seemed to me that LAMDA encouraged us to be ourselves – we had all heard about the schools that ‘break you down to build you up again’, and LAMDA didn’t feel like that at all to me. But others disagree:–

– I don’t feel I was ever encouraged to keep the quirks that I entered with.
– I do not honestly know whether the whole “take you apart to put you back together” approach is now being over-exaggerated in my memory, but I did find it quite tough at times, and not particularly productive.

I asked what they felt the training lacked:

– Screen acting for a start.
– Vocal technique

– Weirdly, lack of acting classes.
– I can think of two teachers that had their favourites. It was frustrating to watch them fawn!
– I don’t think it lacked anything, actually. Like, how much more could we have actually done in three years?

LAMDA 1998 1

The rest of the class of 1998.

It seems that much has changed since we left the Academy. Our screen acting training felt cursory at best, although I did learn that it was best not to volunteer to smoke in a scene, unless you wanted to work your way through a whole pack. These days, to quote from the current LAMDA prospectus:

‘All students who graduate from LAMDA’s BA (Hons) Professional Acting leave with a professionally-shot show reel and a voice reel.’

It’s very important to bear in mind that this was all nearly 20 years ago. LAMDA is a different school now, with a different Principal, mostly different teaching staff and in a completely different location. It still calls itself LAMDA, but much like Trigger’s broom, all the significant parts have changed…

 

Even the qualification you graduate with is different: the three-year acting course is now a BA (Hons) degree course, whereas we left with a diploma. In a perverse way, I’m rather glad it was that way round, as it gave our training a kind of rarity, a refinement if you like, whereas a degree just seems rather everyday. And I already had one anyway, for all the good it ever did me. But I am aware that the ‘employment landscape’, as we must call it, has altered a lot since those bygone days, and a BA degree must help when the graduates are propelled blinking into the light of the Real World. Because there is a big difference between the idealised world of a drama training and the harsh realities of an actor’s life.

I asked if they felt prepared for an acting career by the time we graduated – and perhaps unsurprisingly, most did not:

-No I didn’t feel prepared
-NO NO NO NO NO. It does not teach you how to survive as an unemployed actor, how to see yourself as a product
– I question now if I would have done better not to have pursued what I was already doing.
-Definitely not! We spent 3 years in a bubble.
-Noooooooooo!
-yes and no..because it destroyed my confidence… but i learnt a lot of tools that then helped me to be able to direct
– business wise no. As an artist, yes. I wasn’t – but that was to do with me.

LAMDA 1998 4

Pages from an ancient artefact: our LAMDA Prospectus

There is a distinction here, to be sure. Those of us who were lucky enough to land work straight away were able to apply all the skills that were fresh in our minds. I went straight into a nice TV job, and despite my sketchy experience in front of a camera, I felt very comfortable and understood what was required of me. But I was pretty clueless about how to generate work.

– I was prepared for the jobs I got eventually – yes. There is only so much they can do at drama school – after that it comes down to practical experience.
-for an acting career, yes. For the non-acting part, no.
-Well, no. But I think that’s more to do with where I was, personally, Not because of anything that they hadn’t done.
-Yes, apart from the business side
-In many ways, yes.
-On the whole, yes.

We were part of a different generation to today’s drama school graduates, with no significant social media element to our lives; the internet played a much smaller role, and we didn’t even all have mobile phones yet. Some of us had pagers, for heaven’s sake. Off we went into the world, clutching our A-Z’s.

London-A-Z

Significantly, almost all of my respondents did not feel supported by LAMDA after graduation:

– No.
– Not at all.
– No. Once you leave you are on your own. They are happy to bask in the glory of actors who do well and have a glittering career, but for all the thousands of unemployed actors that they helped produce there is nothing.
– Honestly no. I think they were interested in the people who got famous quickly and could be used to raise funds. Sorry that’s cynical but that’s how it felt.
-Not really, no.
-No. There was kindness and love, but not enough rigour.

Although others felt differently:

– Yes I do. I worked in the reception there for a while and I helped around for a bit of extra cash – they were very good to me like that.
– I haven’t had any support, but I haven’t been in contact, so it’s just as much my fault. In my first year after leaving they supported me by giving me temp secretary work.
– Not really … but then, I never asked for support. I’m sure they would have been there had I asked.
– I did not feel that it was the school’s role to support me once I had graduated.

IMG_3454

Another groovy scene from ‘Hair’.

Inevitably, this raises the question of just how much responsibility institutions like LAMDA have to their students once they have completed training. No drama school can predict which student is going to ‘make it’ – as William Goldman’s useful maxim goes, ‘Nobody knows anything’ – but they could confidently surmise that a good half of any yearly intake will never make a living in the profession.

At no point do I remember any staff member sitting us down and saying, ‘Most of you will never work’. Of course, it would have been a bummer of positively cosmic proportions if they had. But maybe it would have been a necessary reality check.

Actors have often proposed a cull of their own number – I imagine Benedict Cumberbatch and Olivia Coleman on the rooftops of Wardour Street, armed with high-velocity rifles, picking off the weakest:

cumberbatch gunolivia coleman

But should Ben and Liv train their sights on the institutions, rather than their fellow thesps? One of my respondents thought so:

‘I feel they have a responsibility not to churn out so many actors in a market that cannot cater for them.’

Mind you, success as an actor is so random that perhaps the only sensible attitude is a scattershot one – throw out as many young hopefuls as you can, in the hope that at least a few will stick.

This being the case, drama schools surely have a duty of care to the students they send out into an unforgiving profession.

It does seem that colleges are doing much more these days to incorporate an element of career counselling – RADA has what it calls its ‘Buddy’ scheme, where graduates are paired up with alumni who are established in the profession to offer guidance and support, and I spoke recently to Rodney Cottier, Head of Drama School at LAMDA, who told me about their own new Mentor scheme, which will be launched at the end of June 2017, and which, like RADA’s initiative, will offer support for its students, ‘for the last 6 months of their training, and the first 6 months when they’re out there. It is the beginning and we have received funding for it from the Genesis Foundation, so hopefully this will really work.’

rodney cottier

Rodney Cottier

The Academy also has an industry liaison in the form of casting director, Laura Dickens, who is responsible for the final year professional preparation, as well as its own ‘Buddy’ system, although unlike RADA’s, this one is for new students rather than graduates. Rodney explained:

‘When people are offered a place, they are buddied up with somebody who is already at LAMDA so they can pick their brains – ask them any questions before they arrive, rather than feeling completely terrified on day one. So we’re servicing both ends…’

I think we would have benefited from this sort of scheme; ideally, it would stretch beyond the first six months and further into a career. It’s so easy to feel alone and powerless in this job.

Of course, as Rodney points out, ultimately most of the responsibility to develop a career lies with the individual:

‘There are a lot of things you cannot prepare people for – I occasionally have to throw in the statistics when somebody is late for yet another voice class.’

LAMDA 1998 Emma Bernbach Richard Morrison Joanna Van Kampen Sandra Paternostro Ayesha Mirza Gregory De Polnay

A LAMDA voice class with Gregory De Polnay

But no matter how well-prepared you may be, Real Life has a way of complicating things, as we will see in Part Two

Next!

audition

The drama school audition season is drawing to a close once more, and the offers and rejections will be flying into the inboxes (and letterboxes, perhaps? How much nicer to receive a piece of paper…) of young hopefuls around the country. I was recently talking to friend whose niece has just completed the round of auditions, and inevitably a number of dim memories about our own experiences arose from the murky depths. My friend has moved on from the acting world, and is now able to look back with a degree of distance, but still shivers when she recalls those early audition experiences:

‘My RADA audition was my first ever, and I must have looked like I was in front of a firing squad! I remember my LAMDA audition like it was yesterday. I dried and they kindly let me start again and then I dried again! There was absolutely nothing in my head! Then I tried to get out but couldn’t, as I had to push and not pull the door. Excruciating!’

My own experiences were not dissimilar. Again, I started the ball rolling with a terrifying audition at RADA, where I performed a speech from the Revenger’s Tragedy, clutching an imaginary skull which somehow disappeared mid-way through. This was followed by my first LAMDA meeting, where I, too, forgot my lines. I actually asked if I could look at my script; they said yes, no doubt biro-ing a line through my name at the same time. Central, Guildhall and Guildford all zoomed by in a rush of cluelessness – basically, I really had no idea what I had let myself in for.

goodge street

In my second year of trying, for some reason I only applied to RADA and Central. At my RADA audition, they asked me why I was limiting my chances in this way, and I panicked and said ‘I’m not sure if it’s what I really want to do.’ I walked back to Goodge Street station thinking to myself that it had gone rather well, until I remembered what I had said… Another black line through my name there.

fish chips champagne

Finally, in my third year of applying, I worked out what it was all about, namely that I had to take hold of myself, prepare properly, and approach auditions with a professional attitude. Before that, I was a mess of fear, excitement and ambition – but I do think those early failures were essential for me in regard to learning what auditions are really for. My third LAMDA audition was a very different kettle of fish. Despite still being awash with nerves, I was happy with my speeches, I knew them inside out, and I actually felt ready to walk out in front of the panel. I embraced the recall day eagerly, understanding that it was actually about being open and working as a company member. That very evening, Rodney Cottier called from LAMDA to say I had got in, and the joy that was felt in my family kitchen was unconfined, I can tell you. There was much jumping and cheering; fish and chips and champagne were consumed. It was a day never to be forgotten.

Rodney Cottier

Since then, auditioning has become one of the most familiar aspects of my life and, happily, has long since lost the tang of fear that once used to hang around it. But I’m sure those early experiences can sometimes be so traumatic and frustrating that aspiring actors give up altogether. Of course, knowledge comes with experience, and you learn that when you walk into an audition, the panel are as desperate for you to succeed as you are. They want to fill that place, or cast that role. They are aching for you to be good. Many directors will tell you that what they are really looking for is someone they can work with – someone who responds well to direction and will be adaptable and creative in the rehearsal room. Drama schools too are looking for team players – they are casting a whole year of students who will need to be able to work together for up to three years.

Of course, it’s hard to keep these things in your head when you are so nervous you can barely stand up and face the right direction. But it really does get easier. Sooner or later, auditions go from being things of dread – akin to being summoned to the headmaster’s office – to being something you can’t wait to begin. At its best, an audition is a microcosm of the rehearsal room, and allows an actor the opportunity to sink her teeth into a part, and often, to explore a play she might never have encountered otherwise.

audition waiting room

So, all that time spent on hunched plastic chairs outside drama school audition rooms, dreading your turn and obsessively murmuring your lines under your breath as a blithely confident second-year student crosses names off their list, is actually a vital part of an actor’s development. Strange to say, but one can actually feel nostalgic for decades-old terror…