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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.

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Interview With The Director: Paul Miller – part two

 

Paul Miller 2 - Mark Douet

CN As artistic director you must get a lot of submissions all the time. How do you deal with that? Is there anything you try to do to open your doors more widely, to bring people in?

PM What we’ve done in the last six months is we now put all our casting breakdowns on Spotlight, so anybody can submit things. We’ve done several days of open auditions – both at the offices of Spotlight that were organised by Equity, but we’ve also done our own here, for general meets, not for a particular play. So we feel like we’ve made good strides towards opening it up more. It’s so difficult though, because we are a small team. Just the business of putting plays on is amazingly labour-intensive and time-consuming, and it is always a matter of great anxiety that we cannot respond individually to all the submissions we get, we just don’t have the manpower. If people write in and don’t get a response, all I can say we keep everything very carefully and we do look at everything.

paul slater mail
CN Were you prepared for the level of guilt that all Artistic Directors must have?

PM I think so. The big subsidised companies have more responsibility to take care of people, and by and large tend to be quite good.

CN But it’s a balance, isn’t it? It’s a very desirable location, the Orange Tree, although it’s a very small theatre. In the past Sam [Walters, the previous artistic director] used to do plays with enormous casts, but he would always employ the same actors.

sam walters orange tree
PM He made a positive virtue of working with a sort of informal company, which I think he strongly believed in. I think it’s partly generational: for his generation of directors that was always a dream and a goal – The Company, and I think so much of what he was about was because he remembered the really good aspects of Rep, and he used that energy creatively. That’s partly why the Orange Tree exists at all.

CN There’s been no repeated casting?

PM I think in the seven productions we’ve done so far, I don’t think anybody’s come back, and that’s in part because we’ve had different directors come in, the plays have had different requirements. It’s a rhythmical thing – it seems right at the moment and in due course people will start to come back and the theatre will acquire a personality.

CN It’s an unfair profession, isn’t it, the acting profession? It’s just intrinsically unfair. There are so many people who want to do it, and so few jobs, it can never be a democracy, can it? There’s an element to it where at some level it’s like a fashion show – there are things beyond your control that are the reasons you get cast; things that make you attractive that are unquantifiable.

PM It’s true, there’s an almost feudal aspect to it, sort of like dockers queuing up in the morning to see if they’re picked to work that day.

CN In the ‘50s and ‘60s they used to go to their agents and sit outside – ‘There’s nothing for you today’.

PM Yes, it is a brutal career and that’s why people want to form companies – they do so in order to protect themselves from these sorts of iniquities. That aspect of our trade can be unhealthy and uncreative.

CN And it can’t really be changed can it?

Stratford-RSC-rear-view-with-geesehomerholby
PM Well, like all things there are strengths and weaknesses. I have a friend who I spoke to just yesterday – he’s just done a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, where he was in a new play and two Shakespeares, he’s in the process of writing an adaptation of Homer and he’s going up for a ‘Holby City’. So it’s a snapshot of a British actor’s life, who’s Doing-Quite-Nicely-Thank-You. That is an unimaginable thing for a German actor. A continental European actor doesn’t have that thing where they go from a bit of popular television, to being in Goethe, to then doing a voiceover… They have a company system, it’s all heavily subsidised, and if you are part of those subsidised companies, of which there are many, that’s what you do. And you can often see astonishingly rich, in-depth character acting in companies in Germany as a result. What they don’t have is British actors’ flexibility, pliability, ability to work in very different ways very quickly.
And that is why, in my view, British actors often do very well in America, because of that easy ability to do anything. Which is actually a product of that brutality we’re talking about – it actually produces that as an upside and thus can make American directors love working with British actors, because of that ability to go, ‘Oh, you want me do to it differently? I’ll do it like that’, whereas an American actor struggles. So I suppose there are aspects of the way we work which feel very brutal, but we also have to remember that it produces a certain liveliness which is an asset.

CN And I suppose it helps in auditions, in that you can have a casting in the morning for an advert, and a Strindberg in the afternoon, and you need to be able to turn it on for both.

PM Yes, and by and large people are very skilled at doing that.

Anthony Hopkins Alex be Brabant

CN I’ve done very little screen acting but I love it when I do, because it is so focused. I remember reading about Anthony Hopkins, who of course is the great master of screen acting, and he was talking about being able to marshal his resources so well that he was able to just switch it on; he could focus completely and just turn it on when he needed it.

PM Just the other day, a very experienced senior actress was telling me a story about her daughter, who’s just starting, and had she had done a couple of days filming – she was complaining, ‘Oh, it was terrible, I was waiting for hours and hours, the whole day I was waiting to do my little bit. It’s a disgrace!’ And her mother said, ‘No, the waiting is what you’re paid for – the acting comes for free.’

CN That’s great, I’ve never thought about it like that – the acting is the reward.
I‘ve been thinking about London. It’s an impossibly expensive place to live in. Can you conceive of a time when the media and the theatre will be spread more across the country, or will London always be the centre?

london
PM I think it’s impossible to imagine a situation when we are not, as a country, focused on London. It has such a massive history behind it, and geographically, I feel we are always going to have that with us. I notice that politically now there are these big moves to talk about Northern powerhouses, and I think that’s all great and healthy – there does seems to be a lot going on in Manchester, and I think we will see more of that; with the BBC being stationed in Salford, there’s a sense in which the centre is shifting – but I think London will always be with us. I think the general election result has given us a very vivid X-Ray of a sense in which, politically and socially, culturally, London is forming a giant bubble of its own. One of the reasons that everybody was taken by surprise by the election result is because in London we were all busy talking to ourselves, and not really realising that out there, a whole different thing has been going on. We’re entering this period now where it’s going to be very difficult to work out how the country finds a way of talking to itself.

CN And culturally, creatively, there’s no money to keep you in the profession – are we going to end up with a casting crisis for people in their late 20s and into their 30s?

PM I think there is a lot of burn off, I think that’s exactly what happens. 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 without a stable income.

sheffield theatres
CN Is that something that regional theatres can capitalise on? Do you think there should be a shift away from the capital? You spent a lot of time in Sheffield – did you cast down in London, or did you cast in Sheffield?

PM It must be the case that 90% of Equity is based in London, so inevitably that’s where you end up casting from. There are some people based in Sheffield and they have worked in the Crucible, but it’s difficult. I can never remember the exact rules and numbers about subsistence, but if you’re in Sheffield for instance, you budget because you know you’re going to have to pay subsistence to actors who are by and large London-based, and you still have to pay if they’re Manchester-based, so there‘s no great incentive at a financial level.

CN You have a greater pool of people to cast from in London.

PM All the incentives are for you to look to London.

CN It’s terrible isn’t it – you’re told you have to live in a place that is too expensive to live in, in order to carry on working.

PM And actors face a pressure from their agents, it seems to me, to not leave London – to not go and do a play in Sheffield because you’ll be out of London for two months. ‘Imagine what will happen – if that advert came up, you wouldn’t be able to do it!’

CN I think there is a pressure to shut out parts of your life and experiences you could have had, because you’re frightened to miss the job – don’t go on holiday, don’t have a family; you can’t afford to buy a house because you can’t leave London. You shut yourself off from life experiences which might actually be detrimental to your acting.

PM It’s true, those are all dangers.

circus poster
CN Actors have always been outsiders though, haven’t they?

PM They have. It’s a conundrum, because life should be fairer, it should be better; we are artists who deserve to earn a living. There should be good conditions – you know, bad conditions don’t create good art. And yet we all, one way or another, ran away to join the circus, and having joined the circus, we love complaining about the elephant shit.

CN A suitable ending, I think. Thank you Paul.

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 2

pinter

Chris Naylor: You were part of the evening of three Pinter plays at the Donmar in 1998. I wrote about Penelope Wilton’s performance in ‘A Kind Of Alaska’, but that whole evening was wonderful. I can remember seeing Pinter himself in your production of ‘The Collection’, and being amazed by him.

Joe Harmston: He was stunning.

CN: You worked with him a lot, didn’t you?

JH: I did, yeah. I directed him in his own play twice, and I was his associate director four times. I loved working with him. Interestingly, he was utterly anti-prescriptive. I remember when we were doing ‘The Collection’, we were in the last week of rehearsals, and I gave my notes and then said, ‘But we’ve got to a point now really where it’s just louder, faster, funnier.’ And most of the other actors looked with absolute horror, as if I’d rubbed shit all over their faces, and Harold just went, ‘Too f***ing right’. And he was so much of that kind of world, just sort of, ‘Get on with it’.

pinter2

CN: And from a rep background.

JH: Yeah. I saw him not long before he died and he said, ‘What are you doing,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of Agatha Christie recently,’ and he said ‘God, I love Agatha Christie! Which one are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’ve just done ‘The Unexpected Guest.’ ‘Oh, fantastic, I played the part of…’ and I suddenly realised how much of the sort of Agatha Christie-style thing actually appears in Harold’s plays, you know – strange characters step through doors and just start talking…

I think it’s very, very unfashionable unfortunately, but so much of my interest as a director has always been about the basic practicalities of ‘get out there and get on with it’. I remember Greg Doran once rang me when I knew him a bit years ago. I’d just directed a show at the Old Red Lion in 3 weeks, and Greg rang me and said, ‘This is a slightly embarrassing question, but I’m in week seven of rehearsals, can you think of anything I can do?’ And I thought, that just says everything.

When we did ‘Hay Fever’, I think we had three weeks, didn’t we? There’s always a great deal about the white heat of rehearsals that makes you get up, try something, decide whether or not it works, try something else – and I think particularly the really, really long rehearsal periods can become a bit of a navel-gazing exercise, where the danger is you forget about the fact that we are there to put it in front of an audience.

CN: I don’t think I’ve ever had anything longer than about five weeks.

JH: I can remember as an assistant director working with people who would say, ‘Well, in the first week I can’t possibly get it on its feet, we have to sit round a table,’ and by the end of the first week, it was magnificent, just fantastic, the performances were brilliant – and then the Monday of the second week, everybody stood up and it all fell to pieces. What was the point of doing that? So I have always felt, rehearse on your feet – you know, read that scene and then get up and do it, but don’t spend two days pontificating about it.

NPG P490(63); J.B. Priestley by Yousuf Karsh

CN: Priestley was the same, wasn’t he? On the original production of ‘Dangerous Corner’, he rehearsed for three weeks, and had another two to go, so he gave them a week and a half off, then came back and tech-ed it, because he thought, ‘well, we’ve done it, what more is there to do?’

JH: Well, interestingly, it’s something I’ve done a lot recently, because I’ve always rehearsed a show over Christmas, so it has tended to be the case that we’ve done, say, two weeks before Christmas, had a week off, and then come back and done the final week and then gone into tech. I’ve found that very, very useful because it gives people the time to go away and learn the lines, but also it all sort of percolates down, and when they come back it’s almost as if they’ve already been running it for a week.

CN: It’s like an extension of that thing that all actors understand, when you’re trying to learn your lines and you think, ‘Oh God, it’s awful’, then the next morning, you know it somehow. Did you start as an actor?

JH: No, I didn’t. Interestingly I’ve had the experience recently – we ran out of actors for ‘Murder On Air’, so I had to do it for a week in Manchester, so I found myself acting in my own show.

murder-on-air

CN: That’s a script-in-hand show, isn’t it?

JH: Yes, although because I’ve been doing the show for seven years I knew most of it anyway. But it’s very interesting experience. I kept finding myself on stage watching people thinking, ‘Yes, I must talk about that after because I think we could improve on that,’ or, ‘That’s a good idea!’ and then thinking, ‘Who’s dried? Shit! It’s me!’

CN: But do you think it’s a useful thing for a director to have been an actor?

derek_jacobi_html

JH: I think it’s probably more useful for a director to do a bit of acting than it is for a director to have been an actor, because when I was an assistant director I watched some actors directing, and if they were good actors, they tended to be pretty awful directors. I remember watching Derek Jacobi directing, and the bizarre thing was, Derek’s a sublime actor and he therefore doesn’t really understand why people can’t do it. Which is a big problem with a director. I don’t think I did anything that was at all embarrassing on stage in Manchester, but there are plenty of other people I know would have done it even better, because I don’t find acting an instantly effortless thing. I think that’s possibly one of the things that makes me quite a good director, because I can see what an actor is having a difficulty with, whereas if you’re a brilliant actor, you just spend your time thinking, ‘Why can’t you do it?!’