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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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Interview with the Casting Director – Hannah Miller – part one

Hannah Miller

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

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

Hannah Miller
I hope so!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CN That’s tough, isn’t it?

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

Gregory Doran Linda Nylind - GuardianErica Whyman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzie Hopley

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

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

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

Sher Fat Knight

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

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

CN That absorption in the craft.

HM Exactly.

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

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

CN Do you have that flexibility?

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

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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

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

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

CN ‘What’s next?’

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

shakespeare's globe

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

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

CN ‘Of the right age!’

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

CN Depending on your attitude?

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

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

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

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

HM Exactly, it works both ways.

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

When is an actor not an actor?

han solo chewbacca chewie, we're home

‘Chewie, we’re home.’

Those three simple words will have sent a seismic frisson through most film fans of a certain age. I have to admit to feeling a thrill of emotion when I watched the new trailer for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and saw Harrison Ford’s grizzled visage alongside his Wookie sidekick once more. But quite apart from a Seventies’ child’s nostalgia rush, ‘Star Wars’ has another significance for me: I remember coming home after seeing the first film, setting out my chairs in an X-Wing fighter configuration, and playing at being Luke Skywalker. But the important part, at least as far as my future self was concerned, was that I didn’t want to be a pilot for the Rebellion, I wanted to be in ‘Star Wars’. Along with Dr Who (Tom Baker, of course) and James Bond (Roger, naturally), George Lucas’s epic started the ball rolling on my fascination with acting.

Over the following years, like most thespians in waiting, I spent many a happy hour wielding cardboard light sabres and plastic Walther PPKs, hanging off helicopters (or climbing the banisters) and ignoring imaginary cameras everywhere. I even very nearly severely damaged myself leaping down the stairs, trying to recreate that moment in the ‘Starsky and Hutch’ titles where David Soul jumps off a wall onto the roof of his Gran Torino. In other words, I put in years of training. Slowly (and nervously), I started to take my ambition further, and began acting outside the safety of my house – school plays, amateur productions, drama at University, all the way to three years at LAMDA. It’s rather astonishing to think of it now, but I actually made the jump from day-dreaming boy to an actual, professional actor.

Bond, James Bond

I can’t remember the exact moment when I first described myself as an actor; funny really, as it should have been a major milestone, considering all those years of yearning. But I have a feeling there might have been a certain tentativeness to it. Calling yourself a ‘drama student’ is pretty safe and unequivocal – pay the fees and don’t get kicked out, and no one can challenge you. But when you first call yourself an actor, you are opening yourself up to investigation. You are inviting judgement – and more to the point, you need to have concrete proof, which is where it starts getting complicated, because there are some times when it can seem harder to describe yourself as an actor than others. It’s almost as though there is a sliding scale of legitimacy:

actor sliding scale

This can lead to some uncomfortable encounters – at a first-night party, in a taxi, at family events – depending on where you are on the scale at the time. It can be reminiscent of that lovely old Peter Cook joke:

‘I met a man at a party. He said, “I’m writing a novel”. “Oh really?” I said, “Neither am I.”’

In truth, it’s not so much how others see us, but how we see ourselves. All those old jokes and clichés about the ‘resting’ actor can bite deep – after all, ‘to act’ must be the most active verb there is. Can there be such a thing as an inactive actor?

Christopher Naylor Woman In Black

I remember when I was appearing in ‘The Woman In Black’ – 10 months of wonderful, stimulating work. In my final week I was invited to talk to a kids’ drama workshop. The chap who was running the session said, ‘You can hear how Chris’s voice is really resonant and well-exercised because he’s been working so long’. I felt thoroughly legitimate – a proper actor, with plenty of evidence to back it up – after all, my actual face was on the poster. A week later I was unemployed, sitting at home, and someone else’s picture was plastered outside the theatre. Was I still an actor?

But of course I was. Being an actor is about more than your last job, or your next one – it is an identity, even a philosophy. It is a brave choice to devote your life to a job where the work itself is its own reward, especially when there is so much propaganda telling us that we can only validate our existence through the accumulation of money and material goods.

Anyway, I think there comes a point of no return, when you realise that you are so far down the path, it’s too late to turn back. So it is important to brazen it out, and call ourselves actors, even if the closest we’ve come to a job in six months is a couple of castings and a voice class. The title of actor is hard-won prize and we should cherish it.