Smashing through the class ceiling

I was really interested to read Lyn Gardner’s opinion piece last month in The Stage online titled: ‘Drama training must adapt to help shatter theatre’s class ceiling’.

She speaks about how working-class actors and aspiring actors have a difficult time breaking into the profession and the many obstacles they must overcome from the very start of the acting journey. Sadly, these challenges boil down to money and lack of privilege which ultimately for many stop them from reaching and fulfilling their acting dream.

In my opinion, we need to smash through this class ceiling, and quickly.

We must remember that it isn’t only those with money who have talent. Talent comes from all pockets within our society - from all over the country, all backgrounds, genders and cultures.

Class, as we know, is an issue in theatre. We need to try to change this. We need to ensure theatre and the Arts are inclusive and not dominated and run by the privileged, who in turn only give fellow middle-class actors et al. the opportunity of getting ahead.

Right from the get-go, drama school can be tough for those coming from a working-class background. Auditions alone can be expensive. Add to that the cost of call backs, travel fares, accommodation, food and more. It can be quite daunting. 

LAMDA is certainly moving in the right direction in terms of cutting first audition fees by 75% to £12. Wouldn’t it be great for others to follow suit, or even cut them altogether? 

If you get into drama school there can be the additional stress of finding rent, a new job to pay your way, staying on top of your training, more auditions. It’s easy to see why those who don’t have the financial support that their middle-class counterparts have struggle and give up on their acting careers before they’ve even got going. 

If they do break into the Arts, unfortunately there often appears to be more hoops to jump through. Quite often they may be typecast as working-class characters or are given very limited roles – perhaps because of their upbringing or even their accent. They get pigeon-holed into stereotypical roles through no fault of their own. This in turn means that they receive a very limited salary.

In Gardner’s opinion she states that according to research via Equity: “Only one in 50 actors earn more than £20,000 a year.”

I understand completely why actors from working-class backgrounds become deterred from pursuing an acting career. It is such a shame because just think of the huge breadth of experience and new excitement, ideas and perspectives, these individuals would bring to the industry. It means that only a very small chunk of society is currently being represented which is so damaging and a huge waste to all the available talent out there.

There are of course some brilliant actors who have come from working class backgrounds and have gone on to do some truly amazing things, including: Anne-Marie Duff and James McAvoy. 

But there is, however, a true imbalance right now, which we need to look at seriously.

With the cuts to the Arts and to education, we must do more to spread the word about any initiatives, workshops etc available in arts centres, from theatre companies etc - both from an audience and actor perspective. If we can be proactive let’s really go for it.

We continually try to do our bit by bringing professional theatre to our hometown of Milton Keynes and giving opportunities to those interested in becoming an actor, whoever they are and wherever they are from. We pride ourselves on giving people their first step into professional work. We pay them too! From what we see daily on social media and various forums we are apparently quite rare as we also pay expenses and digs and we pay quickly. 

If we can do it so can others. It takes work to find the money of course, a great deal of work. We are often working for months ourselves (without pay) on grant applications, finding sponsorship or developing other income streams to fund our projects. We think it is worth it though. There are too many job adverts offering “exposure and experience” but never any pay. Often the excuse is “We have very little budget and we are keeping costs down” yet money is found for other things, but never to pay actors. We also pride ourselves on giving everyone a good experience, so new actors learn from more experienced actors and work with a truly wonderful creative team who are happy to mentor and give advice.  As Hillary Clinton once stated: "Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not." This has never been truer than now in theatre. 

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