Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Silver Spoon

It's the BAFTA evening, and already the broadsheets are carrying stories of woe about how theatre/performing is becoming an exclusively middle/upper class occupation.
The fees are extortionate, they cry, how can a young person afford them, they persist.  Then once they've graduated how do they support themselves without a lucrative bank of mum and dad to support them?

Well I hate to be controversial, but I think that it's always been like this. There's no difference to when I studied 30 years ago.  More than that why aren't all the people shouting about it and commenting about it on social media giving back to STOP it being like that?

I've written about this before however to reiterate:
a) ALL students these days going into HE can expect to hit debt city unless their parents are in a position to help them out. Lawyers, doctors...you name it, the debt is real.  Of course the difference is that you'd expect them to land a well paid job really quickly and to start paying it back, but actually in this day and age that is not always the case.
b) If some actors were more savvy with their acting careers, they too could get rid of some of the debt by not waiting around for an elusive, well paid film role, or theatre role.  Use your skillset and get some money behind you.  Some of my lot are currently working all over the world, earning a blooming fortune, paying their CDL's off early, getting money behind them ready to return to the UK and have some saving's in anticipation of the struggles that they're about to face.  
c) You don't have to sit tight in London for the first two years because that's the only time that a CD is interested in you. We know that because every CD that's come into college for a Q&A has named it.  In fact - they've all said...get some performance experience behind you.
d) The difficulty and reality is, to survive in our industry you need to find your perfect 'crap job'. The job that you can tolerate doing more that your real job. Personal trainer is a popular one at the moment, freedom to book and schedule clients around auditions, whilst taking control of your own life (and earning considerably more than the minimum wage). I have one student currently training to become a book keeper as they know that they can do this remotely wherever they end up working. As you'd expect lots of teachers.  Basically you're looking for the job that pays more than the minimum wage (as that is not a livable wage in London), and one that gives you flexibility.  If it's attached to the industry all the better, as you still get to live in 'our world'.

We negate the brilliance of a lot of our actors and writers as we still beat the 'angry young men' drum of the 60's. They 'rich kids' are not winning awards, gaining roles because they're from privileged backgrounds, they're getting them because either their good, or they put bums on seats.

This whole issue is so much more complex than 'the poor can't afford to train'. This is an educational matter that needs addressing. For as long as I can remember, schools have not considered a career in the performing arts a viable, sustainable career.
When I went to my career's officer as a teenager, I was told to join the army, as they'd encourage my musicianship and I'd get to play a lot of music. Seriously. That was the only advice that I received.
I'm from solid, Welsh, working class roots. My parents didn't have a clue about theatre, let alone the endless possibilities of having a career in theatre. I played the piano therefore I must become a music teacher.  Back then, even that just felt like a pipe dream.
After leaving college and I started to make my own career path, my parent's despaired as I did bigger and bigger shows, whilst continuing to earn no money.  It was hardly a good 'sell' to reassure them that I was OK. They didn't understand a creative hunger or need.  For them it was simple. Get a job that pays you regularly and life is sweet.  They had heard all the stories of theatrical unrealiability from us never getting a mortgage to never getting car insurance.  Nobody could tell them an alternative.

I was lucky, my parent's just went along with it (although I had my dad for 20 years practically begging me to get 'a proper job'). They didn't understand it, but they could see that I was happy.
Eventually a pay cheque landed and life looked a bit 'safer'. I found the perfect 'crap' job in teaching, so had found a way to be viable.

They didn't really have the money to help me out, nor did I want them to. They worked long enough hours as it was.

Am I a better performer because of my struggles? I don't know. Am I more resiliant and realistic because of them? Yes. Do I have a hunger for work because of my upbringing? Yes. Disclaimer: This is also true of some people who are from more privileged backgrounds too. I'm talking in hyperbole because that is how the media are approaching this topic.

I once offended around half of one of my year groups at The MTA, when I dared to name that the reason that they were being so awful, was because that they were spoilt brats, never knowing what it was to work for something.  So their general work ethic was appalling.  Whereas their classmates who were holding down up to 3 jobs in order to survive at the college were soaring - because they understood hard work.

There will always be a clique (hell Drama UK held onto that idea for as long as possible and now the CDD have stepped it up a notch). You are always more likely to be seen if you were trained at RADA than if you went to Drama Studio...there's the privilege right there. Yet in fairness RADA, and a lot of the colleges give over a large percentage of their places to the 'working class' straggler. Whether that be social conscience or clever PR who cares? It happens.

So what's the answer?
Schools (yup...including your bog standard Comprehensive) need to understand what careers are open to people in the arts.  They need to stop putting people off, instead support them to dare to dream. Harsh reality is killing more careers than your demographic.
Parents need to learn about the realities of the industry - maybe drama colleges could do more to support this?
We need to stop writing that the working class voice isn't being heard.  As I believe that as soon as that's published we muffle the voice that is attempting to break through.  Instead let's read the articles about all the great things that are being done in the UK to develop break through artists.
We need to understand that this is a societal problem, not an industry problem.
The 'working class' kids that want to do this need to talk to the colleges that they're interested in going to and find out what's on offer for them. If they're giving up at the first hurdle, they're probably not right for our industry anyway.
Finally why doesn't Equity use some of it's subs from the successful actors to 'give back'? If you're mega successful (and let's face it, we are in a career where you can literally go from stone broke to millionaire in one step)...give back. Chose a college (and please don't all chose RADA, they are really well supported)...and give yourself the tax break of giving some money to an up and coming street urchin as opposed to the Inland Revenue.

My next mission statement for The MTA is to have 50% of my places as sponsored places.  I could achieve this by just 260 people donating £10/week to the college. Donate your daily Starbucks coffee to the college and that's it...dream complete. It's not going to happen though is it, because those of you bleating about this cannot see that paying forward might need a donation, as opposed to a demonstration. I get it - it's your hard earned money, why should somebody else get it? Of course that's exactly what the parents of the privileged children that you're now being angry at thought too.

Here's the harder question. Aren't we just hacked off that some people have it easier than us? Aren't we resentful that they don't have to work to 'survive'? We dress it up as a social conscience, but in reality we're all OK...we're doing it. Or for those people fighting to get in and blaming their social standing....could it be that you're just not good enough yet?

Whatever the answer is - the debate is tedious and getting us nowhere.  Donate your 'anger' and resentment to The MTA, rather than hypothesising the situation over your Starbucks.  I have students in dire need of that money...maybe you could actually help them?

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