Actors Awareness: A lesson in how to fail the working-class
By Tommy Pullen
British Intervention, Co-Artistic Director
The Actor Awareness campaign run by Tom Stocks, it's a campaign fighting to have more equality, diversity and working class actors in the industry, no matter your background or financial restraints”
- Actors Awareness 2017
Let’s start by reconsidering the idea of a British working-class. The notion of a contemporary working class has changed from that of our parents' and of our grandparents' generations. I’m speaking from a millennial point of view in which this situation affects the most. In a time where it was as possible to leave a job on a Friday and go into another on the Monday, notably a job within the industrial, and public sectors, this has now become anything but purely fantasy. This has been the consequence of increased globalisation within the framework of a neo-liberal agenda, which finds itself embedded within every western economy. Where once the workplace was made up of a highly-paid, highly-skilled workforce, we now find ourselves living in an age where this has become the minority, and has been replaced by lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs which developed out of the mechanisation of the workplace, the catalyst for this change was the industrial revolution. The following comments are in direct response to the Actor Awareness campaign and an article published by The Stage magazine by Paul Clayton in January 2017.
As much as I was previously a supporter of the project I have now come to the conclusion that it has become a product of its own destruction, the thing they didn't want to create, an elitist group within themselves.
It consists of a closed Facebook group of individuals who are only interested in looking for jobs rather than pursuing its intended purpose: to raise awareness of the issues regarding the lack of working-class ‘actors’ within the performing arts. If the group fails to evolve from its current situation, in the long term this project will be recognised and remembered as being nothing more than a hashtag, or at best, being remembered by a select few who got audition for a part in a pantomime, student film or that fringe show that didn’t quite sell out or get that four-star review. The group is mostly used for advertising headshot services and showing off their latest showreels (this includes from its figurehead Tom Stocks) and even recently an advertisement calling out for singers to be part of a Little Mix tribute band.
By creating such a campaign (or vanity project I am yet to decide which is which) they had the perfect opportunity to mobilise the working-class. Or even a new form of working-class, made up of different ethnicities and backgrounds of individuals from across the UK. Perhaps it’s time to ditch the selfies with celebrities and start rejecting companies such as Spotlight (of which who are a patron of the campaign) who contribute to the problem in the first place.
According to Paul Clayton, in his article Actor Awareness has blossomed from a simple hashtag “Spotlight’s near monopoly and restrictions on how it circulates casting information makes finding work harder”. The previous comments in response to Spotlight in the context of its relationship with Actors Awareness choosing to host scratch nights is a contradiction upon itself. How a campaign that advocates a policy of celebrating individuality suddenly align itself with a company that encourages a process where you are stripped of all identity? You are then required to give away information such as your ethnicity, vocal range, height, hair colour and weight. But the cherry on top is when the the applicant has to upload a mandatory headshot which, by the time of uploading, has been airbrushed by all recognition and has no resemblance to one’s natural appearance.
Although the article itself is praising Stokes and the campaign, I believe he too is missing the point and is part of the problem. Clayton is chairmen of the Actors Centre. An organisation that offers ‘support’ and consultation throughout people’s careers within the arts. The workshops range in price between £30 and a £100 (the price increases for workshops that last longer than a week) on top of that you are required to pay a joining fee of £75 per 12 months or £50 for 6 months. Once you have paid your membership fee, the workshops are categorised, meaning that if you wanted to attend a certain workshop but you haven’t paid the required tier of membership, you will not be allowed to take part. For a person who is working and living in London, being paid the minimum wage and who are committed to paying the rent, bills, and putting it simply, trying to survive, how can they possibly afford to commit to such a scheme?
Actors Awareness must change its tactics. And here’s what needs to happen.
Firstly, they need to begin a dialogue with educational institutions, bringing them to account in regards to their tuition fees (in some cases this has recently increased by £500).
Secondly, how about pointing out that for a drama school to set up a bursary in the good effort to help disadvantaged young people (often seen as the working-class) as not being good enough. Together let's stop these institutions from increasing prices and blaming 'hard times’ on the people at the point of entry. We know times are tough, this is something we do not need to be reminded of, while the bosses and presidents of these money making machines are cashing in on their five, six figure salaries, and avoiding much needed investment within its staffing infrastructures, outreach programs and facilities.
It is important to be able to think on your feet and adapt to the times and be open to change, but this does not mean that we, as individuals, as human beings, should sit back and watch our industry being corrupted by power hungry individuals who are out there to make money whilst negating an obligation to actually make a positive impact upon the contemporary theatre landscape. Thirdly, the group should celebrate the opportunities that are possible without drama school training. I myself know of many people who have rejected the system of training and have made a success of it, and at the same time are not being committed to paying back tuition fees along with the ever increasing interest rates met with quarterly letters from student finance England.
Direct action is required. Rejection is the only way in which change can be achieved in such a system that has yet to be formally challenged for hundreds of years. Instead of embodying the ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ attitude, how about together, as we do so with governments, start to bring the art world and the realm of performance to account and question its purpose and activities. The reason why people are yet to do so is because they are frightened that their actions will lead to them being rejected from an audition with a company or a production firm, who choose to pay below Equity minimum, and disregard the performing arts as being a craft of the working-class, and would prefer to be more like the factory owners of the industrial revolution.