Photo by Wullie Marr.
By Paul Smith, artistic director
Middle Child will soon be entering into the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, pending a ‘signed off’ business plan. This means that we now have some security in the work we are making, and that a small number of our team (including me) will be going full-time. This is very exciting, but I’m determined to use my new-found ‘security’ in an arts job to interrogate the lack of security in other roles. We’ll soon be launching our Artist Development Programme (I CAN’T WAIT – I LOVE IT!) that looks to offer opportunities to new critics, writers and artists. In the lead up to that, I want to dare to dream of an Acting Utopia.
One of the best parts of my job is getting to work with actors. Actors are brilliant; creative, brave, open individuals without whom this industry simply wouldn’t exist. However, I’ve been aware for a while now just how hard it is to be an actor, while continuing to be a human being who lives like other human beings. Not a week goes by where I don’t find myself in some sort of conversation with an actor friend about how dispiriting and unrewarding the whole thing can so regularly be.
My all-too-easy first response has always been something rubbish like ‘that’s just the job’ or ‘the industry is like that’ but recently I’ve been stopping myself because the industry is only ‘like that’ if we continue to make it so. Do we really want to propagate an industry that wears its ‘ruthlessness’ as a badge of honour or that chides actors who give up on the career as ‘not tough enough’? That seems to be in complete opposition to an industry that often sells itself as liberal and welcoming.
I recently set up the Middle Child Acting Gym to try and encourage a space where actors in Hull can develop their skills and be part of a support network which addresses the problem of ‘doing it alone’ as an actor. Each week we come together, talk about issues relating to the industry/job and then work on some plays (this month’s focus is ‘doing what scares us’). I’ve learnt lots from doing it and am looking for ways to improve it in future but know that it’s not enough to have a truly positive effect on the mental wellbeing of actors.
So my question is a simple one, and one that has definitely been asked many times before:
What can we do to make acting a more viable, less damaging career choice?
And I mean actually do. Practically do. Physically do.
This isn’t about seeking agreement that things aren’t right, more a cry for guidance.
How can I/Middle Child/all theatres/theatre companies/theatre makers help improve the working conditions for a job so commonly accepted as ‘tough’? Can we crowd-source a code of conduct that means actors aren’t left feeling like an old, unused toy the second their contract finishes?
So please, if you’re an actor reading this, tell us. What changes – big or small – can we make to improve how it feels to be an actor?
I’ll get started with a few problems I’m aware of from my job, from conversations I’ve had and from things I’ve noticed. Each of these brings their own questions I’d love to have answered from as many actors as possible.
Abuse of power
The #MeToo response has shown just how large a problem the abuse of power is within the theatre industry. No human should be subjected to such harassment and everyone at Middle Child takes this issue extremely seriously. How can we, as an industry, better protect actors – often in such a vulnerable position – from abuses of power?
I always, always meet 10 times more brilliant people than I can offer jobs to. Often I’m asked for feedback and sometimes the truth is that all you can say is ‘someone else just suited it better’. Massively unfulfilling I know but often the truth.
Is that useful? Is there a better way to say that? If you auditioned brilliantly but just aren’t right for the project, how can I tell you that in a way that is constructive? If your audition was, for any reason, not a good one – how much feedback do you really want, or is being told you haven’t got the role enough? How do you want to find out if you have or haven’t been cast; an e-mail? a phone call? How often do you not hear back at all? Is there ever any excuse for that? Does not getting a job have to be such a negative experience? How could we make it less so? Is ‘you were so close’, ‘you were down to the final two’, ‘it was so nearly you’ a useful thing to hear?
While I’m aware there are lots of brilliant agents out there, I also hear lots of actors who struggle with this relationship – be it problems with their own agent, or the pressure of not having one. How do we improve the role of the agent for the actor? How, as a company, should we respond to agents? Do you want us to go through agents at all or simply to come straight to you? Is there anything we can do to make sure more agents see you in our shows?
I often get sent CVs from actors. I tend to save these CVs in my Spotlight database and then get in touch with anyone ‘suitable’ once we have an audition coming up. Is that enough? Is there anything else I could be doing?
In between jobs
Many of the conversations I have with actor friends centre around the bits in between jobs. Not knowing where the next one is coming from and not knowing how to go about getting one. What can the industry do, if anything, to lessen this feeling of loneliness and fear?
After the contract finishes
I’m often so aware of the day after the contract finishes. The first day where there’s no rehearsal that day or show that night. Does the employers duty of care finish at the same time as employment stops or is there a way we can help lessen that feeling of staring into the abyss?
I worry that sometimes there is a fear of giving genuine feedback to a company at the end of a project as it may mean they won’t employ you again. How can we undertake necessary appraisals to make sure we do things better next time?
I am so sick of hearing from actors who are being paid under Equity minimum by well-funded buildings and companies. Why is this still happening? Either you can afford to do the show you want to do with everyone paid fully, or you need to rethink how many cast members you have. It is not okay, and I have had conversations with actors who want to say something about this but can’t because of fear of being blacklisted.
Is the knowledge that if you don’t do it at that rate someone else will part of the problem? Do we need more solidarity when it comes to pay? Or is it simply that work is so scarce and hard to come by that actors feel they should do it for any fee? We’ve made proper payment a priority as we look to join the National Portfolio, and there is no excuse for others not to do the same. Let’s also stop thinking that development opportunities mean we can’t pay people, or allow them to pay themselves through the funding. The human cost is non-negotiable.
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These are just a few things I’m keen to seek better solutions for. Are they important issues? What am I missing out? What’s the hardest part of the job for you and what can we – together – do about it?
Please, please do comment below, tweet us @MiddleChildHull or for anything confidential please e-mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d really love to find tangible solutions to these persistent problems.