The Class Problem in British Acting: Talking at Camden People’s Theatre

By Dave O’Brien, Goldsmiths College, University of London

Camden People’s Theatre is running a season exploring some of the issues surrounding the general election. They were kind enough to invite Sam Friedman and myself to discuss some of the very early findings from our work on acting and social inequality. We presented some initial thoughts after a performance of No Milk for the foxes, a piece which connected directly to the issues we have found in our research. This post is a chance to share some of those initial thoughts as we begin the process of writing up.

Obviously questions of inequality and culture have been in the news recently, whether in the form of arguments between politicians and musicians about social class, or in questions of the representation of particular social groups in contemporary culture. This was the basis for research looking into how inequality operates in the acting profession.

The project is a combination of Daniel Laurison’s analysis of actors (404 in total) in the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) and 47 in depth semi-structured interviews with actors that we’ve conducted between November 2014 and March 2015. Our interviews were from a range of ages, class backgrounds, career stages, and ethnic backgrounds and with a gender balance too.

The headline figure from our GBCS data was clear: The majority of British actors have come from what might be termed middle-class backgrounds, with 73% having parents who did professional or managerial jobs and only 10% from manual working-class backgrounds. Coupled with the underrepresentation of the working class in acting was a clear pay gap. We found those from working class backgrounds earned £10,000 a year less than those from senior professional and managerial backgrounds. This pay gap was clear even when other factors are adjusted for, such as the age, gender, ethnicity, and education and geographical location of different actors.

How do we explain these findings? The fieldwork suggested that acting is a difficult profession; no matter what the background or the advantages of the individual actor. However, those without advantages of wealth or connections faced specific barriers to success within acting. These took the form of their experiences in childhood, getting into drama school, getting an agent, getting paid (or working for free) and being typecast. The rest of the post will give a flavour of each of these five issues as a way of showing where our analysis is going as we write up the work.

It was really clear that different social backgrounds had different access to cultural resources- cultural capital- as children. For some of our interviewees this took the form of working with National Youth Theatre or having strong support for drama in private school. For others it was about their access to high culture more generally, meaning they had knowledge of literature and theatre that those from less affluent beginnings did not.

Cultural capital was important in shaping both the visions of the sorts of careers our interviewees felt were possible, as well as entrance to the elite drama schools that are very important in determining who gets on and gets ahead in acting. Often this sense of cultural capital was very subtle, from the confidence about which drama schools to apply to, through to not having the right accent to fit into these spaces. Drama school was then, in turn, important in getting an agent and getting paid work.

An actors’ ability to get paid work was dependent on many factors. What was particularly interesting from the interviewees was how much this could be related to having existing resources, often from parents. In part this was to survive periods between jobs and the high living costs of cities such as London. However it also meant more affluent actors could properly prepare for parts or auditions as short notice.

The other side to paid work was the experience of unpaid labour. This, based on the interviews, is stratified by career stage and age, as well as class. For the older, established, actors in the sample unpaid work was an affront, a refusal to recognise their value. However for the younger actors unpaid work was endemic, as recent surveys by equity have suggested. However the experience of unpaid work was very heavily related to both social origin and an actors’ drama school or agent. For the more affluent younger actors who had been to a good drama school unpaid work was akin to the fringe, a form of creative expression and opportunity. For those without these advantages unpaid labour was, at worst, exploitative of their desire to enter the profession.

Finally there is the issue of the sorts of roles actors might get. This was where social inequality was made clearly visible. For the white, male, middle class origin actors typecasting and choice of part was a frustration, but not one that had stopped them taking good, well paid roles. For other interviewees, such as the BAME women we spoke to, there was a clear political question and sense of frustration, whereby roles could be accessed but often only at the price of playing stereotypes that individuals were uncomfortable with. For some this was to do with the expectations that BAME women would play nurses, rather than doctors. For others it was the lack of recognition that their might be roles that spoke to the BAME, female and working class experience in Britain that went beyond what was perceived to be a white, middle class, cultural establishment’s view of their lives.

These initial findings make it clear that inequality is a major concern for the acting profession, mirroring broader issues across the cultural sector. Moreover, culture tells us, as a nation, who we are. On the basis of our research it is clear that the stories we tell about ourselves are coming from a worryingly narrow set of voices.

One response to “The Class Problem in British Acting: Talking at Camden People’s Theatre”

  1. Lito says :

    This is remarkably close to the findings of my PhD on ballet and contemporary dancers in Greece and the UK. Although qualitative my study presents similar patterns to the ones you describe! Access to arts as a profession is becoming much narrower as we go along.

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