Train fewer actors and tell the truth

Actor and Equity president Malcolm Sinclair. Photo: Phil Adams
Actor and Equity president Malcolm Sinclair. Photo: Phil Adams
Susan Elkin
Susan is Education and Training Editor at The Stage
by -

Only one actor in 50 earns more than £20,000 a year from acting – according to the recent Casting Call Pro survey which also found that over three quarters of actors earn less than £5,000 a year from the trade they trained for.

Hardly surprising given the increasing number of “trained actors” which flood hopefully out of drama schools, large and small, every year is it? And yet when I dared to make this point here earlier in the year a number of commentators thought I should keep my observations to myself and stop demoralising young enthusiasts (by telling the obvious truth).

Equity President Malcolm Sinclair agrees with me and is prepared to say so openly.  He said, and it was quoted in The Independent:

Compared to when I started there are so many more drama schools, and university courses. There are far more young actors coming out and it feels like there is less work around. There are too many actors and too few jobs.

Yes, there it is again. That elephant in the room may be a big grey cliche but he’s beginning to trumpet so loudly that we are not going to be able to ignore him much longer.

It simply wouldn’t be tolerated in other professions. When I trained as a teacher we took it for granted that provided we worked hard, jumped through the right hoops and proved that we could do the job there would be work for us at the end of the course – and there was. Nobody embarks on medical training, an accountancy degree or business management training in the knowledge that she or he is highly unlikely ever to be able to make a living from it. It simply isn’t how training and work operates in a sensible world.

Of course, acting and the performing arts are always going to be a bit different because you really do need an oversupply to be able to select the right person for a role. On the other hand there is only a finite amount of work available and every time a college starts a new course, or expands an existing one the likelihood of any paying (and by golly, they do pay hand over fist these days) participant fulfilling his or her dream lessens.

I think colleges should be contracting not expanding. Tough, I know, for staff who would have less teaching work and very hard for the potential students, even more of whom would fail to gain places. On the other hand I’m for truth and fairness. Some of these students are effectively being conned by the numbers game. There is so little chance of their ever finding professional work, given the sheer volume of the competition, that it would have been better had they not been offered a training place in the first place. Bar work to pay the bills really isn’t much fun.



  1. It doesn’t help that there are more and more “employers” demanding that actors work for free or sub-minimum wage – and that actors accept it. What’s the point in paying money to learn skills and gain experience that even the industry itself seems to consider worthless?! Not only does there need to be better regulation of training, there needs to be regulation on the hiring process and, most of all, there needs to be some form of regulation on who can claim to be ‘an actor’ – because from where I’m sitting right now, the one requirement seems to be that you have the ability to breathe in and out…

  2. Any time I have brought this touchy point up in the past among the various dramatic circles I feel like an anxious elephant stomping over their grannies garden of pretty pansies and dreams. But even with their dirty looks and brush offs Its noted that I am also still an actor and have been unemployed for long periods, been emotionally up and down, and of course have always tried to keep my weathered eye on the horizon as I struggle to keep myself afloat with the rest of the theatrical fish. However I have always felt to ignore certain truths about your life’s ambition, job or goal whether you like them or not is not brave, passionate or a way of progression…for me its sort of thoughtless really…How can you travel, experience, find, discover, wonder and dream further if you can’t afford your next months rent for the rest of your life? Would a business man keep investing if the stock doesn’t rise? Would a doctor keep healing if all of his patients died? DRAMATICS YES!…(Still Unemployed) but i am trying to make some sort of point… Of course I love to see good talent and people succeed, I really really do, and holding out for that “big break” is all part of the game which have gladly played but this article is very very interesting and will probably the break the boards in a lot of people stage hearts.

    P.S- Just a thought, not an attack- I still want to be on Game of Thrones…Not as an extra or Butt double but as a real boy! x

  3. The problem is partly that many of these courses are educational as much as they are training based. Education benefits the individual and is expanding and developmental, training prepares someone to do a specific job. Yes, there may be too many students on courses though it is hard to know how one work out the right number. In Czechoslovakia if they thought they had too many actors or designers they would simply stop training them, so if someone wanted to undertake such a course but none was being run they had no chance at all. In the end I suspect students may stop applying. I ran a theatre design course in Nottingham years ago, if an prospective applicant asked if it would get them a job I always said that there was no guarantee but that it was a good education. The course has many graduates still working as designers, makers, actors and at least one well known film director. Education has to be they key.

  4. I have taught in university sector institutions that run drama courses to make money: i.e. Big intake of low grade students, with very few contact hours. and not particularly talented or bright students or students with any real chance of a career as actors. If the article was talking purely about those courses I would agree with much of it. BUT, this article describes those courses as ‘training actors’, and those university courses are not drama schools, are not vocational and do not train actors with a view to setting them on the path for successful careers. Nor, to be fair, do they claim in any way to do that. They study theatre, and that is just as valid as the study of literature or art. There is a bigger issue, which is that not every young person should feel they need to go to university. It is just as valid and important to train in a skill or become an apprentice and learn a trade through work experience etc. If the argument is that there are too many drama schools, there are currently 18 accredited institutions. Non of them by any means new, and most of them established for many, many years as places of excellence. In my experience, it isn’t necessarily the most talented students who leave drama school and succeed. Success isn’t something anyone can predict and control, and for that reason, a talented actor should have the right to give it every chance. More and more people who train as actors become directors, authors, playwrights or set up their own companies. There is a strong sense of entrepreneurialism in the acting student of today. And there is an extremely open and honest dialogue about the realities and hardships of the industry, which the article rather unfairly overlooks.

  5. Ok guys, I think we may be moving slightly away from the main point of the article. It was simply stating that within the accredited AND unaccredited training centres for actors we are seeing many new, and often ridiculously niche, courses pop up. This in turn moves away from the (quite manageable) tradition of one class of 15-20 people in both acting and MT courses from the “accredited” schools to a new standard of 15-20 different COURSES all taking 15-20 STUDENTS in both accredited and unaccredited schools. The article is simply saying that rather than adding an indefinite number of new courses (to shoehorn the students who weren’t quite good enough for the main acting/MT class into so the school can make more money) schools should be more selective in their choices and have a smidge more honour when they tell people they only train the finest performers. This industry is always going to be difficult and we have all worked with at least one person who doesn’t deserve to be in it, be that through talent, dedication, attitude etc but they are and they have the backing of a prestigious organisation behind them. It is time for the drama schools to go a bit Willy Wonka and only train people who genuinely can have a career in this industry rather than anyone with a voice, pulse and wallet.

  6. This article is absolutely correct. I teach at sixth form level and resolutely refuse to support an application unless the applicant accepts the reality of their chances of gaining admission to training, and of their financial survival beyond it. If the communication of the truth was mandatory it would be a major step towards self-regulation of the numbers. There will always be a surplus, and as the article and some of the commentators point out, that is both necessary and beneficial to related occupations, but to mislead potential recruits is unforgivable.

  7. There is much value in acting classes for CEOs and farmers too. The issue is that higher education has failed completely to prepare actors for the real “business” side of show business. I have spoken at many universities and conferences and educators seem untrained in anything but technique. This is even more true for singers wanted recording careers. No one explains the “deals” forced on American Idols etc. I’m aware of only one adult prep school for entertainers that plans to open this fall ( I pray for its success because of the many super-talented New Yorkers who work too little and have trouble paying their rent and their self-confidence. Before we tell our young to ignore their desires to be creative in their life, we need to explore the many ways they can use this training that doesn’t require suffering as a waiter while hoping for a rare audition.

  8. How about pushing for an institution such as the BBC to make far more drama (outside of soaps) and comedy, like they used to? Then there wouldn’t be as much of a problem, would there?

    The BBC’s lack of provision for non-soap drama and comedy (as well as for light enertainment), since the late 1980s, is a national disgrace, with Mark Thompson’s tenure as Director General, in particular, being a near cultural desert.

  9. Having recently taught at one of the accredited drama schools, I have to say that its a weird experience. People with no real talent, no sense of maturity, no idea of how to rehearse, no articulation, not a hope in hell of getting an acting job, are being told complete and utter rubbish to pump up their egos, morning noon and night. I had a short term contract a few years ago and the psychological pressure to keep up this charade is intense. Frankly, this school should not be accredited, but it is.
    The system is deeply flawed.
    These poor students are hopeless and about to be in debt, because they have some hopes and dreams that people are happy to exploit.
    There should be no more than eight accredited drama schools. Its time to be realistic.

Leave a reply