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The Green Room: Which is more important – talent or hard work?

Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2009. The play centres around two friends, one of whom enters a talent contest. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​

Gary Abblett, 38, is a jobbing actor with experience at the National Theatre, RSC, in the West End and on tour

Eoghan Barry is 30. He has worked as an actor on fringe projects and work for young people and more recently has been working as a writer

Velma Lee is a 32-year-old actor, comic and improvisor

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National and in radio, television and film

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Gary Talent is the entry qualification. Diligence and bloody mindedness then become more important.

Eoghan You can be talented, but not work hard and that’s disappointing to everyone. You can have less talent but work hard at your craft and be a very accomplished and supportive performer.

Albert A lot of people with talent never get anywhere. A lot of people who work hard stumble. Luck is the key and you can’t make it happen.

Eoghan Obviously, ideally, you are both talented and hard-working, like all of us here.

Beryl Doing a show with someone who can’t do it, no matter how hard they work, is still a bad show. I appreciate hard workers, if they’re talented.

Eoghan Of course. But I also think doing a show with someone who’s talented but doesn’t work hard is incredibly frustrating and annoying and foments ill-feeling.

Vivian What does hard work actually mean in this industry? In art, everyone’s process is different. I don’t work well with long hours. I prefer walking out problems. For someone else, that’s a disaster, they need to be looking at the script the whole time. Who is actually working harder? Me on my tramps around the place glaring at strangers and stopping to eat sweeties, or someone still in the rehearsal room, learning lines and beating a script into submission?

Velma It’s a tricky one. Because slide the scale too much either way and it’s problematic. We obviously see things from a cast point of view, so no one wants someone who doesn’t work hard – but sometimes someone who is talented can just ‘turn it on’ after being a shit the whole process, and the crowd loves it. So, does it matter what we think, when the audience doesn’t see that?

Eoghan It does. We have to work with them.

Jon I worked with someone not long ago who is hugely charismatic, holds an audience in the palm of his hand at will, but was always late for rehearsals and hardly ever had a clean show on lines. You can’t help but resent it a bit.

Velma I agree, of course. But I’m playing devil’s advocate. Some directors care that the cast is happy – and some don’t care if there’s a mutiny as long as their star is getting good reviews.

Eoghan You need a bit of talent. Marry that to hard work, wherever you are on the scale and that’s ideal. But people who don’t put the effort in are annoying, however talented they are.

Velma A lack of hard work is bad for the company, and the company atmosphere should be held in higher regard.

Albert But luck is what it takes and will always take. It will never be in the hands of the actor.

Jon The thing about luck is that on the one hand it’s comforting to know that success can be so arbitrary, and on the other hand it’s torture knowing that.

‘Obviously, ideally, you are both talented and hard-working’

Vivian It is luck if you are born a man, or if you are born rich, or conventionally attractive or able-bodied. And being born any of these things means you are rewarded more than others, even if they work harder than you, in this society.

Velma What about people who are really good at working the industry, but have no discernible talent? I know some ruthlessly charming and business-minded actors who are terrible and get much more work than I do.

Jon The ‘good auditioners’, most evil of all the tribes.

John Is that a talent in itself, though?

Velma Yes, I think it is.

Eoghan I agree, there are some people who are good at being ‘out there’. But even at drama school we were encouraged to be good at that stuff. But that’s hard for some of us more socially awkward types.

Albert It’s a torture we all have to deal with. But remember: “The harder you work the luckier you get.” I think that’s Jefferson.

Jon I’ve tried the “Hi, I’m Jon, let me get you a drink” approach at press nights and I am dreadful at it.

Eoghan If you’re putting yourself out there again and again, well, at least you’re in the position to get lucky.

John I usually try: “Hi, I’m drunk, let me get you… John. What?”

Beryl I can’t do it.

Velma I’m just so awkward, but my friend is a sight to behold. He told me the other night how he played agents off against each other when he left drama school. I was in awe – I didn’t even know you could do such a thing. It gets you places.

Jon How did he do it?

Velma Well, he would write to casting directors for recommendations of agents, and then when writing to the agent play it like: “Casting director X speaks very highly of you”, intimating they had a relationship. Then when he went in to meet he would mention the casting director again whom he had told he had several meetings with several other agents.

Beryl Too much acting required for me already.

Jon Easy to get rumbled though, no? When they both say: “I thought you knew him?”

Velma Yes, but the way he had done it was that they both thought the other was really on to something ‘hot’ – ‘snap him up now, lots of people are interested’.

Albert I bet he had no time for work doing all that – authenticity out of the window. You wouldn’t trust him, would you? Is he working, Velma?

Velma Well. He signed with a top agency after a bidding war, but truth be told he’s not an amazing actor…

Albert And I bet he’s sat on his arse waiting for the phone to ring?

Velma Yes, a bit.

Beryl This is it. He worked hard but has no talent.

Jon A perfect circle.

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