Actors are being ‘stifled’ by fear of unemployment – Simon Stephens

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Stage actors in the UK are being artistically ‘stifled’ because they are worried about where their next job will come from, playwright Simon Stephens has said.

Actors, who usually work as freelancers rather than being employed as members of a company, are often deterred from taking risks in their performance because they are conscious of offending colleagues who might employ them in the future, said Stephens.

Speaking at a conference on new writing last week, organised by the V&A museum and University of Reading, he said: “If you think of the conditions of a production for someone like Leo Bill, who is a superb stage actor – normally he would be acting as a freelance actor, normally would have a four week rehearsal period. Normally by about the end of the second week of rehearsal period everyone would be thinking about and asking each other what they are doing next.

“They would have one eye on the director, to make sure they don't offend them, one eye on the writer, to make sure they seduce and tantalise them so they maybe might want to write something for them, and one eye on the artistic director to let them know they are not a difficult person to have around the theatre.”

He added: “That can be really stifling and can stifle bravery in acting performance.”

Stephens is currently working as dramaturg for the Lyric Hammersmith in London for its Secret Theatre season, which involves an ensemble of 10 actors working over 11 months.

He said that he hoped this ensemble would allow actors to come into work and be "rude" and know that they still have a job the next day.

“If that rudeness is due to doing something that might fail then that’s brilliant and essential,” he said.