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Only 10% of actors are working class

Julie Walters at last year's South Bank Sky Arts Awards. Photo: Chris Lobina Julie Walters at last year's South Bank Sky Arts Awards. Photo: Chris Lobina
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Actors from working-class backgrounds make up only 10% of the profession, new research has revealed.

Preliminary findings from the Acting and Social Inequality Project, which researchers claim is the first study of its kind to focus solely on acting, also show that actors from working-class backgrounds on average earn around £10,000 less per year than actors from middle-class origins. The research defines working class as people with parents who have worked in manual jobs.

The findings follow complaints within the sector that working-class people are not able to pursue careers in the arts. Figures including Julie Walters, David Morrissey and Samuel West have previously spoken out about the lack of social and ethnic diversity in the industry, which they claim is fuelled by barriers including the price of drama school training and a culture of low pay.

Final stages of the research are still in progress, however Dave O’Brien, who is leading the project alongside Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, told The Stage that the acting profession displayed a “heavy over-representation” of middle-class actors, with actors whose parents did professional or managerial jobs making up 73% of the industry.

O’Brien, who is a senior lecturer in cultural policy at Goldsmith’s University, described the headline findings as “depressing”. He added that the research suggested a “significant under-representation of people from working-class backgrounds”.

He said that the research highlighted the fact that acting is “worse than other comparable occupations” for social diversity. Data taken from the Labour Force Survey that was analysed by Laurison and Friedman suggests that people from working-class backgrounds make up around 18% of accountants, 13% of lawyers, 17% of public sector managers and professionals and 18% of business professionals.

People from middle-class backgrounds still make up the largest proportion of people working in these professions, however O’Brien said the figures highlighted the especially bad diversity in the acting industry.

He also expressed concern about the pay differences between socioeconomic groups.

“Even when someone from working class origins is in the profession we are finding that they are about £10,000 less well off than other people, in theory for doing the same jobs,” O’Brien said.

The research also included 47 in-depth interviews with actors, which he said highlighted the barriers to working in the industry across all backgrounds, but also how such barriers are affected by social class.

“You are an affluent, middle class, white, male, who has been to the right drama school and knows the right people – it is a lot easier to be successful if you have that privilege,” O’Brien said.

He added that the industry demonstrated the presence of “social safety nets as opposed to just individual parental safety nets”.

“We felt it was important to engage with these debates because these same issues play out in law, medicine and accountancy, but they aren’t the stories we tell ourselves. One of the things we think is really important about this research is the sense of focusing on acting as a job as labour… but also the sense that it really matters because [acting] gives us our sense of identity,” he said.

Earlier this year, BBC casting director Julia Crampsie criticised the lack of diversity with drama schools, claiming: “I go into drama schools every year, and it’s getting less diverse”.

She also said that working class actors were the most difficult to find when casting for shows such as EastEnders.

However, research by advocacy body Drama UK claims that there is a broader spread of social backgrounds than is often assumed at drama schools, with 40% to 46% of students over the past 10 years coming from a “broad range of socioeconomic groups”.

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