‘New talent’ and ageism
In 2011, Samantha Spiro received the British Comedy Award for best female comedy breakthrough artist for her role in Simon Amstell and Dan Swimer’s Grandma’s House.
In her acceptance speech, the fantastic actress (whom I first saw playing Barbara Windsor in the National Theatre’s homage to the Carry On films, ‘Cleo, Camping, Emmanuel & Dick’ more than a decade before) mused, "how lovely to have broken through…and it’s only taken 20 years!"
Ours is a unique profession, where even the veterans are considered novices by the time they secure a high profile job. So, if this is the case, why are so many ‘new talent’ opportunities only open to those under the age of 30? Surely it’s not just younger actors who need such assistance.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the highest levels of unemployment last year were in those under the age of 24. Yet they also recorded that since 1998 the highest rates of redundancy have been in those aged 35 to 49, closely followed by the over 50s. So, unemployment is unsurprisingly higher in the younger age groups where many are either students, recent graduates, or simply struggling to get started. But redundancies are higher among the older, many of whom then have to retrain in order to find alternative work. Actors may not experience redundancy in the same way, but we are constantly having to further our training, network and rebrand ourselves to make ourselves more employable in an increasingly competitive job market.
I regularly hear about courses, workshops, grants, and competitions all proudly celebrating the fact they nurture ‘new talent’. Sometimes they’re offering special rates on memberships and heavily discounted theatre tickets, all of which would provide excellent platforms for research, networking or career development throughout the industry. Sadly, at the ripe old age of 34, I’m not eligible for many of these.
I started drama school in my late teens, training with colleagues between the ages of 18 and 50, some of whom may well have formed part of the redundancy statistics mentioned above. Regardless of our ages, upon graduating we were all considered ‘new talent’. But because of such ageism we didn’t all qualify for the same assistance, either as students or after graduating.
Of course it’s important to nurture the young and offer opportunities they might not normally be able to access. But since ‘new talent’ in our industry can emerge at any age, wouldn’t it be fairer to exercise a little age-blindness when offering career development opportunities?