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Alistair Smith: Access to drama training isn’t the biggest issue

Julie Hesmondhalgh has recently condemned the loss of support for working-class actors. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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Who’d be an aspiring working-class actor today?

No one wants to teach you drama at school because it’s not on the EBacc. Then, even if you do, miraculously, develop an interest in the arts, you won’t be able to afford to attend drama school due to tuition fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants.

This is resulting – we are repeatedly told – in a shortage of actors from working-class backgrounds on TV, film and in theatre.

Except I’m not sure it’s the whole story. Certainly, none of these things are helpful. Scrapping maintenance grants is going to make it less attractive for people from working-class backgrounds to attend drama school full-time. It is particularly a problem for drama students as it is a lot harder to have a part-time job due to the high number of contact hours, compared to other university courses.

But the performing arts industry has rarely – if ever – suffered from an undersupply of actors. We are training plenty of performers – from a variety of backgrounds. Drama school principals all insist that their intakes are more reflective of society than other equivalent institutions and they go to great lengths to reach out to prospective students from various backgrounds. Only last week, Michael Earley from Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance wrote to underline the fact that more than 90% of its students come from state schools and “an ever increasing number come to us via social mobility and targeted outreach activity”.

The real problem comes when the students graduate. The majority of jobs in theatre and TV require you to be in London for auditions, but with rents skyrocketing, it is increasingly difficult for young performers to base themselves in the capital. Meanwhile – due to the oversupply of talent – these performers are expected to undertake extensive amounts of unpaid or low-paid work while they gain experience and wait for their big break.

No wonder that the actors who survive this Darwinian selection process tend to come from better-off backgrounds – those with family homes in London or with parents who can support them to live in the capital while they try to find their first paying job have a huge advantage.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer is. Housing costs are a problem that transcend our sector, while it’s hard to see an end to low and no pay that doesn’t also remove some of the opportunities that exist for performers to get noticed. But this is where we, as an industry, should be focusing our energies on finding a solution. Not just on the education sector.

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