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Soapbox: Star casting is making life harder for jobbing actors

Jennifer Mudge and Matthew Perry in The End of Longing at Playhouse Theatre, London Jennifer Mudge and Matthew Perry in The End of Longing at Playhouse Theatre, London Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Star casting has become commonplace in theatrical productions. From film and television actors to reality television celebrities, it is very easy to see a production in London or the regions with a poster featuring a well-known face. The attraction of free marketing opportunities is understandable, as is the interest of the general public, but I imagine few producers consider the effect on the average working actor.

British theatre is traditionally known for creating stars. The world of musical theatre has given us Elaine Paige, Michael Ball and Michael Crawford, to name but a few, while straight drama can claim Ian McKellen, Judi Dench and Kristin Scott Thomas among its finds. Many of these actors have since forged brilliant careers in film, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for actors to break through as the trend for handing leading roles to known names becomes more prevalent.

It’s incredibly exciting to see the RSC creating stars

There are, of course, exceptions. The Royal Shakespeare Company announced at the end of last year that Paapa Essiedu will be playing Hamlet in 2016 and it was very exciting news. Essiedu, a hugely gifted actor, takes on the role of the eponymous prince after several very high profile stars – Jude Law, Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tenant – have played the Dane. It is an incredibly exciting to see the RSC once again as a company that wants to create stars, not just cherry pick faces from the big (or small) screen.

Why should you cast someone that is fiercely talented but whose name will not draw in the public when you can have someone like Benedict Cumberbatch? I know many people that would love the opportunity to be in the same room as Sherlock, after all. Add to this the rising costs to stage a production and the sheer volume of actors that are out there and it’s very easy to see the choices that can easily lead producers down the star casting path.

Currently, though, the lack of opportunity for the average working actor in the UK leaves them pushing much harder for career stability and success (meaning that they will often be offered covers or supporting/smaller roles, if they are offered anything at all). Most of these actors do not want fame but simply the ability to feel more in control and settled with their careers. This section of the industry is established, talented and hardworking, but is easily forgotten when it comes to final decisions in the casting process for big roles.

Being one of these actors is heartbreaking, difficult and can slightly destroy you at times. We try to swim forward, only to feel like we are simply treading water. Star casting seems here to stay, for the present time anyway, meaning that the average working actor needs to find new ways to grow and develop his or her career, while finding stability. In the words of Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

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