Andrzej Lukowski: In defence of Tanya Burr
Much like Jennifer Lawrence and and Marilyn Monroe, Tanya Burr does not have any formal acting qualifications.
Unlike those two, the YouTube star has been forced to weather a storm of vitriol over the past few months because she has taken a role in a tiny fringe play.
For those who have missed this supposed nadir in theatre’s history, in February it was announced that Burr – who I’m pretty sure is unknown to most people who work in this industry – would lead a revival of little-remembered 1990s play Confidence in Southwark Playhouse’s tiny second studio.
The news was met with a certain amount of cynicism. The term ‘stunt casting’ was deployed by several commentators – including The Stage’s Mark Shenton – on the assumption that the producers had overlooked her lack of any acting experience because they thought her 3.6 million YouTube subscribers, 3.17 million Twitter followers and 3.1 million Instagram fans would guarantee bums on seats.
As it turns out, though, these collective raised eyebrows was nothing compared with the actual reception Rob Drummer’s production had from reviewers. Among the assorted critical raspberries, Time Out’s two-starred assessment of Confidence has pretty much gone viral, and is the most read article since Hamilton.
On Twitter, theatre professionals are sharing the piece with a stern warning of Burr’s hubris in taking work away from ‘trained’ professionals. I have seen at least one open letter doing the rounds. West End Producer did a retweet with a cautionary note that has more than 900 likes.
It’s all getting a bit out of hand. Here are some facts. One: you do not need an acting degree to be an actor. Obviously it helps, but some very good actors don’t have them. Untrained comedians, in particular, have a long history of taking stage roles without an accompanying storm of ire.
Two: Boundless, the company staging Confidence, has a remit to engage with a younger crowd, and casting Burr seems like a solid way of trying to get a new audience in.
And three, the bit I can’t stress the most: it’s an obscure play in a 120-seat theatre. Even if Burr’s fame had ensured a total sellout, the profit would be negligible. In fact, the show is mostly not selling out, and the assumption that a social media ‘influencer’ is the same sort of draw as a celebrity is not accurate.
As it happens, Burr would appear not to be very good in Confidence, and it’s probably legitimate to ask whether the producers suspected this would be the case from the beginning.
But to ascribe any great meaning to this is daft. A lot of trained actors are pretty terrible in plays a lot of the time. The idea that Burr is debasing the entire acting profession by being a bit rubbish in a tiny fringe show is ridiculous.
Perhaps she used her privilege to get cast: according to Marie Claire, she earns about £20,000 a month from her various web activities, meaning she is probably one of the few people acting on the London fringe who can actually afford to act on the London fringe. But to imagine that privilege does not come into play among trained actors – that even being able to afford training isn’t a privilege – is patently absurd.
If she pops up again in a couple of months anchoring a National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler, I suppose I may have to concede that something weird is happening. But until that happens, let’s be clear: the backlash against Tanya Burr is mostly to do with snobbery (at her dayjob), envy (at her profile), and probably some fruity vlogger politics.
If she comes out the other end of this unscathed and still wants to continue to plug away on the fringe, despite all the shit thrown at her, then she should be applauded.