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Editor’s View: There’s no shame in a survival job – actors need to make a living like anyone else

A story in the US press last week highlighted the general public’s increasingly warped view of the acting profession.

Geoffrey Owens – a former star of The Cosby Show, a regular on stage and screen and a well-respected acting coach – appeared splashed all over news pages and TV bulletins [1] after a customer snapped a photo of him working behind the till of her local supermarket.

This ‘news’ was widely covered in the US before being picked up by the UK red tops. All seemed to be shocked at the idea that a seemingly successful actor might need to work between acting roles.

The first thing to say – although I’m sure it doesn’t need to be pointed out to most readers of The Stage – is that there is nothing unusual about this. Musical theatre star Emma Williams [2] used to memorably refer to herself as “Olivier-nominated temp” in her Twitter biography, a wry reminder that performers can find themselves at a prestigious award ceremony one day and back to a survival job the next.

Most actors (and many other theatremakers) will need these kinds of gigs, something to fall back on when times are lean. It is very rare to meet a jobbing actor who has the good fortune to be able to ‘rest’ between jobs.

Part of the problem is that the cultivated image of actors that is projected to the world is one of success and glamour: red carpets and watch or perfume endorsements. There is no middle ground: actors are either Hollywood stars or feckless Withnail-esque luvvies.

Lyn Gardner: Don’t be ashamed of your day job, you can be a waiter and an artist [3]

While this is true of the public perception of all professions to some extent (not all bankers are masters of the universe), it is more pronounced in the acting world than others: I suspect it’s down to the blanket coverage that consumer magazines give to the impossibly glamorous lives that actors supposedly live.

Anything that clashes with this is regarded as an outlier. But it is the Tom Cruises of the world who are the outliers. The hundreds of thousands of jobbing actors are the reality. And Cruise is probably working bloody hard on set.

Actors with a public platform have some power to change this perception, though, by following Williams’ lead and talking frankly about the realities of an actor’s life.

The longer I work at The Stage and the more I learn about the tenacity and drive required to sustain a career in this business, the more respect I have for those who manage to do it.

Acting is a real job. Working behind a till in a supermarket is a real job. We all have to make a living.