This month, I have mainly been overwhelmed by admiration for actors. In the course of auditioning for one play and workshopping another, I have been in the company of a wealth of diverse, courageous and brilliant talent. It is sobering to see quite how much of it is out there.
As chair of equality project Act for Change, I’ve been trying hard to walk the talk (hard being the operative word – making diverse representation a reality requires meeting the work with conscious effort) and so I have tried to be as mindful as I can about process. Mindful about how and where we seek out performers, what we ask them to prepare, how we welcome them and receive their work in the room and how we manage them after the meetings as decisions are taken. It has required much more graft than I was anticipating, but that pales in comparison to the amount of work actors do week after week, meeting after meeting, few of which offer anything by way of returns.
The show I am directing has a musical element to it, and so I have had the joy of being sung to in my auditions – kind of like a happy baby being sent off to sleep. As I sat and listened to these songs, I was reminded of something Jenny Tatum, one of our excellent singing teachers at LAMDA, said: singing is an infinitely more intimate, more direct channel to the soul than the spoken word. The fact that an actor can walk into a room with a stranger and open themselves up like that, down to their deepest vulnerabilities, makes me think actors are some of the most courageous people out there.
And yet, also in these last weeks, I have had a stark reminder of how little respect some people have for actors. I was told of a casting list submitted to a brilliant female writer for consideration for a role. The list came divided into four categories: ‘A-list’, ‘B-list’, ‘C-list’ and, brace yourselves, ‘Actresses of no value’.
Each of those ‘categories’ comprised women of incredible talent and worth, some of whom, perhaps now languishing on the C-list, will no doubt go on to have stellar careers as time unfolds. These women were stripped of their humanity and individuality. I’m certain you could no longer talk about ‘cattle calls’, and yet there seems still no concern about talking about actors, even in private, as if they were little more than a commodity – collateral to market a show on.
While it is an over-subscribed profession, there are more of us than there are jobs, that is no licence to diminish people. How do we fix this? I don’t have an easy answer but it’s 2019. We are allegedly the enlightened liberals, and we have to do better.
Stephanie Street is an actor, writer and co-founder of Act for Change. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/stephanie-street/