Last September, a news story went viral about Geoffrey Owens – a former star of The Cosby Show – who was snapped working behind the till of a supermarket. The implication in most of the widespread media coverage was that there was somehow something shocking or shameful about Owens having to take on a survival job in between acting gigs.
The reaction, as I observed at the time, highlighted the general public’s increasingly warped view of the acting profession – to anyone who works in or around theatre, the idea that anyone should be ashamed of having a job outside showbusiness is ridiculous.
A performer’s life has always been a tough one. As this week’s excerpt from the archive shows, complaints about low pay and poor working conditions have been a regular feature of debates at Equity’s annual representative conference.
But the sheer range of issues voiced at this year’s ARC in Belfast should give employers some pause for thought. One in particular should be a cause for genuine shame within the wider industry, although not for the individual concerned.
At this year’s ARC, we were warned that the absence of arts education in schools risks turning the profession into a “playground for the rich”; that those performers who manage to make it into the profession face “belittling and discriminatory” auditions; that performers lucky enough to get work might not be paid for it or it could be snatched away from them when a tour collapses due to inexperienced producers. Meanwhile, what little money performers do manage to earn is being targeted by an “out of control” HMRC that appears to have the acting profession in its sights.
But the most shocking revelation to come out of the weekend was the story of the West End actor forced to sleep under a bridge because they could not afford accommodation.
Of course, some major factors in this story are out of the theatre industry’s control: it is a situation that is as much a result of escalating living costs as it is about stagnating rates of pay.
But the idea that a performer working in the West End – supposedly the peak of the profession – has been forced to sleep rough because their wages did not support them sufficiently to find somewhere to sleep is, unlike the Geoffrey Owens photos, genuinely shocking. It should shame the entire industry.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith