It has been a pleasure to see the affection that has greeted the news that Ian McKellen topped The Stage 100 this year, the first actor to do so. While McKellen has, for many years, been an admired and much-loved actor, the last year has demonstrated he is a generous one too.
He has celebrated his 80th birthday not by having a nice lie down but by visiting 80 venues, big and small, all across the country, culminating in a West End run at the Harold Pinter Theatre that finished on Saturday. In the process, he raised £4 million for local theatres and national theatre charities. As The Stage editor Alistair Smith observed, the tour was “a love letter to theatre itself, and more specifically to local theatre”. Local theatre was where McKellen’s talent was first nurtured.
McKellen did not come from privilege, but his generous gesture, which leaves a lasting legacy, is recognition that he is now in a privileged position and that he can use that privilege for a greater good. He is giving something back to the theatre, the industry and the audiences who have supported his career – whether to a tiny local theatre, the National Youth Theatre or Denville Hall, the retirement home for actors.
Recognition of privilege is crucial for all of us. It’s particularly true for us critics, who can use our privilege for good or keep the doors to theatre closed to artists trying to gain access. It is true for theatre workers who have salaried positions and know they have a wage coming in at the end of the month, unlike freelances who often survive hand to mouth.
But it is true for everyone who has found success in whatever area of theatre they work in and at whatever stage of their career. Like McKellen, we can all decide how we might use our status or power in the profession, even if it feels tiny compared with many others.
Nobody can choose what family they are born into, but we can all recognise the advantages and opportunities that background or education has conferred on us. It doesn’t diminish talent or hard work to recognise that we have got where we are because of the opportunities that have come our way, those that are affected by class, gender or race.
It is hardly encouraging for someone such as Star Wars actor Daisy Ridley to deny, as she did in a pre-Christmas interview, that privilege has played a part in her success, and that actually she – a white, middle-class woman – is no different from John Boyega, a black actor raised on a south London housing estate.
One of the other things about McKellen is the grace with which he has managed the privilege that success has conferred. After the performance I saw at the Pinter, though he had been on stage alone for almost three hours, I was struck by how he tirelessly treated every individual who approached him with genuine interest, care and attention.
‘Ian McKellen is acting like a true elder in the profession, and he is being useful’
It made me think of less generous actors who try to limit post-show or stage-door audience contact. This, like Ridley’s comments, is a failure to recognise that while their talent may have helped them get to where they are, so too has a dollop of good fortune and the unswerving support and love of their fans.
McKellen, of course, has had a sufficiently successful career that he can afford to spend a year touring for free, but he didn’t have to. He is acting like a true elder in the profession, and he is being useful, something I wrote about in connection with theatre just before Christmas following the general election result.
He’s not alone, but perhaps his example will encourage others, at all levels and in all areas, to give something back, whether raising money or signing up as a mentor for Arts Emergency, making time for a cup of tea with that young artist who has emailed for advice, or sharing funding sources and experiences rather than hugging them to your chest.
Next month, Devoted and Disgruntled takes place at Battersea Arts Centre, that inspiring annual date in the calendar when people from across the theatre profession come together to talk and, most importantly, take responsibility for the challenges facing theatre and the communities that theatre serves.
It is a rare occasion when those who run big buildings sit side-by-side and on equal terms with those at the very start of their careers or who are still in training. This year, Devoted and Disgruntled feels more important than ever. We can’t all have the clout of McKellen, but we can all make a difference. Devoted and Disgruntled is a good place to join others and think about how we might do it.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner