A life in the theatre teaches the art of survival. In a career often driven by highs and lows, where fortunes can turn on a penny, it is a crucial skill.
Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s A Chorus Line is an entire musical about the highs and lows of showbiz. It culminates in the famous theatre anthem What I did for Love, though that also conveys something of a bittersweet journey about chasing your dream.
However, if that sort of dreaming did not exist, then why would anyone put themselves through this process of knock-back and rejection at all? The realities of working in theatre can be stark, with considerable challenges and hardships.
Even in those glorious moments when it all comes together, there is never a certainty that it will last. Hamlisch and Kleban were right that love has to be the driving factor when pursuing a career in the arts and that sometimes people have to look elsewhere to make ends meet.
This is what made the Daily Star’s recent splash about former EastEnders actor Katie Jarvis, who is now working as a security guard at an East London superstore, a disgrace. Jarvis had played Hayley Slater in EastEnders and enjoyed some significant storylines before leaving the show earlier this year.
She is an actor who, like so many freelance workers across the arts industry, consistently takes on temporary work. Actors need to do this between stage and screen jobs to pay the bills and they often gravitate to particular work that allows them flexibility to audition.
The fact that Jarvis should be job-shamed by a tabloid newspaper simply for doing what many actors must do between acting engagements to survive should raise concerns across our industry. Ironically, had she not sought temporary work then the story would have been a non-starter.
Instead, the report implied that the actor, who had previously achieved a degree of success, had been reduced to working as a security guard with the implication that her career had in some way failed.
The reaction from many actors in support of Jarvis has rightly been robust. However, there is possibly an issue here for Equity to address – maybe even to put controls in place that better protect people who are job shamed in the future. There is ultimately little that can be done to limit tabloid reporting, but Equity members should at least be made aware that they can have access to support in this kind of a situation.
Jarvis has commented that she felt “ashamed” by the coverage. This was compounded by the fact that she doesn’t employ a personal PR, nor has the publicity department of a major TV series to help shield or advise on what to do. She was left to deal with this invasion into her private life, and the emotional impact, alone.
It also raises the question of whether there is a need for all drama training to prepare students with professional advice on coping with media intrusion and public pressure.
Of course, that would still only be of value to students who attend a drama school. Everyone working across the profession needs access to advice and guidance on these issues, whether from Equity or another source.
Many people working in the arts do not have a trust fund, pension or savings. This can be a hand-to-mouth profession that’s driven by hope and a passionate hunger to do something amazing.
Well done to the actor, creative, or stage manager who graduates and enters the profession into immediate gainful employment – long may that continue. But immediate employment can be followed by a period of unemployment, which can be very hard to cope with.
I have seen people enjoy immediate success after training, only to find that when the phone stops ringing, they quit the profession because they could not cope. In contrast, I have seen others who did not find immediate employment after graduation go on to enjoy a long career in the industry because they learned how to survive through the tougher days before enjoying the good ones.
Social media has arguably exacerbated the problem. It’s where many share their success, but for those who are struggling, it can make coping with the pressure even harder – which may not be immediately apparent to others.
Jarvis is a brilliant example to our industry in demonstrating the working life of a jobbing actor. In an industry where we are remarkably good at showing emotion on our stages, we can be particularly bad at doing the same off them.
There can even be a fear of displaying vulnerability – that it shows weakness or, at worst, reduces the likelihood of future employment. As an industry we have to address and improve this situation collectively.
In this business, it’s important to look out for each other. A life in the theatre is a marathon not a sprint, there are hard times as well as good. Those who have to take other jobs to make ends meet, like Jarvis and many others, are are an inspiration and a credit to the industry.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan