We all love to recall the good old days, but often they weren’t. In historical times, actors were regarded as rogues and vagabonds, sometimes as likely to end up in prison as on a stage. Their female counterparts were treated like prostitutes and, in more recent times, expected to audition on casting couches, fearful of molestation or rape.
In some ways, life has improved. One imagines that prosecutions of Harvey Weinstein and other influential characters have put the fear of God into those who are both powerful and wicked. Recent deals struck by Equity have also gone some way towards ensuring fairer pay and better working conditions.
Even so, Noël Coward’s sage advice, “don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington,” can seem as true today as it was a century ago. It has long been understood that, for every actor whom one watches on stage, there are 19 others 'resting'. Even those working are often paid at execrable rates with the risk of unemployment hanging over them from week to week or even day today.
A week of train strikes, unseasonably bad weather or merely the whim of a producer who fears tough times ahead can close even relatively successful shows, while the vast majority are only ever intended to run on a shoestring for a few weeks.
Why do actors do it? It is very hard for the uninitiated to understand an urge that for many appears to lie somewhere between an obsession and an addiction.
Some might even believe that they will be the next Tom Hardy, Tom Hiddleston and, in later life, Dame Judi Dench or Sir Ian McKellen. If getting on to a stage is a one in 20 exercise, achieving a knighthood is probably one in 10,000 and following Laurence Olivier into the House of Lords, one in a million.
These days, most actors are university-educated and could easily walk into jobs paying 10 or 20 times as much, perhaps strutting around as a barrister or enjoying themselves performing in the House of Commons. Instead, they go through years of training to perfect skills that will leave them unable to pursue their trade to the point where many will spend more time working in bars and restaurants than on stages, occasionally breaking the tedium by becoming life models, supply teachers or, if the time is right, Santa Claus.
Stage work has become even harder to obtain following the pandemic, since many producers seem intent on keeping cast numbers to a minimum and then, to add insult to injury as last week’s column demonstrated, shipping in film and TV stars from overseas. On the plus side, there are more outlets for their work including corporate gigs, TV radio and film and now online projects, although it is unlikely that many in this last category pay at all, let alone well.
Even so, large numbers of enthusiastic youngsters seem set on a life in theatre, fed by memoirs of those who hit the heights. Strangely, there are very few autobiographies written by budding actors who eventually cut their losses to become bank clerks or civil servants.
Anyone who is desperate to act but rejects this opportunity is likely to regret the decision for life. A middle ground compromise for a budding actor could be to train and then allocate a fixed period of 2 to 3 years during which they pursue their dream with vigour and enthusiasm.
If, by then, they have managed to spend a year touring with the latest Goes Wrong production then landed a minor part in the West End before catching the eye of Steven Spielberg for a leading role in his latest blockbuster, all well and good.
In most cases, the more practical solution, if things don’t go to plan and starvation can no longer be fended off, might be to attempt a more lucrative and steady day job, reserving those abundant creative skills for amdram productions supplemented by a week or two in Edinburgh every August feeding the addiction and pleasing audiences while emptying the bank account.