An actress I’ve recently been working with has been regaling me with some wonderful tales of a lifetime in theatre. Hers is an illustrious career which has provided her with a surfeit of anecdotes ranging from the hilarious to the downright bizarre. Her stories have helped to pass long journeys on tour, and I’ve been entertained, enthralled and at times, amazed.
One of the more poignant insights she has shared has really got me thinking about the nature of our profession as a lifestyle choice. On this very platform Filskit Theatre recently wrote very eloquently about the fading novelty of the artist on the road – forced to adjust to a diet of Boots Meal Deals, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the standard room layout of budget hotel chains and longs for a home-cooked meal in the company of his loved ones.
It’s a way of life I have come to know well and accept as an inescapable part of the actor’s profession. The sad truth my colleague had observed was that in all her years in theatre she had seen a real shift within the creative community. No one was settling down anymore. No one was getting married, having children or getting mortgages – the actor’s way of life had become solitary, even anonymous. Collectively we had compromised for our art and subscribed to the bohemian existence of the wandering minstrel, with no ties to bind us either geographically or emotionally.
Now it must be said that this is not a universal truism. Many of us have strong relationships and family support networks and are able to strike a healthy balance. I’ve also met actors who claim to love the touring lifestyle. It’s a great way to see the world, to learn your craft and to gain a variety of experiences, but I’ve always needed stability. As an actor I am characteristically insecure and I need the love of my family infinitely more than the adulation of an audience. The uncertainty of my future is the cross I have to bear and it will always be difficult for me to promise the security my loved ones deserve.
The real problem is the lack of understanding and support of these needs in the industry. Equity fights for us to receive approved contracts and pension plans, and to stop people selling their services for free in an attempt to stamp out the exploitative elements of the business; in essence, it campaigns for actors to receive the rights of any other working professional. But the self-employed will always live a precarious existence, in which it is impossible to plan more than a month in advance and every opportunity must be seized to prepare for a potential dearth of options in the future.
My associate’s personal experiences as a wife and mother were what really hit home for me. Whether it was the community spirit of actors bringing their children to rehearsals in days gone by (evidently commonplace back then, but hard to comprehend by today’s standards) to babysitting for each other, even popping backstage to feed a baby mid performance, there is no provision for this kind of behaviour in modern theatre and as a result, people simply don’t do it.
The decision to perhaps take a couple of years out to have a baby can be a career-crippling move for an actress still making a name for herself, and with no maternity cover specified in short term contracts it’s often an option which is completely unviable. Relationships between actors on either side of the country in separate touring jobs can easily become strained, not to mention the professional jealousy that can often spring from such partnerships. It’s a sad thought that one can easily enjoy a successful lifetime in the arts and retire having never made any meaningful commitments along the way.
So ours is a vocation riddled with compromise, but a career is only what you make of it. You don’t have to live entirely at the mercy of fate – each decision is yours and yours alone. There are surely more creatives in the world now than there have ever been and the competition is fierce, but there’s an equally large support network out there if you want to engage with it. Whether it’s through online forums such as A Younger Theatre or making friends within the business, there are others everywhere sharing the same woes. For us to be an acting community again, we need to pull together – by offering a sofa to friend in need, helping to publicise a fringe production, even babysitting each other’s kids. In my experience actors are the most incredibly supportive people onstage, and it’s a virtue we must espouse offstage too.
Image credit: Sarah Macmillan.