“Oh, you are still doing the acting are you? Oh right.” Always the tone of surprise. Of course I’m fairly used to people in general being surprised that I am a professional actress and not a professional Box Office Assistant with a sideline in theatre, but one has to wonder why? Why, after generations of theatrical and cultural activity does it still come as a surprise that many of us pursue a professional career in performance?
You would have thought, given the billions of people who devour films and West End smash hits, that perceptions of the industry would have moved on somewhat. And yet still it is viewed as a luxury, a mere indulgence and a profession only for those few established superstars who have become household names, not little Joe Blogs who’s lived round the corner from you since he was young enough to be entertained by a tent made out of a sheet.
Yes, of course a piece of theatre isn’t as fundamentally vital to our existence as, say, food production, but it doesn’t follow that it should be dismissed. The easiest point to make is that the arts, screen work and music in particular, brings in masses of revenue to the country and are one of our bigger and better-known exported commodities. What do we all do when we get home from work? Flick on the TV or stick on our favourite film to relax, shrug off the day’s worries and escape for a little while. And how do we really treat ourselves? By physically going to see these things live – theatre, stand-up, music concerts, art galleries.
These things aren’t necessary for survival but are definitely one of the staples of human existence. They stop us from becoming mere machines. They give us a means of expression; they can change worlds and instill hope. They unite communities. When times get hard we invest in those luxuries because they boost our morale and carry us through. It is then that they (and the people who create them) become necessary luxuries. The best example is the stars who were (and still are) recruited to entertain the troops in times of war. When penny-squeezing authorities are shelling out on high-flying entertainers it really tells you something. You don’t see them hiring your local am-dram society.
So what about the people behind these necessary luxuries? Are they sensible accountants and I.T. technicians who perform on the side? No. They are skilled professionals who devote their time and energy to providing valuable and much-used services to whole societies. They are people who have chosen to enliven us, to cheer us, to move us and to inspire us as a career. Unfortunately, many find it difficult to make a sustainable living from performing, which may go some way towards explaining why people are surprised at it being a career choice. But for the most part I’m still left wondering why. Why, when the lives of so many are affected so directly and so constantly by what we do, do we remain so overwhelmingly unacknowledged as skilled professionals?
Perhaps we simply forget that it’s not just one giant leap from making shadow puppets in a homemade tent to being a successful film star with a string of credits longer than a year’s shopping list. Perhaps we forget that years of hard work go into the entertainment industry, just like any other career and that we don’t just play around and have a bit of fun. Perhaps we forget that Joe Blogs is just as likely to be a skilled artist as a great mathematician. Perhaps we forget that those famous few were once the kid down the road too, entertained with a tent made out of a sheet.