Some reflections on actor training, inequality, casting and industry

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Recent debates about the acting industry and its (in)ability to deal with inequality resonate deeply with me. Not only as a theatre and performance scholar concerned with issues of class, race and gender representation, but as a former performer, and, perhaps more importantly, trainee performer. Reading the #DearWhiteCentral posts, the Labour party’s Acting Up report, the tweets, blogs and comments from students, actors, teachers, agents and directors — as well as conducting my own research into actor training and inequality — prompts me to reflect on my experiences of training as a performer, and particularly of the understanding of industry and my place within it that I absorbed during training.

My performer training started young. I danced from the age of four or five: tap, jazz and modern, once a week on Friday evening. Later, once I realised dance was not my calling, I moved into acting. Throughout my childhood and teens I ‘trained’ in various ways: I took classes, I was a member of several youth theatres, I performed in numerous school plays, and I eventually attended both a university, where I undertook some specialist actor training modules, and a conservatoire, where I focussed on screen acting.

Being part of a theatre community, performing in shows, developing and devising work with my friends and peers, and thinking and writing about theatre, have been life-long and identity forming experiences for me. At the places where I connected most with my creative self, where I felt most ‘at home’, we didn’t really think about ‘industry’ in any real sense. We were too busy making the work we wanted to make and feeling elevated, supported and finally seen by one another. But during my burgeoning love affair with the theatre there were also many experiences with teachers and institutions that felt altogether less nurturing, supportive and community-building. Invariably, looking back, these were experiences where ‘industry’ (by which I mean the mainstream film, television and theatre industry) was evoked in one way or another.

It’s difficult, if you haven’t been exposed to that kind of institution, to that way of thinking about art, to describe exactly how the concept of ‘industry’ filters into performer training. It is a more or less ‘invisible’ part of the curriculum. It might involve a passing reference to ‘professionalism’ (usually to silence dissent), or a discussion about your ‘casting’. It often involves workshops or seminars with ‘industry professionals’.  It certainly involves understanding work in commercial mainstream theatre, television and film (and leading subsidised theatres) as the apex of a respectable acting career.

The first experience I remember having of this kind of ‘invisible training’  was aged five, when my dance teacher took me to one side and said, ‘You need to pull your socks up. This behaviour is unprofessional.’ I remember this so clearly because it was a line I had overheard her using on other little girls. Other five-year-olds. So unable to grasp, aged five, the concept of professionalism, that many of them actually bent down and tried to pull up their literal socks.

It set a pattern that would become familiar. For my first ‘professional’ audition (God knows what for), a youth theatre I was part of took a group of us to a central London stage school where we took workshops before we went to read for the casting director. These workshops were held by adults who, we were warned, were ‘professionals’. One hauled me out in front of the entire group of fifty or so other young people to point out how miserable I looked. He used me as an example — reminding us all that looking anything other than perky and relaxed would make us ‘un-castable’. I was thirteen, and this ‘professional’ was a man in his thirties. I was so embarrassed I seriously considered never performing again.

Later, at university and especially in drama school, tutors would offer thoughts about my ‘casting type’. ‘Council estate,’ said one during a private critique. ‘That’s all you’ll be able to play.’ While another told me, in front of my peers, that I’d likely find myself cast as ‘abused women’ (the fact I was in an abusive relationship at the time was a secret that only added to my shame in the moment). At the wedding of an actor friend I attended a few years after graduating, the director of a well-known training institution approached me after the ceremony. ‘You’ll work.’ He said. ‘You have a very commercial face, for something like Casualty.’ I had not even introduced myself to this man, and had, in fact, left the acting profession by this point.

Voice classes, camera technique, dance and movement, acting interpretation: we were constantly reminded (although never explicitly) that, eventually, we would be in service to an industry that expected certain things and would position us in particular ways.

At an audition workshop I took at drama school, a casting director who worked for the BBC had us perform a scene in which a young woman had just been raped (there was no warning that we’d be dealing with this material, and no acknowledgement that some of us might find it triggering or otherwise difficult). He wanted us to emote hysterically at the camera. ‘No,’ I said. ‘She isn’t hysterical. She is in shock, she’s being calm and rational here.’

‘You’ll never work with that attitude,’ was the response. ‘You give the casting director what they are asking for.’

The pervasive spectre of industry was a seriously limiting feature of my creative development. Rather than flourish into the kind of performer I had hoped to be, rather than take risks, innovate or experiment, I found myself, time and time again, powerless in the glare of other people’s versions of me; other people’s versions of ‘industry’s’ version of me. There was rarely a sense that I had any agency to resist this image of myself. The fact that the industry I was preparing for peddled, very often, in racist, classist, misogynistic stereotypes did not once feature as part of any actor training I undertook.

My decision not to have a career as a performer stems, in large part, from the cumulative effects of my exposure to the mainstream acting industry, which was only worse once I graduated and started attending auditions. The end game of all of them, of course, was to act like the version of the part the casting director, producer or director wanted. In that sense, my training had prepared me well. But I was increasingly unable to do it, and eventually I suffered from such severe performance-anxiety that I would throw up before I had to go on stage.

What does it mean when we ask students to unquestioningly maintain industry norms? What happens when industry standards require actors from minority and disenfranchised groups to recreate representations that might work to sustain their disadvantage? What role does training play in maintaining the status quo?

In an academic paper I wrote recently I explored these questions in relation to a National Youth Theatre outreach project that I spent some time observing in 2010. But the criticisms I raise in that paper have wider implications. Reflecting on my own experience as a reasonably confident, slim, able-bodied white woman, I am surprised at how deeply my negative experiences of training affected me. This isn’t to suggest that I was not entitled to my emotional response, but rather to point out that if it was difficult for someone like me, who is normalised in the culture, to process the way my training projected stereotypes onto me, it is likely to be far more difficult for those whose bodies are already ‘other’. Before today I hadn’t put these memories together to form a coherent narrative. Of course, there are many paths in life, and I am grateful that I held on to the parts of the theatre and performance world that I loved, and that I have managed to have a career where I feel seen and creatively inspired. But I do wonder what kind of performer I might be now if we had been encouraged to resist the idea of industry. I wonder what kind of industry we’d have if actor training gave actors the critical tools to resist.

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Race, Racism and ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’

Press image from OFF THE ENDZ  Credit: Johan Persson/ArenaPAL
Press image from OFF THE ENDZ
Credit: Johan Persson/ArenaPAL

One of my research interests is in the genre of drama that journalist Lindsay Johns has pejoratively termed ‘Theatre of the Ghetto‘. This genre, according to Johns, is primarily ‘about guns, drugs and council estates’ and regularly depicts black people (particularly men) as inhabitants of unsavoury or troubled home environments and as the perpetrators or victims of crime.

‘Theatre of the Ghetto’, I would add, usually adheres to the conventions of social realism – where working class spaces are depicted with a close attention to detail in the set design, costume and staging. Plays that might fit into this category include Random* (debbie tucker green 2008 Royal Court), Off the Endz (Bola Agbaje 2010 Royal Court), The Westbridge (Rachel De-lahay 2011 Royal Court) and Estate Walls (Arinze Kene 2011 Ovalhouse).

It is easy to see why Johns is dissatisfied with the state of contemporary black British theatre, which again and again presents stereotypes of young black men, which reinforce racist conceptions of black masculinity that already circulate in the dominant culture. In many of the post-show talks and Q&As that I have attended after theatre (and indeed film) of the ‘ghetto’ events the question asked by audience members is: ‘what can we do about our young black men?’ Audiences (both black and white) appear to receive these works as truthful reflections of the total state of the young black British community, and respond by seeking methods to ‘fix’ the youth.

I think audiences are asking the wrong question – what we should be asking, especially in this period where the rise of the far right throughout Europe threatens to create and entrench divisions between racial and religious groups, is: ‘what can we do about racism?’ What can we do about racism, which operates to demonise groups of the population and which is so pervasive that it works through cultural intuitions such as theatre to reinforce its dangerous message?

Accusing mainstream theatres of racism is ethically complex, not least because most of the plays that fit the ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ mould are written by black writers, often claiming to reflect the ‘reality’ of the life of the black British community. And, after all, what right does a white woman such as me have to tell these writers what kind of theatre they should and shouldn’t be making? (Another good question.)

But of course – as is hardly ever publically acknowledged, particularly at the Royal Court, which emphasises the primacy of the playwright – plays have more than one author. The producers, directors, set designers and centrally, the funders of theatre also contribute to the overall meaning created by productions, and importantly, decide what gets made, and how.

What can we do about a system where, as playwright Arinze Kene has argued, black British playwrights are coerced into writing ‘the same old shit’, in the knowledge that these are the stories theatres want to stage?

Happily, there does seem to be a fledgling move towards mainstream theatres asking questions about the stories they produce. Over the past couple of years I have come across two especially powerful productions that place racism at the centre of the story, questioning ‘norms’ of the theatre industry in different ways.

The first is Nathaniel Martello-White’s play Blackta (Young Vic 2012), which explores the place of the black actor in the contemporary theatre industry. Blackta calls attention to the pressures young black men feel to live up to stereotypes of extreme masculinity – ‘homophobic, misogynistic, tough’ – and examines how the acting industry exploits and reinforces conventional depictions of black men.

The second is Arinze Kene’s God’s Property (Soho 2013), which subverts conventional ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ narratives, which often position black men as recidivist criminals. At the end of the play, the mixed-race Chima who has served a long prison sentence for the murder of his white girlfriend, Poppy, is revealed not to have killed her at all – he has covered for Poppy’s father, who killed her accidently, trying to attack Chima after becoming enraged that his daughter was carrying a black man’s baby.

Both of these examples mark an important, I think, way in which the theatre industry is starting to interrogate its own practices. Although, depressingly, after a showing of God’s Property at the Albany in Deptford, audiences were still asking, ‘what should we do about our young black men?’ A question which conveniently shifts the gaze away from those in power, who might be able to actually do something about the social problems caused by racial and economic inequality.

*although the unconventional staging of this play (on a sparse stage, a single black actress plays all the characters) means it isn’t really ‘social realism’.

With thanks to Charlotte Bell at Queen Mary University, whose question on my paper at the Seeing Like a City symposium prompted this blog.

If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on realism and the ethics of representation you might like to read articles I have written (and co-written) on the subject: here and here.