A rich kid’s playground? GUEST BLOG

For obvious reasons, ‘Class Diversity’ within The Arts is an incredibly rousing subject, and here at THE ACTORS PAD we have received an amazing amount of messages on the issue. We’d like to thank the author of this latest GUEST BLOG for adding a very personal and honest contribution. 

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A rich kid’s playground? By SAMANTHA LYDEN

There has been a lot in the media lately about class inequality amongst actors. Particularly when it comes to the plight of the working class actor. So as an actor from a working class background, I thought I would give my pennies worth (excuse the pun) on my experiences in the industry.

If I were to try and pin point what puts actors from a working class background at a disadvantage, it is of course a lot to do with money and therefore the options available to them. But I think it’s too general a statement just to say it’s about finances. I believe what is really lacking, is bigger than that and it starts from the ground up.

In my opinion, when it comes inequality in the business, it is down to accessibility. Whether that means from a mental point of view, with regards to being educated on routes into the industry, or whether it means you are given physical opportunities. I believe to working class kids, the industry is still very much an enigma.  It’s not like I didn’t have supportive parents, because I did and it’s not even so much about the money (which of course helps) it was just as much about knowing where to start.

There is no ‘yellow brick road’ on offer into the industry at all. You can’t go to university and then just become and actor because you have a degree in drama, nor could you an agent or a casting director for that matter. It’s a closed shop, only open to those in the know.

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If (as in my case) your mum worked in retail and your dad was a builder and you went to the local comp, which wasn’t very big on The Arts. Then how could someone like me, become an actor? Culturally there was very much an attitude of incredulousness from many of my peers, if I even dared utter that I would like to be an actor. Looking back I don’t even think it was ill meaning or coming from a place of jealousy. It was more about the implausibility of it all in their eyes. It wasn’t an industry that ‘people like us’ or should I say people we knew went into and everyone knows it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, right? And I didn’t know anyone!

With no one at home or in my circle with any experience, I naturally turned to my school for guidance. But my school didn’t have it’s own working film studio to offer like Eton and there was no one within it’s walls, who had the remotest experience of working in the field, to offer me any pearls of wisdom. In fact, I remember so clearly in my one and only ‘careers advice’ meeting; explaining passionately what it was I wanted to do, only to be met with an offering of a work experience place at Dorothy Perkins…

In the end, I think I got there through blind faith to be honest, of course backed by the immeasurable love and support of my family, which in itself is priceless and supersedes any financial resource or class stigma. I was also lucky enough to happen upon what I believe to be one of the best youth theatres in the country, BIG SPIRIT – based locally to me then, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. It was then and still is, run by the hugely amiable and experienced Rory Reynolds. For the first time in my life I had a mentor, someone who could shine a light on this impenetrable profession that I so wanted a piece of.  After joining the group, he quickly organised a meeting with an agent, who took me on and offered me my first taste of life as a jobbing actor and I haven’t looked back.

However I realise now what a fortuitous turn of events that was, and how so many young working class actors would have given up on the idea a long time ago, whom perhaps may not have had such a nurturing home life, or as naïve an optimism as I, because the lack of opportunity didn’t stop there…

At 17, when the time came for me to decide on further education, despite good results at A level, I made the decision, advised by Rory, to steer away from university and go for a place at drama school for my best chance at my dream of becoming a professional actor – even though I had no clue how we would afford it if I were to get in! However even attempting this came at a cost. £35 a pop I believe and it’s even more now! Being the eldest of 4 children all 2 years apart in age and from a family of modest means, my mother kindly said that I could pick my top 3 to apply to, because that was all she could afford in the interest of being fair to my siblings (all of whom were still in education) and at a total £105, that was fair enough to me!

Unfortunately, despite getting on the waiting list for Webber Douglas (since closed down) a place didn’t become available and so my shot at further education and breaking into a useful network was denied. Luckily for me, I still had an agent from my youth theatre days and I continued to work sporadically professionally, garnering what I would call a vocational training, assisted by some short courses at places like The City Lit and The Actors Centre, as and when I could set aside enough money from my then job at Morrisons.

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I did however, have the undeniable benefit of being able to remain living at home rent free, whilst I continued to take punts on auditions which sometimes paid off and sometimes didn’t. Part of that was just geographical potluck, in that I grew up in a satellite town of London. But the point is living at home is a luxury, it’s still a type of funding, all be it in kind, which many working class kid’s parents would not be able to offer and even if they could, the hub of the industry remains in London so it wouldn’t help all those people who weren’t lucky enough to be from the surrounding area.

Another thing that any actor will tell you, is that you need the financial freedom and space to be able to be in artist, to stay in the game. Without it, you are guaranteed to fail, purely because you won’t have the advantage of time to both hone your skills and throw enough mud at the wall until some sticks!  Yes there are work experience opportunities available, again, only if you know where to look. But most of them are unpaid or if you’re lucky expenses are on offer, however once again you have to be in a position to afford to do this!

With such a struggle from the outset, initially just for guidance and direction on how to break into the industry, not to mention the financial boundaries and limitations on those from a working class background, is it really any wonder that those from privileged backgrounds are often leaps and bounds ahead of you, before you’ve even had the chance to look up and smell the audition?!

I believe the reason so many people are talking about the industry being elitist and full of privately educated, middle and upper class kids, is because it is! The way things are set up right now; it would be the most likely background scenario for any individual to have made it this far. It’s a perpetual problem; fuelled by money and lack of education. An exclusive merry-go-round, which seems to be spinning far to fast and sure to leave room for any would-be newcomers to jump on, without a fight.

So what am I saying? I guess I’m saying, don’t get mad at Eddie or Benedict it’s not their fault, it’s just the archaic system that needs revising. If I could have gone to Harrow or Eton, I would have too! Acting is a notoriously competitive industry anyway, with many other variables outside of class, but it’s about making it as level of a playing field as it can be, so that regardless of our backgrounds, we all stand a fair chance at doing the job we love. As a wise man once said, ‘don’t hate the player hate the game.’

The best solution I can see, is for the government to offer more means tested subsidy and grants to those in need and better education in all schools and not just independent ones, about the options available to you if you wish to pursue a career in acting.  Relationships between schools and youth theatres are key and should also be developed, so that students know about groups in the area. There should be more regularly funded Youth Theatres as an entry point to all. Arts organisations also have an obligation to encourage the next generation to be from all walks of life, by offering PAID internships and work experience places so that those opportunities don’t continue to only be occupied by those from wealthier backgrounds. Perhaps this in turn would alleviate the attitude, that being an actor isn’t possible for ‘people like us.’

By Samantha Lyden


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