Thursday, 4 February 2010

Don't you know who the hell I am?

A successful acting career is a bit like alchemy. It involves luck, persistance, hard work, a thick skin, sometimes talent - but the precise formula is elusive and ever changing. It's also a bit like money. Once you have a fair amount of it, it's self-generating. The problem is starting out.

The rules used to be simple. Successful actors acted in film, high profile TV dramas or long running series, and to a lesser extent soaps, and once in a while dipped their toes in theatre through the National Theatre or the RSC or if they were really edgy, the Donmar Warehouse.

Actors who were starting out did commercials, student films, fringe theatre, and increasingly online entertainment. They worked for free (because they worked a non-acting job on the side to pay the bills). They were the cannon fodder of new writing.

Then the credit crunch happened. And also Brown's tinkering with tax relief on film production (he got rid of it). And the jobs disappeared. At first nothing much happened. People stayed put. A few actors moved to Hollywood. Some did very well. Dominic West in the Wire, Hugh Laurie in House, the list goes on...

The others stayed put some more. But the jobs didn't come back. So what do you think happened? Successful actors downgraded... they started doing adverts, they started appearing in Fringe Theatre... and the audiences followed.

What a bonanza for the fringe theatres! After years of dwindling or absent subsidies and hard slog... finally success! Sold out runs. Big PR stories. Lots of press. What a bonanza for new writers! Finally a chance to fight back against the West End juggernauts!

I'm all for it of course, in theory. But where does this leave the rest of us who are just starting out? Out in the cold I'm afraid. And in February, it's a darn chilly place!

The bad news is that the numbers of aspiring actors will drop over the next few years. The waves of starry eyed new comers will swell every year but those who've been in the business for a few years will probably start looking at alternatives (casting, producing, writing, directing) or drop out of the business altogether and start a family and get a mortgage (or not).

The good news it that as there are too many actors, so a bit of market dynamic will separate the wheat from the chaff and leave the industry leaner and stronger for it. And when things pick up again, there'll be more jobs for those hardy few who've stuck it out.

In the meantime, next time you book your tickets to see Keira Knightley at the NT or Nicole Kidman taking her kit off - spare a thought for the actors who might have played the part better, albeit to a far smaller audience, who are condemned to another shift at the telemarketing job - or worse - a summer at Butlins.

There's only one thing that's more unappealing than an out of work and desperate actor. And that's a whingeing actor. So what's the moral? There isn't one really. Afterall the Industry is called Show Business, not Show Art or Show Charity. It's about luck, persistence, hard work, a thick skin... if you're not up for it, don't do it. Get a degree, get a proper job, raise a family... and be happy.

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