A new documentary challenges the lack of working-class representation in theatre head on, says LEN PHELAN
AT THE age of 17, I successfully auditioned for the E15 Acting School in London to train as an actor.
The school had developed out of the work of Joan Littlewood’s legendary Theatre Workshop, which transformed British theatre by bringing working-class experience, performed by working-class actors, to the stage, TV and cinema.
For a working-class lad from Liverpool in the 1970s, it was a no-brainer to go there. Yet I didn’t take up the place, settling instead for the “insurance policy” of a degree.
But, after graduating, I won a place on a two-year acting course at another top-drawer theatre school. For five years, my fees and living expenses for higher education and vocational training were paid for by my local authority.
That experience, as The Acting Class documentary tellingly demonstrates, is beyond the wildest dreams of many aspirant working-class performers today.
Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill’s film follows the (mis)fortune of Tom Stocks who, unable to save enough to afford E15’s postgraduate fees, has set up the Actor Awareness campaign to challenge the lack of opportunities for working-class actors.
A number of them — evidently gifted but with very limited career prospects — also feature in the documentary, along with well-known performers like Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh.
What the film exposes is that the “class ceiling” in British theatre is as impenetrable as ever. While nearly seven out of 10 British Oscar-winners are privately educated, for those at the other end of the scale the reality of forging a career is very different — “There’s no lead actor from the working class or person of colour playing Hamlet in London,” Eccleston wryly comments.
Apart from the costs of training, as a working actor — and 90 per cent are unemployed at any one time — if you’re hard up the high financial outlay of casting directories, photo shoots and travelling to auditions mean that working-class actors “fall off the map.”
The consequences of this class cleansing — and the sense that the acting profession is “not for the likes of us” is a recurring motif in Acting Class — is evident in much of the mainstream product on TV and films.
For every I, Daniel Blake there’s a Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge.
Such gilded ideological constructs featuring the plummy-voiced upper class are hugely popular in the US.
But the irony, as Eccleston eloquently explains, is that: “We’ve set America up as our example. What they like about us is the royal family but we’re buying their telly, which is a critique of their society in series like Breaking Bad.”
The litany of blighted aspirations revealed in this documentary — and it’s particularly resonant in highlighting the underpinning issue of class in the lack of diversity in race, gender and sexuality in the performing arts — is compounded by working-class kids having little formative experience of the arts because of cuts to the school curriculum or the eye-watering costs of a theatre ticket.
“They don’t want us to be educated and have artistic inspiration,” Peake says, and the consequences for theatre surviving and thriving as a truly popular art form, reflecting every aspect of human experience — as it was in Shakespeare’s time — are bleak.
“It will become the preserve of the ruling classes again,” Hesmondhalgh comments.
This is a groundbreaking and passionately argued documentary. All the more reason, then, why the labour movement should exploit it as a consciousness-raising exercise which reinforces the positive direction of Labour’s manifesto commitment to the arts.
As Peake says: “Our duty is to tell the stories of this diverse country. We need to tell stories to progress and understand each other. Any great culture must come from working-class culture.”
Next time you’re watching a brain-dead costume drama, think about why people like Tom Stocks aren’t getting the chance to construct their narratives of the world and their place in it.