What do I tell my young performers when they ask me if they should go into the performing arts industry?
Melanie Stamp, head of drama at Taunton School in Somerset, writes about the conflict in the mind of a drama teacher when a student says that he or she wants to make a career in the performing arts industry.
There has always been an uneasy conflict in the mind of a drama teacher when a student has said that he or she wants to make a career in performing. On the one hand, as teachers, we are keen to encourage talented kids to go out into the world and succeed. Yet on the other, we know that the industry is brutal and elitist. Many bright prospects will get nowhere, and even those who do find a good agent and land a role early on have zero job security. One minute they will be rising stars and the next they could be pulling pints. They will need to have the hide of a rhino to take the rejections and personal comments flung at them.
This explains why, when a mum or dad asks me what their child needs in order to have a future in performing, I start off by saying ‘You!’ The most important thing we can offer a child who aspires to become a professional performer is a fantastic support network, spanning parents, friends and teachers. Together we must prepare them technically and emotionally for auditions, help them learn their lines, scoop them up after they are rejected, and give them the resilience and self-belief they need to go back and try again.
The above has long been well known and accepted. However, recently, the industry has been set ablaze by revelations which are far more disturbing than the old clichés about out-of-work actors waiting tables. From the Harvey Weinstein case to the BBC pay scandal, and the recent findings in The Stage (the theatre industry media site) that 40% of all theatre workers - be they backstage hands, make-up artists, technical teams or actors - have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, with 67% saying that they have been subject to some form of work place bullying, the stream of awful news has been unrelenting.
To make matters worse, the tarnishing of the industry’s reputation at the top has happened in the context of its erosion as a curriculum subject at the bottom, at least in the UK. Recent government reforms have rendered the study of drama in schools more theoretical. And there is an undeniable STEM bias in certain parts of the media. How, then, do I guide young people into the subject, and onwards to a career?
I tell them this - theatre is changing fast and is more relevant and important now than it ever has been.
I remind them that theatre is how society has always challenged ideas and explored the established order of things. From its inception in Ancient Greece, theatre has addressed ground breaking ideas such as democracy and women’s rights. One of our current set texts at A-level, Sophocles’ Antigone, is the story of a young woman challenging the establishment to do what she feels is right - isn’t that what we should encourage all of our young people to do?
Only by nurturing this habit of questioning the status quo can we end the corruption of the industry and save it for a new generation.
I tell my students that now is the best time to start a new kind of performing industry, one built on truth, talent and inclusivity. One which celebrates our cultural and political differences as well as our heritage. One which does not shy away from difficult themes.
In a world where technology is becoming ubiquitous and human interaction an increasingly rarefied thing, theatre is a vital medium by which to understand and explore the human condition. New companies such as Paperbirds, Shared Experience and Alecky Blythe’s Verbatim theatre are leading the way to create a theatre of truth in a world peppered with fake news.
It is true that going into the industry is not the attractive prospect that it once was. The glamour of Hollywood is fading. Netflix, Amazon Prime and On Demand services mean that there are fewer big opportunities for superstar actors to come to the fore. Netflix is doing for the Theatre industry what streaming and downloading did for the music industry in the mid 00’s. But what appeared then as the end of the music industry has actually moulded it in to something far less elitist and more organic. It is time for the film and theatre industry to embrace the challenge and shape its new direction, with greater access for audiences and actors, and greater opportunities for all to try new ventures.
Now is the time to encourage our young people to take theatre in a new direction for the future they want to see. It is an exciting time. Women are speaking out about harassment and pay divides, the casting couch has been burnt. Young men and women must seize their chance to create the theatre that we need in society now. This is what I will be telling my students.