We look at how class plays into the lives of performing artists, specifically actors, and what does it mean for shaping culture through media. By examining the realities of a career as a performer, we talk about why it’s important for diverse viewpoints to stick around for the long game.
The Reality of Performing Artists
Interviewing and pitching clients is part and parcel with any creative career, especially if you’re independent. But for performers, there are a few factors that when combined, make the economics of staying in the profession particularly difficult (which of course, includes getting low-balled like all other creatives).
- Training: just as being a photographer isn’t just about clicking a shutter button, being a performer isn’t as simple as doing your best impression or showing off your best dance moves.
- Maintenance as Lifestyle: One key to getting repeat or more lucrative work is specializing in a given style or role. Depending on the demands (either of physicality or difficulty, for instance) that means adjusting an entire lifestyle towards the maintenance of their primary creative tools: their body and their mental health.
- Pay-to-Play: Staying in the game costs money independent of maintaining the aforementioned healthy lifestyle. This applies whether you live and work in a place that has strong industry regulation that includes guilds (labor unions) or, like Hong Kong, where there’s little to no support.
- High Rejection Rates: Rejection comes from all kinds of factors independent of how well someone auditions. Even if a performer learns to cope with it as a matter of life, the reality is each rejection means one less paycheck.
- Constant Spec Work: Auditions are similar to design contests in that you have to rehearse and train to shape yourself to compete with others for the approval of the client (i.e. casting director). Combined with the aforementioned high-rejection rates, this results in a lot of free work that might not be used at all.
- Job-to-job: Full-time roles are limited as well, unless you’re able to join a theatre or dance company, a media company as a host or, subject to qualifications, behind-the-scenes or administrative roles.
- Career Limitations: Constantly keeping schedules flexible to allow for model castings, auditions and ideally, important but high-commitment “plum” roles means performers frequently work other jobs where they may have to artificially cap hours or aspirations.
Why this matters
You might not watch live theater or watch movies, but these mediums have institutional power that retains a lot of influence over the creative output of a given society and what the public sees. And since the audience is effectively the market for creatives, their culturally-shaped tastes, affect which stories get ordered to be made, how many roles are created and which performers get hired.
It’s worth mentioning that the competition for limited roles has also sparked debate over race and nationality (specifically between the US and UK) at the Hollywood level. Yet, the class-wide decline of actors from certain backgrounds is an issue that can have long-term consequences.
Scottish actor James McAvoy, himself the son of a builder and psychiatric nurse, put himself through drama school working at a bakery. Although he emphasizes he has no beef with the success of actors educated at prestigious schools, he warns of what happens when only one group of people become responsible for all the artistic output:
“That’s a frightening world to live in, because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part, and that’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”
Regardless of the creative field involved, we think it’s important that people get onto a career path that aligns with their aptitudes and passions. The issue is even when both of those are present, not everyone has the same socio-economic opportunities to carry them out all the way, whether that means going through the formal education route that leads to a career after or learning on the job.
It’s not a simple matter of being able to afford individual items like new drawing tools or dance classes in the early stages once you’ve decided to pursue a creative career. It also means having the means to support yourself between dry spells to stay in the game for the long term once you start working.
Even as working creative professionals continue to struggle with the validation of the industry, we likewise have to be wary of the next generation of creative storytellers having opportunities to make their voices heard by being hired. We often talk of the need for diverse viewpoints in the media and the need for stories to be told by different people as well — not just in terms of what they look like, but the circumstances they came from that enrich their work in ways you just can’t imitate.