Is A Career In Acting Only For Those From Privileged Backgrounds?

What do actors such as Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, David Morrissey, and Andy Serkis have in common? They have all, among others, expressed concerns that a career as an actor is increasingly geared towards those from a privileged background and that working class talent is being priced out of the industry. Worrying? If talent is being held back by class, indeed it is.

One of the major issues is the price of attending drama school. Private drama schools such as Mountview charge £11,950 per academic year leaving students with a shortfall from the £9,000 that Student Finance covers. Required to subsidise the rest of the fee themselves,  there are very few students from working-class backgrounds able to do so. As a result the alumni of certain academies are increasingly dictated by background rather than merit or talent. Even those drama schools now affiliated with Universities and covered by Student Finance force upon students so much debt for a career which may not materialise.

“The thought of getting into that much debt is intimidating for many people wanting to get into acting”
–Dame Helen Mirren

An element that must not be overlooked is how the arts are being portrayed in compulsory education. Attempts have been made to downgrade such qualifications in past years sending the message to the more disadvantaged that a career in the arts is not worth the risk. The government offers funding to select organisations but offers no support to individuals beyond Student Finance. Grants, funds and bursaries are available to support students, however they are few and only reach a minority of those in need. Big names of the industry have been known to help out too. Judi Dench commented on the amount of letters received from drama school students asking for financial support, “You can do so much, but you can’t do an endless thing. It is very expensive.”

It is to an actors detriment that the majority of work is to be found in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in. In such a volatile industry where wages are often insubstantial and periods of unemployment are almost a certainty it is those with the bank of mum and dad who are more likely to afford hard times that prospective actors are most likely to suffer. Those from less privileged upbringings are instead forced to scrape and save to make ends meet if they are to persist in chasing the dream. Charitable organisations such as NYT (National Youth Theatre) among others offer invaluable experience to young actors. A testament to this is Helen Mirren’s comments that she “could only become an actress because of the existence of the National Youth Theatre”. But with so many actors noticing that the more privileged, public school educated actors are the ones breaking into the acting world, with a lack of working-class actors making the same impact, could more not be done?

Such a cry from talented and well respected actors must surely be listened to by the industry? Could the next Judi Dench, Helen Mirren or Julie Walters be lost because of their background? Will this be a wake-up call or will the already overcrowded industry feel it is getting along fine and just stand by and watch as talented young actors are lost? Nothing is certain and one can always hope, but only time will tell.

Image rights; Matthew Paulson, Tampa Theatre