Are actors marginal?

Abigail Anderson, 27 January 2013

Some people who joined in this conversation: Denise Heinvich Lane, David Cottis, Annie Fitzmaurice, Loren O'Dair, Lizzie Franks, Andrew Piper, Dan, Nicola, Janet M

I'm Abi Anderson, a director, and convened this session in partnership with an actor friend Chris Naylor who then wasn't able to attend. “Marginal” is an ambiguous word (Chris said it, not me!) so for the purposes of discussion I decided it might refer to both “disempowerment” but also “not central”.

The discussion kicked off with three directors and we shared anecdotes about how actors aren't marginal because you can't make a show without them and that a casting error can totally hi-jack your show, but that we have to take responsibility for that. We were joined by actors and casting continued to be central to the whole discussion, in fact, one key point being the numbers game - there are just so many actors. This can lead to them feeling like/being treated like commodities i.e exchangeable, disposable. The way that casting processes tend to work exacerbates this and there was plenty of personal experience to share of this from both directors' and actors' points of view. Are auditions the best way to cast shows and construct companies? Very hard to change to the way the industry works and actors/agents suspicion of the process and reluctance to engage can be as unhelpful as lack of care from the casting department. We discussed varied patterns of casting including workshop auditions of which there were many pros and cons discussed. Mutual respect, a sharing of information and skills by both parties was felt to be the ideal and that best practice should be observed. (I remember writing a list of recommendations for best practice in casting at the very first D&D, that's a bit depressing that it's all still the same).

Lots of younger actors now are leaving their training and creating their own work which is very empowering so there's less of the attitude of waiting for the phone to ring. This should be positive but can lead to a two tier system with actors feeling they still don't have access to the “official” industry.

Drama schools still seem to be moulding actors to learn to please, not necessarily be their own person and fulfill their potential.

If actors are so important to the industry (which they clearly are) and are the most numerous sector, why are they not running the industry? Especially when, historically, they used to... (that question is really helpful and thinking about it is in itself is the most important thing).

Things that might be holding actors back from positions of power:

  • insecurity of the industry: short contracts with long gaps in between does nothing for your ability to step up to
  • the plate and take responsibility when you get the chance
  • no sense of ownership of where you are in any given theatre or company as you're not there for long enough
  • on the back foot creatively because so many decisions are made before you get there (even on casting breakdowns!)
  • industry is now full of middle men: casting directors, agents etc holding actors back from direct communication with those in power and being in charge of their own careers
  • there so many more actors now compared to the past

  • structures/organisations that already exist find it harder to accept as a leader someone who is not a director
  • not all actors want to have any major degree of power such as be an Artistic Director or a producer
  • agents are deemed to be your ‘official’ representative to the industry so you have no direct contact with those people you might be working with as collaborators - they keep you out of the loop and it is not considered appropriate for you to break that
  • casting horror stories and horror stories about bad treatment can debilitate you
  • make your peace with the downsides of the industry and don't let it make you bitter, something might be rude but there's no point holding on to it. Cynicism and frustration don't make it easy to take responsibility

Things that might help combat a feeling of disempowerment:

  • more rep companies with through casting across a season which allow an actor to stay and work in one place and develop relationships, take part in the work of a building in more than simply the role of performer
  • better practice being observed over casting by those undertaking the casting (in particular, the issue of a phone call to say that you didn't get the job was a hot topic) - Spotlight Online has changed the way casting works - is it set up to be as mutually respectful and efficient as possible? also are there are ways to access it and make it work for you through your agent?
  • you feel more relaxed about a process when you understand it, so maybe drama schools should send their students on placements to casting directors as part of their training?
  • producers being more thoughtful about how credits are given in programmes, especially for devised work
  • ensembles, long-term relationships with collaborators and co-ops are what seem to really help

Random thoughts:

  • actors CAN get a director fired, it's not always the other way round
  • why is an actor wanting to do a lead role in a play considered to be more of a vanity project than a director wanting to direct something specific?
  • why do certain actors become helpless and hopeless in certain situations (such as costume malfunctions) when they would be perfectly capable in their every day lives of dressing themselves/getting to a rehearsal room etc? Responses included treating Stage Managers as your colleagues not your servants, it's worse in TV (unionisation can mean you are afraid to touch anything that is not your job), a part of you needs to remain open/vulnerable/childlike in order to do your acting job well and this can be hard to disengage from.

Thanks to all who took part in the discussion. The question came from a deep love and respect for actors and a genuine curiosity as to why they are not in general more central to the creative process and structural part of the way our industry works. I know we didn't solve anything but hopefully questioning the status quo is always useful.


casting, directors, Casting, Spotlight, actors, Actors, agents, ensemble