Where are the Working Class Actors?

After reading a blog post by my friend Abbie about the elitism surrounding drama schools [which has now been taken down], and a few other articles, I thought I’d weigh in on perhaps why the industry seems saturated with middle-class actors, and isn’t as diverse in class and background as it once used to be.

Theatre of the seventies and eighties used to be full of actors and writers who were not only unheard of, but came from working-class backgrounds. The Liverpool Everyman Theatre Company is perhaps the beacon for this, being the starting ground for writer Willy Russell (Blood Brothers, Shirely Valentine), and actors Julie Walters and Bill Nighy. The Everyman Rep aimed to show new theatre based around gritty social issues which appealed to a new generation of theatre goers who wanted to see real-life reflected back at them, and of course the only way to do this was to hire and cast talent which came from that background, and was passionate about having their lives be shown on stage.
These decades were a thriving time for socialist theatre. Think Educaing Rita,and Boys from the Black Stuff.

ev 74
The Everyman Theatre Company, 1974. Julie Walters is centre.

But things have changed. Repertory companies have almost-disappeared. It is very hard for an aspiring working-class actor to get a break. As mentioned in Abbie’s post, drama schools are becoming increasingly more expensive, and the competition for scholarships is getting fiercer. It is hard to succeed in an expensive industry when you don’t have two pennies to rub together. Julie Walters recently said “people like me wouldn’t get the chance today”. And it certainly seems that way.

The stars of the eighties were Gary Oldman and Pete Postlethwaite, but now we see the likes of Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch grace our stage and screen. The latter two most certainly are not from the kind of background Walters is from. Hiddleston was educated at the Dragon School, a private school in Oxford which also educated Harry Potter star Emma Watson, before moving on to Eton, Cambridge, and finally, RADA. Cumberbatch, similarly, attended Eton’s rival, Harrow, before completing a degree at Manchester and an MA from LAMDA. The big names of today are very well-educated and come from affluent backgrounds with a lot of connections; it is a lot easier to succeed when you do not have to worry about finances and whether people actually know your name.

But, is this change instead down to what the public want to see on their screens? In the eighties with Margaret Thatcher as PM the country was in riots and anger, it was the prime time for socialist theatre to flourish and actors without the RP/BBC accent to finally have their moment to shine. However, as the years have gone by and society has changed completely due to technology, the types of media and entertainment we are consuming are much different. Nowadays, our entertainment is based around watching people who are better-off than us and have lies we would like to have, that are perhaps sensationalised and celebrity-filled. Think Keeping Up With the Kardashians, TOWIE, and Made in Chelsea. Maybe this is why we are seeing a saturation of upper-class actors on our stages and screens – we have moved back into the real of escapism, and wanting to see lives which most definitely bare no resemblance to our own. In terms of theatre, with prices always increasing, maybe theatre audiences are just seeing someone of their own status on stage…

Do we prefer glossy entertainment to hard-hitting social/political theatre?

On the other hand, there is the issue of education. Unfortunately in my experience, coming from a state school in a poor area, the arts aren’t prioritised or given as much funding compared to the more academic subjects such as humanities and languages. Because of this, there are less timetabled-hours given to drama, dance, and music, less teachers, and less resources to enable students to fully explore and develop, even produce work, in these areas. Thus, students from these schools aren’t given the opportunity to become enamoured with the arts and enjoy it enough to want to pursue a career in them. The stigma around the arts also contributes. We are told from an increasingly younger age that careers in the arts are “soft” will “get us nowehere” and that arts subjects at school are not “academic enough” meaning that only “thick people” take them. Whilst it is true that drama may not be as academically rigorous as, say, mathematics, there is no denying that it is still an intellectually stimulating subjects, especially when taught right. If we change not only the funding, but the attitudes of many teachers and education ministers to the arts, we may see an increase in interest and pupils realising that there are viable careers to come out of the arts sector.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, a lot of money is given to theatrical productions, choirs, and other artistic endeavours at schools such as Eton and Harrow. Of course, money is helpful, but along with finances, a sense of appreciation and respect for the arts is instilled in their students, meaning they have a completely different view of the arts. We all know Cumberbatch’s first role was as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Harrow, and it’s no wonder people like Hugh Grant, Carey Mulligan, and Kate Winlset who all went to private schools, have done as well as they have.

What’s your view about this? Is it due to funding in education, what the public want to see, or casting directors being class-ist? Or is it all just a big coincidence, and talent alone is what has made these actors rise?


Articles about this same issue:






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