It’s shocking to imagine that without the existence of student grants in the 1970s we could’ve been denied the immeasurable talents of Julie Walters. It’s even more shocking to think that somewhere in England right now, a 16 or 17-year-old working-class girl with a warm natural talent, is not pursuing her ambitions because of the cost.
As an actor who is a great admirer of the inimitable Ms Walters, I’m also acutely aware that, like her, I wouldn’t be where I am today if student grants hadn’t been available when I wanted to train. Like Julie, I was lucky enough to be provided with a full grant (coincidentally to the same drama school, Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre), allowing me to embark on a hand-to-mouth acting career mercifully free of debt.
Unlike Julie it’s taken me longer to make my mark and to achieve any major financial reward from my chosen profession. But now in my fifties I am busy, recognised and thankfully solvent. I’m also immensely proud to be Chairman of the Board of The Actors Centre in London – an organisation which Julie herself patronized for over ten years.
The Actors Centre’s an organisation at the front of the battle to ensure that Britain retains its reputation for producing the finest actors in the world. In particular it seeks to recognise and celebrate the way in which the richness of British drama has always reflected every class of society.
In order to maintain the quality of British acting, our stages must be filled with actors from all strata of society. Acting cannot be allowed to become merely a pastime for the rich and privileged. So the Actors Centre provides a haven, a bridge into the industry, for young all actors leaving drama school.
For many it’s been a struggle to get there. Young actors emerge from their training weighed down by debt, and – given that less than 2% of actors earn over £20,000 a year from their acting – many leave the profession in the first 5 to 10 years, to seek financial security, dignity, and some quality of life.
We shouldn’t attack the people for whom the challenges of acting present no financial struggle. Chris Bryant MP, himself a former member of the National youth Theatre (as indeed am I), should acknowledge that the likes of Eddie Redmayne are doing well because of talent, not merely privilege.
But alongside this, Bryant needs to concentrate on reaching down to help those who struggle to access drama school, or training, due to financial circumstances. Taking on at least £27,000 of debt to study for three years at a recognised drama school is a huge commitment.
That’s why The Actors Centre offers affordable open access courses to anyone who’s thinking of trying their hand in the world of acting, in addition to our professional support network – a chance to work with professionals, and see whether you like it, whether you can meet the demands, and whether you feel it’s for you. After all, you wouldn’t spend £27,000 on a car without taking it for a test drive, would you?
We can’t make it financially easier for people to pursue their dreams, but using a valued set of industry connections developed over the 38 year history of the centre, we can increase the likelihood of a return on that investment. Hopefully this will encourage everyone, regardless of roots, whatever their financial situation, to take those first steps into the world where Miss Walters has made such a mark.
I’m pretty sure there’ll never be another Julie Walters, but out there there’s someone who’ll make their own mark. The door at the Actors Centre is open to them now.
The Actors Centre, based in London’s Covent Garden, is dedicated to the craft of acting as well as showcasing and supporting young British talent. They have just launched the Alan Bates Awards – to apply visit http://actorscentre.co.uk/opportunities/alan-bates-award