There’s a bit of an ongoing barny about how many deeply successful (mostly male) actors in Britain right now are posh. A mull….
- It’s an argument not without a grain of truth to it. A long list of Harrow, Eton, Westminster, Oxford, Cambridge graduates grace our screens and stage. Even if those institutions weren’t on the list, as someone who went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, I’m here to tell you that fundamentally, if you’re someone who gets to spend time and money watching theatre, let alone making it, that very act is probably going to factor into any calculus as to how posh or not you are, regardless of income. Posh is, after all, a flexible institution.
- It’s not the problem you think it is.
I write this as a posh technician. And I am posh, let’s not kid ourselves. Sure, I’ve got a teensy bit of street cred courtesy of my east London upbringing, and as a technie, even on the designery end of things, I am more likely to end my sentences with ‘no mate’ than I am with ‘sensational darling!’ and I get massively tense anywhere close to Knightsbridge, but fundamentally, I was raised in a literary middle class household surrounded by books, before going to a posh girl’s school (albeit for a large part of that on a bursary) and attending the London School of Economics followed by Ra-de-da. Guys: I’m posh. Bourgeois intelligentsia is stenciled across my mugshot.
And I’m good at my job. At least, I hope I am – I certainly try. And that fundamentally is the thing that sorta needs to be nodded at. Once again, we come back to the idea that people are people are people, and that’s all that really counts. I couldn’t care less what your socio-economic background is, so long as when you say you can fix that parcan, you can. I don’t care where you were educated or if you wore a silly hat to school and said prayers every morning, so long as I believe in your performance and you can lift me out of my universe into another place whenever you go prancing around on stage.
No one would choose poverty and hardship; no one would reject a stable, comfortable, culturally-enriched upbringing if they had the choice. If we spend our days shrieking to the skies that being born in hardship does not change who you are or your potential, then it’s only fair to say that being born to privilege does not make you less human.
Fundamentally, if you’re good at what you do, who gives a monkeys?
- It is a problem. The predominance of poshness in all of theatre is a problem because fundamentally, theatre, even drama, isn’t being made accessible across all society. In an era where our government is essentially proposing the first step to the privatisation of all education, and shifting the syllabus ever closer towards the teaching of the glories of the British Empire and the importance of Latin in this modern age, one of the first things that cash-strapped schools starts to cut back on are drama classes. (An article from 2012 elaborates elegantly on this point, but there’s plenty of data out there.) Because fundamentally, drama is not viewed as a prideful academic subject. It’s just prancing around in a silly hat, right? (It’s not. Drama is one of the very very few subjects on the syllabus which teaches the wonders of human empathy, of thinking outside yourself and your heart and finding another way of seeing people. Trying to measure it against calculus is just dumb.) Even if drama wasn’t looked down on as a dubious subject, schools often don’t have time, given the exam pressure and class size, to teach their kids that it’s ok to prance around in a silly hat. That self-expression, self-confidence, that a willingness to invest in something outgoing and frightening, to find a form of emotional expression outside selfies, is a good thing.
Even if we briefly look beyond the education system, theatre isn’t broadly available across much of the country. It’s either too expensive, not well promoted, or it’s simply not there, not accessible in too many places outside London. Or it’s under-funded and can’t get to its audiences, or it’s under-funded and under-prepared and can’t make people’s hearts soar. However you look at it, the fact seems to be this – that it’s simply easier to engage in theatre, easier to be given the choice and to follow a certain path, if you are from a more privileged background. We talk about how acting and theatre should be open to all kids everywhere, but there’s an element of luck, and simply also, there’s an element of options denied. That for me is the problem – not that we got a lot of posh actors loping around, but that society as a whole doesn’t have as many options to pursue this path.
I’m not saying we need more actors, I hasten to add. Employment rates are already pants. But the issue of social discrimination in casting seems to be another manifestation of social discrimination across the arts, country-wide and as a whole. (There is a whole conversation about writers to be had here too, which I suspect would have a similar feel.)
- That being said….
Being posh is not a burden. I know it’s tempting to feel that way. As a posh woman in certain lighting departments, I have certainly felt that I have needed to prove that I can do the work despite my accent (and gender), but you know what, I can, and people see that, and all of us pretty quickly get over ourselves regardless of where we’re from because ultimately, we’re here to do a job that we love and can spot our fellow travellers along this path, wherever their journey began. Likewise, if you’re a posh actor and you’re feeling at the moment under fire because your path was somehow ‘easy’ (it probably wasn’t, acting never is) or because you don’t ever get cast in ‘earthy’ (a word that should be burnt as utterly offensive gobshite) roles, then sure, yeah, I get how sometimes at 3 a.m. when you’re having trouble sleeping you might feel a bit grumpy about that shit.
But basically… time to get over it. Time to raise that proud banner and proclaim, ‘yes, I am posh, but I also worked my arse off to get a skill set and work to be in this position and I do it for the love of theatre and I will always be my best and my best will be pretty damn good regardless of where I came from so screw it!’
And once that banner is flying high, time perhaps also to hand-stitch a very small footnote at the bottom. A footnote which maybe reads… ‘because of my socio-economic background, I had the fortune to be exposed to teachers who had the time and the space to teach me to value myself as a performer/artist… and to see plays… and begin to embrace that possibility… and I had the fortune to be able to go to university and then still have a bit of cash left to train as an actor/director/designer/etc. at one of a microscopically small handful of well-reputed drama schools, where in different times I might have just had to start earning at 18, which maybe wouldn’t have made my journey impossible, but it might have made it that much harder and put more obstacles in my way… and while this in no way diminishes the scale of my efforts I hereby swear to acknowledge that I was privileged and to be grateful to that, and to speak, when next this question is posed, not as to my own hardship, but as to the hardship of others that we, as a society, should strive together to lessen, as a first step to equality not just in casting, but in all things, amen.’
Except of course, by the time you’ve finished stitching that lot, you might not have much space on the flag left.