What to be or not to be, the question facing theatre performers.

Do we want our next generation of brilliant actors to be working at the supermarket checkout asking us for 2p when what they really should be doing is giving a bravura performance of Hamlet’s soliloquy? Scenesaver’s Caroline Friedman ponders the dilemmas facing performers. 

The welcome news that theatres are reopening is presenting a huge dilemma for many talented creatives.

When the pandemic plunged the theatre world into darkness last year performers experienced a gamut of emotions.

After the initial shock and disbelief that theatre-the institution that had survived for thousands of years- was not happening, for many there were far more serious consequences.

Their raison d’être had been cruelly snatched away.

And when Covid did not “blow over” and we didn’t “get back to normal in a matter of weeks” they found themselves penniless, directionless and depressed.

Ever resourceful they reinvented themselves. They created online performances and found work wherever they could. Many volunteered, taking on tasks such as helping the NHS, running food banks, or delivering prescriptions to the housebound.

But as the weeks turned into months this became financially unsustainable.

They channelled their creativity into finding paid work

And now they face a crossroads.

They have spent the last year establishing themselves in a  new profession and they cannot just slope off for an audition or take leave for a few weeks to perform.

They have, at last, managed to pay off their debts, -the money invested in the shows that never happened, the housing arrears, the loans- and are finally achieving some semblance of financial stability.

And here’s the rub. Do they throw all this in to follow their love of theatre?

It is neither realistic nor sustainable to expect to hold down a full time job while at the same time to act your socks off every night. That performance the audience sees may only be 90 minutes long but it is the culmination of many exhausting hours of dramaturgy, rehearsal, creativity and physical and mental input.

Do they follow their heart and their passion and return to their first love or, having finally established themselves, do they remain in their new career?

In the past actors and theatre creatives knew it wasn’t going to be easy to work in the profession, but they could attempt to follow their dream secure in the knowledge there was always hopefully a safety net. In between jobs they could find part-time employment. But everything has changed and even the more fortunate ones are finding that the most established of financial institutions, the Bank of Mum and Dad, is feeling the pinch under pressure from multiple loan requests.

And then there is the uncertainty. No-one foresaw the pandemic. Creatives hear on the news about new Covid mutations and their confidence is undermined. Add into the mix the demand for theatre space, the paucity of roles as companies turn to the more lucrative option of plays with small casts, and you can understand their dilemma.

And their predicament is not theirs alone because it raises an important issue for all of us. How can new talent be encouraged and nurtured? We need to support the stars of the future and allow them to shine. If not, it is we, the audience, who will be the losers. We will be denied the chance to walk into a performance space and have our breath taken away, to enjoy that wonderful privilege of being there to experience something very special- the debut of a new talent. We will miss out on so much, not just fine acting but also all the elements of design and creativity that go into producing a flawless production-the innovation, the flair, the imagination.

Do we want our next generation of brilliant actors to be working at the supermarket checkout asking us for 2p when what they really should be doing is giving a bravura performance of Hamlet’s soliloquy?

That is the question.

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