Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne’s riveting documentary is a passionate and well-argued look at the barriers to success in the arts for people from working-class and BAME backgrounds. Featuring talking head interviews with actors at the top, middle and bottom of their profession, as well as those trying to offer solutions to the problem, this is an angry and matter-of-fact work that is accessible and even-handed, but without losing its core sense of outrage.
Throughout the film, the point is consistently made that to break into the arts is difficult regardless of your background, but that coming from a less privileged, less represented environment is an extra obstacle that makes it significantly harder. As if proactively rebutting more cynical viewers who would accuse them of spouting chip-on-the-shoulder class warfare politics, O’Neill and Wayne include famous actors and directors from both regional and metropolitan working-class backgrounds, and talk about the ways in which people from similar walks of life can get into drama schools (such as bursaries and grants). They also repeatedly reference the expectations of the industry for actors and directors to work for free, work other jobs to support their craft, make connections within the industry and rely on them, and produce their own work in order to get the recognition they need both at the start of and throughout their careers.
Quite rightly, they argue that part of this comes from the fact that the general, inaccurate perception of the arts is that it is not an occupation or an industry, but a vocation, and that therefore up-and-coming artists (regardless of their background) should be happy to make these sacrifices, while schools and governments can be excused for not providing the funding, support, or endorsement the creative industries need, as they are seen frivolous and empty next to subjects like English, maths and science.
This is a provocative and enthralling documentary made with the perfect mixture of anger and restraint by a very talented team
As tricky as this makes things for everyone in the industry, this is just the tip of the iceberg for aspiring female, working-class and BAME artists. Firstly, there is a lack of representation, with such characters reduced to supporting roles and stereotypes, or being played by members of the middle and upper classes. Secondly, there is the cost of training and working in the industry – whether that be the expense of travelling to and from auditions, drama school fees and applications, accommodation, etc. This is made worse by the fact that most drama schools in the UK are based in London, meaning that people living in that area with more disposable income are at an immediate advantage, while others have to factor in the costs and practicalities of moving to and living in the capital in order to pursue their career. Indeed, a number of people interviewed in the film have had to (sometimes repeatedly) turn down places at drama schools because they have been unable to afford the costs associated with it. One of these people is Tom Stocks, founder of Actor Awareness, an acclaimed campaign group fighting for equality and diversity in the arts. It seems that while financial assistance is available for people from lower-income households to get into drama school, such opportunities are few and far between, and the majority of students are more likely to be from more fortunate backgrounds.
It is not just drama school where this imbalance can be seen, however. The lack of funding for the arts has had a knock-on effect on community theatres, after-school groups, and the curriculum of comprehensive schools across the country. Teenager Libby Hall has dreams of becoming an actor, and regularly attends classes at the Salford Arts Theatre. Nevertheless, she astutely observes that drama is not taken seriously at her school, and that its resources are so stretched that her drama teacher is also an English teacher, and it is unusual for students to be taken for theatre trips, despite the fact that this is only the time many pupils will be able to go to at all. This is compared to private schools such as Eton, which has fees of over £38,000 a year, a resident director for its numerous school productions, an auditorium that can seat over 400 people, and the resources to stage high quality performances. The filmmakers then refer to a report in The Daily Telegraph that while only 7% of the British population are privately educated, they represent 67% of BAFTA and Academy Award-winning British actors.
In order to offer anecdotal insights from those securely within the industry, O’Neill and Wayne provide fascinating interviews with actors and directors such as Maxine Peake, Christopher Eccleston, Andrew Ellis, Matthew Xia, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Osman Baig, and Natalie Yusufu. Eccleston, Xia, Peake, and Hesmondhalgh are particularly eloquent and enraged in their responses, but all participants are extremely honest and direct, giving the film a legitimacy and sincerity that makes it all the more convincing. Barnes-Worrell has some especially perceptive testimony about the contrast between his time spent as an adolescent at the diverse, supportive and free-to-attend Brit School in London, and the realities of the acting profession once he had graduated into it.
This is a provocative and enthralling documentary made with the perfect mixture of anger and restraint by a very talented team. It deserves a much wider audience than it is likely to get from its limited cinematic release, but hopefully it will thrive online and on DVD.
The Acting Class is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday, 16th November