As 2016 creeps inexorably nearer, so does the date on which many young aspiring actors dreams turn into the harsh reality of work. For every actor there is a starting point where the seed is planted.
For me, it was a school play aged seven where I pushed the boundaries of the casting envelope as a soldier in a self-directed and self-created play. Two since unheard-of stars of the British stage, Susan Clark and Christine Evans, played a princess and a witch respectively, but from the moment I achieved the approval of Miss Bentham for my efforts, I knew that nothing else would satisfy me as a career. Even the pressures brought to bear by a red brick Yorkshire grammar school in the early 1970s that I should use my education for something "more useful than acting" failed to sway me and in 1978, after three years of training in Manchester, I made the jump into the world of work. I followed a fairly traditional route with several years' theatre, before a little television, and then two seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company. If it was possible to plan it out, then that's what I did and how those dreams and aspirations changed when they had to produce a wage packet.
There will be round about 600 to 800 new drama graduates launched into the world in the summer of 2016. All of them will have a different defining moment that sparked their ambition, but for all of them, 2016 is the year when it ceases to be just a dream, and has to become a job. A job that pays.
The number of graduates from recognised training courses released into the profession each year continues to rise. Drama schools have had to turn themselves into businesses, or have been made to join larger educational establishments such as universities. To remain financially viable, they have to provide more courses each year. The principals of some of them proclaim to the press they don't take on more graduates than they believe there are jobs for, but in reality it's hard to make a course pay with only a few students on it. Way back in the 1970s, my final year at drama school comprised a group of twelve students. As my drama school was part of a larger educational establishment (Manchester Polytechnic) the course itself didn't have to be financially viable. That there were only twelve of us to serve during the final year meant that our casting opportunities were great, and we were kept very busy. These days in your final year at drama school you may be lucky to play one leading role. There are courses where thirty or more students vie for casting opportunities during their final year. In a world where the student increasingly treats the training establishment as a customer would treat a service, it's interesting that the feedback against this hasn't been even stronger, but so much of what we do in the acting world is unquantifiable and it's difficult to complain. There is never a reason why one actor is chosen over another. It's always a matter of opinion. You and I can sit side-by-side in the theatre and watch the same performance together on the same evening and look at the same actor and you can think that they are absolutely brilliant and I can think that they shouldn't even be allowed on the stage and we are both right. It's not objective in any way.
The same is true of the training world. There is really no pass level unless elements such as written projects and essays are introduced. No one can say you are a good actor. No one can score you. There is no definable level that says "yes, you are talented enough". What will define that is whether you work or not. Because the true value of a training is whether you can turn it into a career.
All training institutions offer a wide range of skills to their students and I firmly believe that we still offer the best actor training in the world here in Britain. Indeed I believe we train the best actors. I don't believe you can be taught how to act, but I think you can be taught how to be an actor. How to manage yourself, and how to succeed as a one-man business. For that is what you are, or will have to become. Training establishments provide "industry chats" to prepare their students for the real world, but it's interesting that when using young actors, none of them know how to invoice for a job. Many of them don't know how to write a good letter to a casting director. They will have spent their final year fighting for an agent. Although they set out with a burning ambition to become an actor, their target during these final six months is become to be a client. It's easy to say that no agent is better than a bad agent, but when you're stepping out into the world and you haven't secured an agent, you'd probably take the risk on anyone rather than being out there alone. At the point when you leave drama school, you have already made a considerable financial investment in your future. Providing a return on that investment is one thing that The Actors Centre tries to help young actors do. Providing them with an extension of the skills that drama school has given them. A bridge from the world of training into the world of work. Giving them an understanding of how to network. Providing a venue in which they can meet like-minded young people, create work for themselves, and increase the number of opportunities they have of showcasing their abilities to agents and casting directors.
That most brilliant of British actors, Alan Bates, was patron of the centre until his death in 2004, and each year since then we have honoured his memory in the Alan Bates award. The toughest graduate competition out there, it replicates the situations that young actors will find themselves into get work. Through a series of auditions, workshops, interviews, and screen tests, it selects six of the most promising graduates of any year and helps them make a step forward into the world of work. Each of the six finalists receives a professional actor as a mentor in our new programme "You and Me". Last year mentors included actors such as Anita Dobson and Joseph Millson. The winner and the runners-up receive price parcels designed to support and nurture them through their first year as a working actor. Subscriptions are paid for, show reels are filmed, accountancy services provided, and thanks to that iconic fashion brand Ted Baker, the winner will step out into the world clothed and ready to face the toughest of interview situations or the smartest of awards dinners.
Winning the award doesn't guarantee success, but it makes coping with that first year out in the big wide world a lot easier. It's an award that nurtures and encourages an ongoing relationship between the winner and the actors centre. 2012 winner Elliott Barnes Worrell is about to be seen on television in a new eight part drama series "Jericho". He also now sits on the board of the Actors Centre. Our most recent winner is just coming to the end of his first five months out in the world. He's played a guest lead in "Holby" and he's done two days filming, and some corporate role-play work. Luke Dale, the 2015 recipient of the award, would be the first to tell you it's been much harder than he thought it would be. He's had three years training as an actor, and he is an exceptionally watchable and talented one. What he hasn't had is training in finding a place to live, getting a job to pay the bills, and developing the resilience, the fortitude, and the sheer staying power needed to cope with all those days when acting is not a part of your daily life. He's been busy learning all that in the last five months and it's those skills that ultimately will give him a long and worthwhile career. In so many cases it's those skills, rather than acting ability that will ensure longevity in the world of work..
That's what the Actors Centre is here for. To ensure that we still continue to produce the best actors in the world and that enough of them stay around to give that rich tapestry of British talent which appears on screens and in theatres the world over.