The Lord has spoken. Not a heavenly declaration from a deity bellowed through some broken rain clouds down a shaft of light from the heavens, but a pronouncement from the man who gave us more Nancy's, Maria's and Dorothy's than we could shake a stick at. Andrew Lloyd Webber's impassioned utterances in the House of Lords debate on the creative industries and his call to the government to "make sure that our young people have access to the training that they need in music and theatre and all areas of the creative industries" focused on one of the key issues currently concerning many of us in the acting world.
Getting to drama school, and paying the fees, means that any aspiring young actor is going to garland himself with a student loan. Nothing unusual there. Since Tony Blair's government decided that the right to tertiary education was one that should be paid for, drama students are just one sector of the graduate strata starting out in the working world saddled with debt. Surveys carried out by casting website Casting Call Pro and Equity, the actors union, say that only 5% of actors in the UK regularly earn over £20,000 from their acting and according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, four out of ten graduates will never be able to pay back their student loans. Borrowing from the government could be looked upon as a low or no interest answer to paying one's tuition fees.
The difficulty comes of course when one applies for a maintenance loan for living costs. This is means tested on parental income just as the old student grants were.
The main criticism here is that people who can't get additional help from their families don't really stand a chance of getting the best training available for their careers. The middle classes and the ex Eton brigade can fund their children through a drama training, but low income families will seriously struggle to give their children the extra support they will need. It has been said that "Talent is no respecter of your parent's postcode." Even though my family owned a village shop in South Yorkshire, they would seriously have struggled to find extra income to fund my three years of drama training. Luckily they didn't have to. I trained in Manchester in a time when hansom cabs roamed the streets and gas lamps lit our way to rehearsal. It was also a time when local authorities gave grants.
A young Mancunian actor, Tom Stocks, has started a campaign known as "#actorawareness". He's done a first rate job in bringing focus and attention to the difficulty that many people from low-income backgrounds have in getting a place at drama school if they can't get a scholarship, or raise the necessary funds to live on during their training. The stumbling block of his campaign is that he's made people aware of the problem, but doesn't have a solution. It's fine to get people holding up cards on @twitter saying #actorawareness, but what does he actually want to happen. Indeed part of his campaign blames the industry for charging high prices for head shots, classes, and other related services for young actors. The key word here is 'industry' and whatever the market will take, people will charge. There are always lower-priced versions of things available if you are prepared to source them. The Actors Centre is an absolutely first-class resource available to young actors entering the profession this summer. Not only does it provide a chance to extend and develop one's training, but through an extensive array of membership perks, it offers discounts on everything from photo shoots to gym membership, from books and scripts to afternoon tea in a London hotel - a prerequisite for any young actor, I would have thought. Indeed the Actors Centre have reached out to Tom Stocks and offered him an opportunity to take part in some of our many workshops, in the hope that it will guarantee him a chance to develop his acting skills. A chance currently being denied to him by his chosen drama school on grounds of cost. Tom said. "I couldn't afford Drama school training but after 2 deferrals from East 15 I found the Actors Centre where they have helped me with numerous workshops. I have so much gratitude and respect for what the Actors Centre do and more awareness of these incredible organisations needs to be raised. It proves that if you do not get into drama school it is not the end; don't fall at the first hurdle. "
So how do we do something to turn campaigns such as #actorawareness, popping up on my Twitter feed now with a regularity almost to the point of irritation, into something worthwhile. Let's be realistic. The government are not going to suddenly fund drama training for people on low incomes. Despite the proven value an excellent drama training has in equipping people for so many roles in life, as well as in the arts, it's probably a low priority with graduates from low income families in medicine, law, and so many other areas also fighting for support. It's hardly likely that we will return to a grant system. so perhaps we have to start looking to ourselves.
Although the figures as to what actors make from their endeavours can sometimes look depressing, there are many who make a very good living from their career. Perhaps this is the time for them to think that if they were ever helped, that support should now be passed down the line. While most of the major drama schools have scholarships and bursaries, there, quite simply, aren't enough to go around. It needs people currently in the profession to put their money where their mouth, or their #actorawareness card, is.
The excellent James McAvoy led the way earlier this year with a pledge of £125,000 to grant scholarships for the next 10 years at his alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Lord Lloyd Webber's foundation annually grants ten scholarships for students in musical theatre. There may be others funded by actors that have not hit the headlines. BAFTA certainly has one, but we need more.
At the final of the Alan Bates Award at the Actors Centre earlier this year, the actor Joe Millson came up to me and made an instant offer to fund a place on two of our introductory courses for someone who has been denied a drama school place due to financial restraints. Not a full three year training but a bridge into the profession and at a cost of less than £1000 to the actor making the donation. We will launch Joe's scheme this summer with his involvement.
With increased support The Actors Centre could help more young people into the training arena, either by funding their places on existing courses, or creating bespoke training for them to follow, while working to support themselves in London.
If you're reading this and you feel you could donate to assist someone who otherwise might be denied the opportunity to train, no matter how small your donation, it would be great to hear from you. Contact me care of The Actors Centre and let's talk. I've put part of my earnings aside to fund enterprises on our new mentoring scheme for young actors 'You and Me'. With additional funding and support, we will do more.
So by all means let's hold up a card and make people aware of just how difficult it can be for some very talented people to get a drama training these days. But let's recognise that just doing that is not enough. Let's give of our time, and hopefully, our earnings to make sure that Britain continues to produce the finest actors in the world from all strata of society. After all, for those of us who have done well out of our chosen career, what could be better than to give something back?