19/05/2015 19:06 BST | Updated 18/05/2016 06:59 BST

Making the Acting Last

The huge flood of young actors emerging into the profession this summer, I give best wishes. Their future will be determined mainly by luck, but enhanced by sheer hard work and good business sense. For some this may be instinctive, but others will learn it the hard way.

Some people think I'm a dreadful actor. And they are right. Mercifully some people think I'm rather good, and, of course, they are right too. The point here is that acting is never something that can be measured quantitatively. It's always going to be something that's subjective. We can sit side by side together in the same theatre on the same night watching the same actor in the same play and we can have widely differing opinions. And that's great.

But how does that work at the end of three years training after an investment of around £27,000 when a young actor steps out into the world?  Drama schools don't grade them. They can't. Even those drama training establishments which are now part of larger educational bodies and offer degree status mainly award the level of degree on the written work involved in the course, rather than the level of talent. That's why drama schools offer up their final year students in showcases knowing that some of these people are probably never going to work. There has been a great deal of debate over recent years as to whether we are currently training too many people for an already overcrowded profession. Of course each year the industry has natural wastage due to age, and it's not a profession where many people retire, but it is a profession that in recent years has got bottom heavy.

Drama schools provide a showcase for their potential graduates, fill the seats of whichever theatre they are using with agents, casting directors and "industry people", although I'm never really sure who they are. This is the springboard into the real world provided as part of the paid for training, but it's keeping afloat that causes most young actors their problems. There simply aren't enough jobs around for the huge volume of young people being thrust into the profession each summer.

Some of them may do a job or two. Some will achieve some level of success, but only a small number will have a long sustained career that will last 25 or 30 years.

And the reason for their longevity? Acting ability alone will not be enough It'll be a mixture of luck, opportunity and hard work. Hard work at being a working actor. And when I say a working actor, I don't mean an actor who acts a lot. I mean an actor who manages their business, and works at it day in and day out, whether acting or not.

I don't act every day. But every day I am a working actor. Every day I have things to do that will progress my career, improve my work, hopefully enlarge my finances, and provide some satisfaction. It may be sending emails and making arrangements for jobs. It might be learning lines. It could be browsing the Internet to look at what the theatres I would like to work at are going to produce in the next six months. All of it will be part of my working day as an actor. Being my own CEO, I'm allowed to manage how much of my day I spend "in the office". Actually I don't know why I put that into quotation marks, because in our home we do actually have an office and that is where I do most of my work. These days in an ever more digitally integrated world, it's possible to let your work creep out onto the coffee table in your flat, just as it's possible to let your work bleed out into every aspect of your life. Don't. Just as you benefit from having a desk that you sit at in order to work, so you will benefit from having an agreed amount of time that you set myself each day to be that working actor. The rest of the day you're allowed to be a person. To enjoy the relaxation, and enrich the experiences that you have and that you bring to your acting work. 

"Do at least one thing each day that might lead to work and then get on with living your life."  My drama tutor's advice has rung in my ears for many a year , and is as true now as it was when it was given. If you're out working just to earn money to live, then that is part of your day as a "working actor". It's a decision you have made within your business as to how to raise revenue. So it's important that when you get home you can turn off from that, providing that you have portioned out sometime at some point in the week to deal with all things employment and acting.

It takes a lot of planning to run a business, and as a one-man business, lots of actors don't have anyone to turn to and check that they're doing okay. Thats why places such as the Actors Centre are so vital in providing sustainability to young actors careers in these modern times. It's great when I get the chance to chat to younger people who are really sorting out the fact that being a working actor is what they want to be, and they want it to go on for as many years as possible. I had the joy of lunch with a previous winner of the Actors Centre's Alan Bates bursary award a few weeks ago. Apart from some building work, which he does at short notice to raise money, he's currently doing corporate role-play, and making some short films. All this is part of a career where he has played leads in the West End and New York, and done plays above pubs for less than the minimum wage.He is just getting on with being a working actor.

Given that students don't pay anything back on their loans until they earn at least £21,000, and taking into consideration that less than 2% of actors earn more than £20,000 from their acting, it could look as though the student loan is the best interest-free funding option currently available. Except of course that it means people begin their careers saddled with debt. Sometimes it's just too much and we're losing more and more young actors before the age of thirty. One of the great strengths of the British acting profession is that we have always had a fabulous range of brilliant supporting actors in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Actors whose names people often don't know, but whose faces are familiar from a huge volume of work in television and film. A richness of talent developed mainly in the subsidised theatre sector, and it's this richness and diversity of actors that we must strive to maintain.

So to the huge flood of young actors emerging into the profession this summer, I give best wishes. Their future will be determined mainly by luck, but enhanced by sheer hard work and good business sense. For some this may be instinctive, but others will learn it the hard way.

For me, it was passed on by the older working actors I had the good fortune to spend time with on theatre jobs during the first three or four years of my career. That's why at the Actors Centre this year has launched "You and Me", a unique mentoring program where the finalists of the Alan Bates award are all mentored for the first year of their working life by a professional working actor. Joseph Millson, Stephen Billington, Lizzie Roper, Lisa Hammond, Anita Dobson, and myself have teamed up with six young actors for a year, to share our knowledge, and hopefully so that we can learn something from them about what it's like to step out into the world as a young actor in 2015.

Some people think I'm a terrible actor and they are right. Some people think I'm a very good actor and, of course, they are even more right. But what I am is a working actor. Every day. And that's what I'd like to see happen to this years drama graduates.