Five teenagers lie on the wooden floor as the audience watches on in anticipation. What follows is a few minutes of talented improvisation as they explore the characters within. This is Young Actors Theatre in Angel, one of many hubs of young talent across the country where dreams of West End stardom are harnessed.
However, the performing arts class divide is clear, leaving many young actors and actresses with shattered dreams and small fortunes of debt on the hunt for success.
Theatre is a competitive business, often made up of low commissioned and poorly paid freelancers who will lack job and financial security.
Last year’s Acting Up report from the Labour Party has pushed for change, stating that the “culture of chronic low pay’ is forcing many people out of the industry.
A report from the House of Commons library showed that GCSE drama uptake has fallen by 15.9% since 2010 as youngsters are instead forced down academic routes with stable incomes.
Last year, arts funding in schools was cut again, with drama and the performing arts not making up part of the English Baccalaureate secondary school qualification and pushing children towards subjects such as the sciences.
Lyn Gardner, theatre critic for The Guardian and The Stage, said: “As long as theatre and the performing arts end up being marginalised in schools then inevitably that means that lots of kids simply don’t have access to the performing arts and therefore they are very unlikely to even think about auditioning for drama school.
“I think it fundamentally goes back to primary school and what access people actually have in the arts. Participation is the answer and that has to be in schools and at the grassroots.”
Although participation is where the problem lies. Across London’s elite drama colleges, summer schools are pricey and often out of the finances of a working-class family.
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama offers a two-week summer school for 16 – 17-year-olds priced at £1250, with accommodation and food charged at an extra £756. When contacting the school, it was established that bursaries are available but only for those living in a London borough within distance to the school.
For acceptance into a drama school full-time, most will require an audition and interview that are charged anywhere between £50 to £80. Factor into account the cost of transport and accommodation for multiple colleges and families are faced with enormous costs before even starting anything in the industry.
The rising financial pressures on many youngsters in the profession has seen them turn to online petitions to try to evoke change.
Jamie-Leigh Currie, 20, an aspiring young actress, said: “The issue I have is that the system seems to be set up so that the rich are more able to access the opportunities that should be accessible to everyone.
“Why should we all have to pay a £50 fee just to audition for a drama school where there is a 90% chance that we won’t get in.
“I’m working as a waitress at the moment. The money I get from that job goes straight into my savings to pay for my auditions and accommodation and travel costs.”
There are even examples of colleges that do not accept UCAS funding, leaving many to take out career development loans which force applicants to pay back debts on a monthly basis immediately upon completion of a course.
A membership to the leading casting agency, Spotlight, will set youngsters back £98 per year. While the creation of a professionally designed video showreel for use in a college application can cost upwards of £250.
Tom Stocks, head of campaign group Actor Awareness, said: “When your sort of going into the into the industry you’ve got to have your actor’s starter pack. You’ve got to pay for your headshots, you’ve got to pay for your showreel, you’ve got to pay for your Spotlight membership, your equity membership, you’ve got to pay for your drama school fees.
“All of those are just racking up and so if you’ve got money then obviously that’s quite easy to assemble.”
In 2016, a report from the Sutton Trust showed that 67% of British Oscar winners and 42% of British BAFTA winners came from fee-paying schools, despite only 7% of the population receiving a private education.
Less than a fifth of employees working in music and the performing arts are from a working-class background, compared to a national workforce of 35%.
Theatre as an industry is beginning to have the discussion about the class divide, with regular discussions and debates taking place at the National Theatre. But are they looking at things from the right angle?
Tom Stocks, said: “Go to rural places in the UK. [Directors] need to stop looking in the stereotypical places because if your only getting one type of person there that’s the only type of person that’s going to be in the industry.
“They need to expand and stop looking inside the same ten drama schools that all have the same ten mums and dads that all have the same demographic as well.
“It’s so much talk and no sort of action.”
Feature Image – Luke Chillingsworth. Taken on an iPhone.
Video shot and edited on an iPhone.