Hello, here’s the most academic looking of my new head shots, which seem like the perfect companion to my PhD proposal. I thought some of you might be interested to know about what I am planning to spend the next 6-8 years of my life studying (am I crazy?!). It’s probably likely to change and shift a bit over the next year of so, but I think this is the general direction of the research. BTW I will be pursuing this in the Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship, Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Examining sustainability and longevity in the actors’ career: professional expectations and labour market conditions.
My research will look at longevity and sustainability in the career of the actor. Specifically, what skills are required to manage a career over a lifetime? I will look at professional expectations versus professional experience and how this disconnect can lead to career dissatisfaction and career abandonment. I will look at the career training offered at UK Drama Schools and whether this training focuses on immediate short-term goals (securing an agent, landing your first job) versus entrepreneurial business skills to support a career over a longer trajectory. This will include examining supply and demand in actor training (to what extent are drama schools complicit in training students for an over-saturated market?) Lastly, I will look at how the ability to manage multiple career and income streams simultaneously, while still maintaining the actors’ core identity, is essential for long-term survival.
3. Research background and questions
A few statistics set the scene (Guardian 2009):
– Only 6% of UK Equity members (professional actors) earn more than £30,000 per year
– At anytime, 92% of UK actors are unemployed or working outside their field
– The average UK actor spends only 11.3 weeks per year in paid acting work
While these statistics are bleak, there is analysis to be done as to who are the 8% who are working at any one time? What do they have in common? Of the 6% of Equity members earning what would be considered a liveable wage in London, what are they doing right? Why are they getting through the gatekeepers while others are not?
Actors point to a combination of luck, talent, education, background, class, looks or having the right agent. While these may be contributing factors, they neglect labour market behaviour and individual entrepreneurial activity. To what extent is the individual actor a victim of an oversaturated market where supply greatly outstrips demand? Can they counter these market forces through good use of self-promotion, marketing, networking, and financial management?
When an actor is starting out, they are buoyed by enthusiasm and high hopes; by the time they reach their mid-career years, with additional responsibilities for mortgages, children, or parental care, the enthusiasm has often been replaced by frustration. This is when it is vital to be able to manage multiple income streams, negotiate conflicting schedules, navigate a natural shift in casting type (you can’t play the young lover anymore), endure the scrutiny of your physical ageing, and process the accumulated effect of years of disappointment and rejection. It’s no wonder that so many decide to leave the profession.
In particular, we mustn’t underestimate the challenge of managing many and varied income streams. As a freelance project-based worker, in one year a UK actor might earn money from a combination of: theatre , television , commercials, training videos, voice over, corporate role play, video game voicing, motion capture for CGI or animation, variety, cabaret, cruise ships, teaching, and/or office work or catering. There is little research into how they manage such a divergent portfolio and keep a variety of skill sets ready to respond to openings in the market at a moment’s notice.
Why should we care about a bunch of actors?
Because as Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt, told the recent Davos Economic summit, the continuing developments in technology are going to result in the loss of many middle class jobs (BBC 2013). As traditional jobs disappear, many people may find themselves on a similar career path to an actor: developing multiple income streams and working both within and outside of their main field of expertise and interest. By understanding how actors have done it for decades, there may be lessons that can guide the general workforce as they shift towards a ‘portfolio career’ model.
What is in the existing literature?
Initial research has shown a limited amount of academic literature exploring these themes.
One of the seminal works that addresses the working life of the performer was Baumol and Bowen’s 1966 work Performing Arts: the Economic Dilemma, which catalogues the dreary conditions often faced by performers: tiring working conditions, high professional expenses, chronic unemployment, difficult workplace situations, low pay, and few, if any benefits. (Baumol & Bowen 1966).
Economic circumstances of the performing artist: Baumol and Bowen thirty years on (Throsby 1996) asks whether conditions have moved on; and comes to the conclusion that they haven’t, at least not in Australia, where Throsby focuses.
A more recent study in the US (Thomson 2013) has interesting results from a survey on the multi-strand nature of professional musicians’ careers, such as the finding that 55% of respondents have two or three income sources and 26% have four to eight different income categories. This is instructive, but also points to why this research is not 100% transferable to actors. Many of the musicians are deriving income through creating intellectual property: composing, writing lyrics, recording or producing; whereas few actors are involved in creating intellectual property, as actors are usually hired as labourers and not creators (the director and designer are viewed as the creator and the actor as the executor). Also performance itself is hard to fix for copyright. The few actors that do write plays or create short films find there is very little remuneration in royalties. Creating intellectual property for an actor is not a viable income stream.
Haunschild and Eikhof have authored a number of papers examining theatre actors working in the German state theatre. These point to some larger issues that are relevant, but there are fundamental differences between the UK free market compared to the heavily subsidised and regulated State Theatre model in Germany.
There has been some analysis of working practices in Australia, which more closely models the UK, though there are differences in scale (the UK industry is much larger than Australia and more concentrated geographically).
My preliminary review points to a gap in the existing literature, particularly examining these issues for UK actors.
Why am I the right person to do this research?
I have been a working professional actor for 23 years in the West End and in UK and Canadian regional theatre. In addition, have been active in education and training for actors and singers (London College of Music, University of British Columbia, RADA, The Actors Centre), been a member of a co-operative actors’ agency negotiating contracts as an agent for my fellow actors, and was Vice Chair of the North American Actors Association (now American Actors UK).
My previous degrees, a BFA in Interdisciplinary Studies and an MA in Creative Entrepreneurship, are also a good foundation for research in this area.
4. Research methods
Finding reliable data on actors working lives in the UK is challenging; however, I have identified that most agents (and particularly co-operative agencies who must be transparent to all members) keep excellent records of all of the jobs their members undertake, where the jobs were sourced, what the terms were, a record of the push and pull of negotiation, agreed payment terms and any subsequent payments. In some cases these records stretch back 30 years. There are 29 member agencies of the Co-operative Personal Management Association, and 150 members of the Personal Managers’ Association, and I should be able to negotiate access to at least one, or a few, of these agencies’ records, which will supply me with quantitative data on a variety of actors employment situations.
This quantitative research will be backed up with qualitative research interviews with a sampling of actors who have sustained acting careers over 20+ years’ duration. These will be used to create case studies and examples of ‘good practice’ in longevity in acting careers.
I have an existing professional relationship with Equity, the representative trade body for actors in the UK, and they have expressed interest in participating in my research and benefiting from its findings. I have had additional support offered from the Dancers’ Career Development, who aid dancers in transitioning out of dance careers and Be Smart About Art, who offer business skills training for visual artists. I will also seek out input from major performing arts institutions such as the National Theatre, Royal Opera House, The Globe, the RSC and Sadler’s Wells.
5. Schedule of work
(Note: this schedule would be for full time study – part time is likely double)
Sept 2014 – Sept 2015 – Research Proposal/Research Methodology Training/Literature Review
Sept 2015 – Sept 2016 – Data gather & analysis/MPHIL Updgrade/Interpret Data
Sept 2016 – Sept 2017 – Write dissertation/Submit
Sept 2017 – May 2018 – Viva Voce Examination/Rewrites
6. Bibliography (works cited in this proposal)
BBC News 2014, Davos 2014: Google’s Schmidt warning on jobs. Available from: < http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25872006>. [4 February 2014].
Baumol, William J. and Bowen, William G., 1966, Performing Arts: the Economic Dilemma. Twentieth Century Fund, New York.
Guardian Website 2009, Career by Numbers: Acting. Available from: <http://www.theguardian.com/money/2009/oct/10/acting-career>. [4 February 2014].
Haunschild, A., & Eikhof, D. R., 2009, ‘Bringing creativity to market: actors as self-employed employees’ in Creative Labour, eds. A McKinlay & C Smith, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Thomson, Kristin, 2013, ‘Roles, revenue and responsibilities: The changing nature of being a working musician’, Work and Occupations, vol. 40, issue 4, pp. 514-525.
Throsby, David, 1996, ‘Economic circumstances of the performing artist: Baumol and Bowen thirty years on’, Journal of Cultural Economics, vol. 20, issue 3, pp. 225-240.
There you have. I’d love to know your thoughts on this….