Culture Street

Sophia's Column

Acting is now the playground of "posh" students

On September 24, 2012

By Sophia WhitfieldJulie Walters, best known for her roles in Harry Potter, Educating Rita, Mamma Mia and Billy Elliot, recently lamented the lack of actors from working class backgrounds.

Walters comes from working class roots and has carved out a thirty-year career for herself on stage and screen, but today she sees that the “posh” students have the advantage. Their parents can afford the good schools and then the drama schools or they can provide the necessary support to assist with relocation to London or LA where talent is more likely to be spotted.

Two of the biggest stars in Australia, Hugh Jackman and Cate Blanchett were educated in the private school system. As was up and coming Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, currently starring with Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End, Tom Stoppard’s BBC2 adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s Edwardian novels.

In Australia there are not many options open to those wanting to become an actor. There is relocation or NIDA or WAPPA. Most don’t make it into NIDA on their first audition. It is usually the third or fifth audition with life experience generally being cited as necessary before admission can be granted. This results in students in their early to late twenties still living at home supported by parents while studying. Alternatively they can break away straight after school in search of the bright lights of LA. This is not an option that is readily available to everyone.

While actors of this calibre deserve their success, a growing debate continues about the lack of working class actors on stage and screen.

Walters said there has been a shift in the last decade.

“The way things are now there aren’t going to be any working-class actors. I look at almost all the up and coming names and they’re from the posh schools. Don’t get me wrong – they’re wonderful. It’s just a shame that those working class kids aren’t coming through.”

A brief look at the current stars in the UK highlights Walters case. Actors Hugh Laurie (House) and Dominic West (The Wire) went to Eton while Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) went to boarding school in Kent and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes/ Parade’s End) was educated at Harrow.

In response to the proliferation of ‘posh’ actors Clare Higgins, star of The Golden Compass is opening a free drama school in London. It will be open to students 18 and above who can prove they are unable to support themselves. Higgins is adamant that the industry can only flourish if it is accessible to a cross section of the community.

“We can’t go on with this any longer where only rich people can afford to train in the arts, so we have to get out there and make it change now,” Higgins tells The Stage newspaper. “I am not going to get political about it, but all I am going to say is that there is a dearth of training for people who don’t have independent wealth or rich parents. We are aiming to stop that in its tracks.”

Higgins has not yet announced the opening date of this new free drama school. It may, for now, abate fears that acting is becoming an exclusive club of the privately educated.

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