Acting, as the cliché goes, is child’s play. All that dressing up and pretending to be someone else. For those of us who do “normal” jobs, the idea of the theatre actor’s life sounds like a brilliant return to student life. You don’t have to get up early in the morning to commute to an office. Instead, you drink coffee and try to learn things off by heart during the day while in the evening, you do a couple of hours of intense work, then get drunk afterward. And then after a few months, you get to “rest” until the next job comes along.
It can sometimes be hard to imagine that actors aren’t big children, let alone that they might be parents themselves, with the same problems as other working parents–and sometimes worse.
Theatre actors are self-employed, so don’t get maternity or sick pay. They work long, unregulated hours in rehearsals and, outside of the big stars, are paid very little. Working in the evening might be easier if you have a partner with a regular job in terms of childcare, but if you don’t, or are a lone parent, you are in a difficult position. Plus, every single evening you miss out on cooking your child dinner or putting them to bed.
Which is why leading musical stars have been calling for the introduction of job-sharing in the West End. They say that if two performers share a role, doing four shows each rather than the eight they do at the moment, both mothers and fathers wouldn’t have to give up work, which is often the situation at the moment.
It seems on paper like a sensible solution and one for which the group Parents in Performing Arts have been agitating for some time. But it is still going to take a culture change in a profession fossilized around macho notions of creativity and brilliance involving long hours and suffering, as Uma Thurman highlighted in her criticisms of working with Quentin Tarantino.
Job-sharing might even improve plays, shifting us away from the notion of star names. The brilliant Mary Stuart has just transferred to the West End. Each evening at the start of the play, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams flip a coin to decide who will play Elizabeth and who Mary. It’s a dazzling dramatic conceit but also proves that not only can audiences accept uncertainty, but that different performers can bring new elements to a role. Everyone ends up winning.
This article originally appeared in iNews on February 16, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.