Culture Shock: If acting were as easy as it should look, it wouldn’t be an art

The days when actors were widely seen as little different from pimps and whores are gone. But there is still an ambivalence about accepting them as serious artists


One of the most interesting riots in Irish history broke out in January and February 1747 at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. It was about many things, including tensions between an old Catholic elite and the new Protestant ruling class. But at its heart was the question of the status of the actor. Thomas Sheridan, the actor-manager of Smock Alley (and father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan) was attempting to establish the dignity of the actors by banning the then common practice of allowing aristocratic patrons to wander on to the stage and behind the scenes. A man called Kelly, from Galway, objected to this in the most violent way: he invaded the backstage and attempted to sexually assault one of the actors, Harriet Dyer.

In the ensuing conflict Sheridan enraged Kelly and his friends by claiming, shockingly, that he, a mere actor, was “as good a gentleman” as Kelly. This turned the incident into a series of organised riots. What’s startling to us is that such rage could be unleashed by the suggestion that actresses had a right to be protected from sexual predations and that actors could be gentlemen – which is to say members of respectable society.

And yet there’s a sense in which the respectability of the acting profession remains very much in doubt. The days when actors were widely seen as little different from pimps and whores are gone. But there is still an ambivalence about accepting them as serious artists.

The World Actors’ Forum, which is taking place today and tomorrow at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, was prompted by the belief of the theatre’s director, Michael Colgan, that, for all the high-voltage celebrity of a minority of stars, actors in general are undervalued: “Actors in Ireland are seriously underpaid, seldom asked for their opinion, were judged to be ‘B’ members of Theatre Forum Ireland, are not eligible for Aosdána, and sometimes theatres have to find the money to pay for their funeral expenses. So it is just an experiment – but I thought having a weekend devoted to giving them their voice might prove to be valuable.”

Colgan is surely right, and not just because of the tiresome cliches about “luvvies” that hang around in the media. A good place to start is usually to follow the money, and if the money talks it tells a pretty grim story. We know from research by the two arts councils on the island that in 2008, at the height of the boom, artists in general had an average annual income from all sources of €25,000 a year. The average for actors is highly unlikely to have been higher than that and has almost certainly fallen sharply in the meantime.

Before that report a 2005 Arts Council study showed most actors relying on other jobs to make a living. Even so, theatre performers had an average income of just €20,000, a mere €7,000 of which came from theatre work. The average wage for a week’s performances in an Irish theatre was €456, significantly lower than the average industrial income.

The money isn’t everything, and no one forces anyone to choose a life that, for the vast majority of those who live it, has always been precarious. Most writers, composers and visual artists have little more financial security. But at least they are recognised as artists. Actors are not. I mean this in the most tangible way: the State supports and tax reliefs that are available to writers and composers and visual artists do not extend to actors. Nor does the official recognition that is expressed in membership of Aosdána. Archi- tects and choreographers can now (quite rightly) be members, but performers can’t.

The rationale for this is contained in a single word: “creative”. Aosdána is “an affiliation of creative artists” in Ireland. The implied distinction is that between the “creative” and the “interpretative” arts. It is a distinction I find impossible to tease out in any coherent way. WB Yeats asked: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” And the question is rhetorical. We can’t separate the player from the play. No dramatist, even of the most literary kind, would insist that the text is the play; the play emerges when it is embodied and inhabited by the actor. That inhabiting is a creative process: performances are constructed under the same kind of imaginative pressure that the act of writing exerts on the writer.

Art consists in the transformation of given materials. A writer transforms words, memories and images into a text; the actor transforms that text into a performance. If acting were not a creative art, casting would be easy: just get someone who matches the age and gender, and perhaps the physique, of the character. Casting, to the contrary, is hard because everyone knows that the actor will turn what is given into something else – for good or ill.

Perhaps, in this, actors are their own detractors. Good actors create the illusion that the performance was just there, waiting to be picked up and put on like a costume. The art of acting, at least in mainstream forms, is to make the painful work of constructing a performance disappear. When that art is persuasive, it seems, like the actors invoked at the end of The Tempest, to melt into thin air.

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