Last week, Dame Judi Dench was reported across most mainstream media as having made a speech berating ‘lazy young actors who ignore their artistic heritage’ at the unveiling of the blue plaque for John Gielgud.
As always when I see an alarming headline - such as “Dame Judi berates young actor’s apathy” - I made sure I read the whole article rather than throwing my mobile phone across the room in uninformed rage. I needed to know what one of my personal heroes of the stage actually said. Having read the article, it became obvious she hadn’t said young actors were lazy; rather, she is quoted as saying ‘It’s not laziness, it’s non-curiosity’. However, it was the ‘laziness’ headline that ran - all over the press and on radio and television. What she had said is that she felt there was a ‘lack of curiosity’ pertaining to the history of British theatre. She did use ‘laziness’ when discussing the speech and voice work of actors in some recent television programmes.
Then today the Guardian posted a follow-on opinion piece by actor Michael Simkins, bemoaning the actors who “ignore our rich dramatic heritage” and a lack of “speaking clearly”, opting for ‘realism’ at the expense of comprehension.
Both of these highly respected, seasoned actors have issues with two things then: firstly, that young actors aren’t acquainted with the work of earlier stars of the British stage and screen, and thus are missing out on multiple learning experiences; secondly, that these same young actors are not exhibiting the basics of enunciation and projection that are required for performance.
In Simkins’ piece, he cites a recent chat he had with a theatrical agent where the woman in her mid-thirties didn’t know Michael Horden by name as his evidence that young actors have little knowledge of or do not respect the legacy of their profession. Very thin ice, I would say. Firstly, the unfortunate young woman in question was not an actor, of course. This aside, a simple inability to recognise a name alone does not necessarily indicate a lack of understanding of or due regard to the past. Perhaps, had Simkins offered some examples of Michael Horden’s work, she would have recognised him: different brains work in different ways. Moreover, to be damned on failing on a single question is surely harsh by any standard!
But, to the crux of the matter: the sad truth is that the green room where Simkins suggests this young woman would have caused ‘howls of derision’ is no longer a guaranteed place for young actors to find themselves. Yes, the hallowed rooms in the National, the Old Vic, Young Vic and wonderful regional theatres around the land are likely to have valued, seasoned actors who can impart wisdom and spin a great anecdote of the now-departed titans of theatre to the hungry ears of their younger cast. But getting into those green rooms is a feat. Long gone are the weekly rep green rooms of the past. It is far more likely that a recent drama-school graduate will find themself in a cold pub toilet waiting to take to the stage. Of course, the fringe isn’t just pub theatre any more: there are some excellent green rooms and dressing rooms, but they will almost always be populated by your peers, as it is with other young theatre professionals you are likely to collaborate; the focused conversation that may have existed in the green rooms that Simkins mentions is not available to the majority of young actors. The diversity of current entertainment sources - mainstream and fringe theatre, film, multi-channel television and electronic media – dictates that conversation embraces the range of theatre, films and TV actors are watching and hoping to work in. Ultimately, these young actors are doing their best to create and secure work in an oversaturated industry. They know every actor who trod the path before them. This is not laziness or a lack of curiosity. I think it is just a simple equation where pressures of time, creative expression and economics might limit historical research – and, of course, history is stretching all the time!
As for the other crime these ‘young actors’ are being accused of: being incomprehensible as they are being too ‘naturalistic’. I don’t believe this is a result of the laziness that both Simkins and Dench refer to. Taking the examples used, Jamaica Inn and SSGB, let’s consider all the people responsible for the ‘fractured sentences and jagged exchanges often mumbled under your breath’. There are, of course, the young actors on the screen, but they are playing the screenwriters’ lines. Further, director presumably opted for a certain style of delivery and wasn’t standing by the monitor ripping their hair out whilst the actors misrepresented their vision. I presume these programmes also have an extensive sound department, both on set and post-production too. It is not necessarily the way TV ought to go, but it is not indicative of young actors’ laziness.
And this is only part of the story: where required and allowed, many young actors are as articulate as any who came before. For example, I have been an ensemble member of The Faction since its inception 8 years ago. We almost all young actors and have specialised in presenting Shakespeare, Schiller and others, sometimes in rep, and have had had many positive reviews about the clarity of our diction and how our delivery has unlocked the meaning of these classics. (Some days, moreover, we have performed all three plays of the rep season in one day, where cast members have had lead and/or multiple roles in all three – certainly not lazy!)
Most young actors I know continue to train after they graduate from drama school. I continued to develop my craft by studying Meisner Technique and Improvisation as well as attending workshops with casting directors and voice and movement classes at the Actor’s Centre. Demand for workshops is huge The Faction co-Artistic Directors offer excellent Shakespeare Session; techniques to bring the verse to life and communicate the meaning of the text; these are frequently over-subscribed. Other creative hubs such as Theatre Delicatessen and New Diorama have on-going programmes for those looking to build and refresh their skills or learn how to make and produce their own work; they all have waiting lists. Workshops such as these allow young actors to develop their skills, to network and to keep themselves audition-ready.
At 36 and fifteen years into a professional acting career, perhaps I can no longer class myself as a young actor, but, since I graduated from my three-year training at Webber Douglas, my own experience and that of my peers is fairly typical of what young actors do ‘these days’. Young actors are making their own work any way they can. They are writing and filming and editing their own films and web-series. They are producing classical theatre and creating new and exciting working practices and sharing them with others. They are supporting new writing by running scratch nights and producing important new plays. They are setting up new spaces and giving others the opportunity to use those spaces for little to no financial outlay. They are fighting for equality and representation by making work that recognises that everyone in our society needs stories to be told about them. They are part of making exciting work and challenging work in theatres both large and small all over our country. They are developing their craft and using their voice. Young actors are many, many things but they are anything but lazy.
I absolutely agree that Judi Dench and Michael Simkins have salient points. Communication is key. We must respect the craft and technique of our profession and also respect those that came before us, creating the great theatrical legacy that we strive so hard to be part of. But, from where I stand, young actors are doing their darned best to do this. Making theatre, television and film is a privilege, even when there is little financial reward. Maybe we actors whether old, young or middle-aged, rather than looking too doggedly to the past should rather support each other to the hilt and concentrate on the matter in hand: telling the stories that might just help us build a better future.