British actor David Morrissey, best known to American fans as The Governor in The Walking Dead, recently bemoaned what he calls "intern culture" in British acting, which is cutting off acting opportunities to actors who don't have backgrounds in elite schools and upper class parents able to support them.
Morrissey, like many other actors, fear that the acting profession in Britain is becoming a playground for the upper classes, hindering diversity (which is needed among actors), and denying talented people the opportunity to build a career.
I'll get back to why Morrissey called it "intern culture" in a moment, but first let's look at the causes for this acting crisis in the UK.
For more than a century British actors could get their start, and their work ethic, by doing what is called "Rep" theatre.
Repertory Theatre or "Rep" is where a company of actors perform in multiple plays during a season, doing everything from heavy drama, to light comedies, melodramas and musicals. For most of the twentieth century most British communities, even the smaller ones, could maintain a repertory company, and young actors could make a living, though a meagre one, learning their craft in rep theatre.
Being "posh" or having degrees from elite universities didn't matter to the rep companies, all that mattered was how good you were on the stage. It was a wonderful meritocracy, and every British actor for the last 100 years, except for Oliver Reed, had done at least some work in repertory theatre.
Sadly, the classic British rep company has been in decline, being attacked by forces both natural and unnatural. Many smaller towns couldn't support the sort of rep companies they used to and they shut down. That's natural.
What's unnatural is what's happening in the bigger towns and major cities. Many of them are capable of supporting rep companies via ticket sales, but there are outside forces, that have nothing to do with the theatre or audiences that are driving them out of business. That outside force are the Russians.
What do the Russians have to do with rep theatres?
Well, every time Putin pisses off the rest of the world Russia's oligarchs start pulling their money out of Russia and putting it into British real estate. Every year for the last decade or more billions upon billions of Russian rubles get converted into British pounds, shillings, guineas, and pence, and that money is used to buy real estate.
Now unlike most real estate developers who buy property to do something with it, the Russian oligarchs treat the land as if it was a bank account. They let it sit, many times leaving it empty, to keep prices artificially high, so that when they need the cash, they can make a big profit with little effort.
Remember, most live theatres are in prime downtown locations, the areas where prices are literally insane. That means that all but the biggest rep companies can't afford to own or rent theatre space, and young actors can't afford to live in easy access to the theatres on the salaries they're making as waitstaff or doing auditions or as a working rep theatre actor. It's getting so that unless you can start booking at least TV guest roles regularly, you're not going to get anywhere. To get those kinds of roles you need connections that you're not going to get building a resume treading the boards in Rep. Those connections can only be found in the elite schools, and still you need some shillings from Mater and Pater to keep you from being homeless before you make it.
That isn't right. It's limiting the talent pool, and will ultimately hurt the industry in the long run.
Trust me, I've seen it happen, because it's been going on in Hollywood since the 1980s, it's getting worse, and there seems to be no change coming, no matter how much damage it does.
You see, back in the Golden Age, the people who ran Hollywood, used to be constantly on the lookout for people with what used to be called "hustle." That's because studio management can't be taught in a classroom, no matter how much ivy grows on the outside walls. You had to learn on the job by doing, and you had to start that doing on the bottom, usually in the mailroom or as a minion running errands for those higher up in the food chain.
The last movie mogul who worked his way up the ladder like that was Universal's Lew Wasserman. He was spotted as a bright kid with hustle while he was in high school, which led to a job with MCA, who then took over Universal, and he worked his way up to running the whole shebang.
That will never happen again.
Nowadays, to get into the movie business you need to start as an unpaid intern. So instead of the meagre salary of working in the mailroom, you get no salary at all. Also, to get into an internship you need two things: A degree from an elite Ivy League university like Harvard, and some sort of pre-existing connection to the entertainment business.
Hustle doesn't matter: Connections and background do.
It's already showing. Box office is in free fall, and the job market in entertainment, which weathered the Great Depression better, is down 19%.
Instead of Lew Wasserman, you get Jeff Zucker. Zucker got into NBC because of his Harvard credentials, and his family's connection of a bigwig with NBC's parent company. This got him a token run as an assistant to Bob Costas, and from that producer of the Today Show, and President of the network, and CEO of the combined NBC/Universal always managing to finagle a promotion before the effects of his reign of error fully kicked in. Even when his incompetence finally caught up with him, and he was drummed out of NBC-Universal, he still got a job running CNN, and it's coming out almost exactly how you'd expect.
Do we really want that spreading like a virus into other aspects of entertainment?
And let me tell you, getting the government involved to subsidize film and theatre doesn't work. I've seen it first hand, it sounds great at first, but it very quickly becomes even more elitist and clique-centric than even Hollywood at its worst.
Which means we must find some new way to solve these problems, because they're sucking the life out of the entertainment we love.