The Worth of Theatre Actors
OnStage United Kingdom Columnist
'Who even does that?' was the response to me talking about checking the holiday dates of a West End actor. It was loaded with judgement, but it wasn't intended to be rude; it was a genuine reaction to apparently surprising information, but it pinched a nerve in the theatre-loving section of my brain. So, allow me to don my armour and wage war on the preposterously monstrous notion that talented stage actors are somehow intrinsically inferior to talented screen actors...
At the root of the comment was most probably a failure to appreciate the true worth of stage actors (and quite likely of theatre in general). Few would consider it odd to check cinema listings for a favourite actor before selecting a film. Fewer would criticise the way we sit up straight and pay closer attention when film trailers boast a talented favourite. In the DVD section of the supermarket, don't we pick up the case which shows a recognisable face? Purely on the basis of having enjoyed a previous performance? Yet apparently, when this same selection is applied to the theatre, it becomes ridiculous; to care enough to check whether or not a favourite will make an appearance in a performance is fine for films, but not for the theatre.
Stage actors may not be paid as much as those adorning the tabloids and gossip magazines, but they're incredibly talented, or let's face it, they wouldn't have got the gig. In fact, some stage actors that I have seen far outshine some of the most highly paid actors to be found on screen, and perhaps one day they'll find their own way onto a film set, if indeed that's their goal. Regardless, eight shows a week is a notoriously challenging job, and while it is always spoken of as greatly fulfilling work, I can imagine comments similar to the one made to me have been heard by hard-working ears, and that I find mind-boggling.
Let's be honest here, didn't most screen actors start out on the stage? Even if it was the school production followed by a lucky turn in a low key TV show and then onto films after years of graft? More importantly, when did landing hugely respected and sought after roles become anything less than incredibly impressive? And what about the actors who are happy to remain on the stage- are they instantly dismissed by those who inexplicably see stage actors as inarguably inferior? Hollywood is a popular dream, but so too is a life on West End or Broadway stages. An actor doesn't become instantly more respected for having gained screen time, and some actors never make the leap, through choice or otherwise; yet their time on stage, their influential, inspirational performances are every bit as worthy of fame (be it local, regional, national or international) and fans as those performances captured on reels of film.
I'll also note here the undoubted value of understudies for fear of causing offence while crafting this defence; I'll never deny my disappointment when one of my favourite actors is off, but I would never condone some of the disrespectful reactions that I've seen online. If it's a show that I haven't sought out on the basis of wanting to see a particular actor, I more often than not fail to discern any difference between a brilliant understudy and a brilliant lead- as I mentioned above, if they're on a stage, they've earned their place and they've paid their dues, so they deserve respect and fans of their very own.
So let me wrap this up: this innocently off-hand comment raised some interesting questions and at the centre of this piece is the fact that I defiantly fail to see how the worth of screen actors can be so unquestionable while stage actors seem to be treated as lesser. To hear this reaction was a complete surprise- why wouldn't a person check to see if a favourite actor is due to play the role for their (probably rather costly) trip to a show? I follow the careers of screen actors and I follow the careers of stage actors; I have favourite actors, some being found on screen, and others on a stage. Finding a TV or film role is not always the pinnacle of an acting career and whichever stage of their career an actor may find themselves, talent is well deserving of a fan base. Talent is talent.
To bring this all back to the catalyst for this post, the same (very lovely) person then owned up to ironing tea towels, so I was whole heartedly able to counter that confession with 'who even does that?' while feeling deeply victorious on two counts...
Photo: Arthur Kipps