Not so long ago, I read an article in which Dame Judi Dench voiced her concerns that acting talent is being buried by wealth segregation. It seems that those who cannot afford Drama School training, who don’t get accepted onto a Drama School programme, or choose to complete their higher education at a University, are being pushed onto a diverted path into the industry. So, how can we make a change to ensure that the industry gives a fair opportunity to all, no matter your background?
Driven by the inequality and lack of diversity so rife within the arts industry, Tom Stocks launched ‘Actor Awareness’, a campaign to fight for those actors from less privileged backgrounds to have the same opportunities available to them in equal measure as to those with stronger financial support. Sheltering in the Spotlight Studios from a wind which blew away a pretend Summer, I caught up with Tom ahead of Actor Awareness’ ‘Women’ themed scratch night, to find out how far his campaign has come, and how far the industry is yet to go before social classes are considered equal, with talent as its main driving force.
Hi Tom! So, what drove you to set up this campaign in the first place?
TS: I got accepted into E15 twice, and had to defer my place both times, unfortunately, because I couldn’t afford it. The first year that I was offered a place, I worked 50 hours a week as a chef, but still couldn’t afford it. The second time, I tried working continuously again but, even with a little bit of help elsewhere, I still couldn’t afford the fees. I started to write a couple of blogs about it and people were responding, saying something needed to be done. I didn’t know where to start, but I realised there were a lot of people in the same boat as me, so I thought I would try to do my best to change things – and Actor Awareness was born. I didn’t have any money to put into the campaign, so I thought social media would be the best starting point; it began as a hashtag, and I then hired out The Pheonix Artist Club for our first meeting. From there the campaign got rolling.
Unfortunately, you were never able to attend E15, but you completed a degree at Newport University. How do you believe University prepared you for the industry, compared to what Drama Schools can offer?
TS: University is a lot more academic in training and, I guess, the main difference is that, at Drama School, you have a showcase where agents will attend. At University we did get a showcase, but no agents turned up. With University – yes you get a debt at the end, but at least the Government help you whereas, at Drama School, it’s privately funded.
Whilst I was studying, I saw there was a local theatre who were putting on a pantomime of ‘Robin Hood’, and I thought I could maybe get involved. They were holding auditions for unpaid roles, but I thought: ‘we’ll see what happens’, and I got offered a part as one of the lead dancers. It got to the point where I was still doing my studies, working a job and rehearsing for the panto; I explained to the company that, because the role wasn’t paid, I couldn’t commit to performing every night. I had to keep on top of my studies and my job to keep being able to afford it. In the end, the team offered me a full wage if I would do every show, so I quit my job for a month to do it. I was still doing rehearsals for panto, and in my lunch break would be rehearsing for my University showcase, juggling both at the same time. I think it was a really good experience because I got my first professional job, and was offered a role in their pantomime again the following year, which got my acting career rolling a bit.
Do you think there is a future for University Courses if they are being ignored as accredited places of training?
TS: I don’t think it’s the Universities fault, I think some agents and the people who run this industry can be a bit snobby about it. When you go into an audition room and explain you trained at a University, their noses turn up at it. It’s about changing the perception of University courses. I’m not saying every University is going to be amazing, because they won’t be but, since the fold of Drama UK who kept all of the Drama Schools in check – yes it’s a sad thing they aren’t around anymore but, at the same time, it’s now an opportunity to say: ‘why do you have to go to Drama School to be in this industry? Why can’t a University be included in this top 20 accredited training list?’, and stop people being so London centric.
What do you think the industry is based on before talent and what do you think casting directors and other industry professionals can do to help make a change? Are you a supporter of more open auditions, for example?
TS: It’s based on a lot of things but, at the moment, money seems to be the way in. For example, you can’t go to Drama School if you don’t have enough money to pay for the fees, like me, so you have to find a different route. Luckily, for me, that was Actor Awareness, but not everyone can start a campaign like I did.
I think open auditions are held to make it appear like a fair opportunity is being offered, but a lot of it is purely for publicity. Sometimes, great things can come from an open audition but, a lot of the time, I get the feeling that parts have already been cast, and actors like me are made to feel that there is a little bit of hope.
I don’t think workshops work a lot of the time. They annoy me. Why should you have to pay £50 to meet a casting director, to ask a couple of questions, to pay for his/her opinion? I can give an opinion, and it could be just as good as his/her opinion. A lot of the time, you think you will be picked up by a casting director or an agent at these workshops, and sometimes you do, but most of the time you don’t. If you are going to do a workshop, please pay for something that is actually worth your while, and don’t pay purely for someone’s opinion. If you don’t get the opinion you’re looking for, it can ruin your career because you will think that you aren’t good enough. Well, you are! It’s just that person doesn’t think so, well, guess what – there are thousands of other casting directors who probably think you are. You need to stop being a robot in the industry and be yourself. I don’t go to auditions in blacks, for example, because that doesn’t show my personality. I’ll go dressed in trainers and, to be honest, that has got me a part before. Don’t go to an audition and perform in a particular way because one casting director has told you to do it like that. We are so scared to try things a different way in case one person doesn’t like it.
Also, you can’t be an actor without Spotlight, weirdly, but to be on Spotlight, you have to have an accredited place of training, or three professional credits on your CV. It’s like running around in circles. How do you get into the industry without a Drama School, and without Drama School, how do you get the professional credits, unless you are thinking outside the box? A lot of Drama Schools are teaching old things, trying to get you straight onto the West End. Why don’t we teach people how to do T.I.E, which is how a lot of people start out? Why don’t we teach people how to devise their own work and encourage more new writing? That’s the key now – to create your own work using platforms like our scratch nights to get you in front of agents.
Your scratch nights have had great success. How have they grown from your first event?
TS: For our first scratch night on the theme of ‘Working Class’, I think we received about 20 submissions from writers, if that. Each time, we receive more and more and, for this ‘Women’ themed night, we read over 100 scripts. They happen every other month, and this year we have about 7 or 8 scratch nights planned. I’m trying to fill the gaps with the film nights, which will occur approximately 3 or 4 times a year.
We have had about five shows be extended from the 15 minute pieces performed at the scratch night, into full length shows which have been performed around London and other parts of the UK, which is really good! Some of the actors have also been picked up by agents; it took us a long time to get to this point, but it is working. Tonight, for the ‘Women’ themed scratch night, we have four agents coming, so it creates a real buzz. We now produce our scratch nights at the Spotlight Studios and we are the only paying scratch night in the UK, so we are just getting bigger and better.
“All the world’s a stage, but not all the players are equal’ is a strap-line for your new documentary about working class actors. When can we expect the release, and how can we get to see it?
TS: We have nearly finished filming, so it should be ready by the Summer – it’s very exciting! It won’t be put online or broadcast on TV, but we will tour it as private screenings around the UK in London and Manchester, and wherever we wish to take it. I’m sure we will enter it into festivals as well and perhaps take it into Drama Schools. We want to try and make as much fuss about it and cause as much debate as we can. There has already been a lot of debate, but I want to make a change with it, and show people that this is what is going on. When I first came up with the idea, it wasn’t actually for the industry, but for everyday people to understand what actors, writers and directors have to go through. These people don’t just get into Coronation Street, for example; it’s a hard road to walk down to get into this industry, and that’s what I want people to understand. A great mix of famous faces have shown their support, and some have jumped on board to give their opinion, such as Maxine Peake, John Challis (‘Boycie’ from Only Fools & Horses), Christopher Ecclestone, Sam West and Andrew Ellis.
You have taken this campaign to Westminster, and have been in talks with the Labour Party. How did this come about, and what has been discussed so far?
TS: I got wind of a campaign called ‘Acting Up’, and thought I could get involved. I sent an email to a lot of people in the Labour Party and finally someone got back to me and we had a meeting where I was told what was happening. They are holding what they call ‘evidence sessions’, where they invite industry people to talk about what is going on, before they can action anything. Once these have been completed, they will hold a policy meeting, where they accumulate all the evidence they have into a written form, and discuss how they will put it into a policy; eventually it will be put forward to parliament. I was involved in the first session and so I have given my evidence, and we will see what happens. The people who run it are so hands on and they really want a change. At least it’s now at government level.
What would be your advice to those who are auditioning for Drama School, but don’t get in or can’t attend due to financial difficulties?
TS: What I liked about University was that I learned the academic side of things. At Drama School, you will get the practical side of things which is brilliant but, from what I’ve heard, you don’t learn a great deal about playwrights and context. If you can’t afford Drama School, I would do a University course and then look into doing a masters at a Drama School after. Then, you have the best of both worlds. Don’t put yourself in debt. If, unfortunately, acting doesn’t work out for you at least, then, you have a degree to fall back on. If you don’t get in to Drama School and you don’t want to go to a University, get a group of mates who are just as passionate as you, and start creating your own work. Put on a showcase, and invite as many people as you can. Do what you can to build up a good reputation, because that is a big thing in the industry. I know you want it, but don’t be desperate. Be passionate but patient. Drama school isn’t the ‘be-all-and-end-all’, you just have to dig to find other ways in. Contact people and network. At the moment, it’s who you know not what you know. I moved to London and didn’t know anyone. Be ballsy. What’s the worst that can happen?