Julie Hesmondhalgh article - Actors and Performers Handbook 2019

The article from actor Julie Hesmondhalgh first appeared in the Actors and Performers Handbook 2019.

I had an unexpectedly lovely train journey recently. Lucky enough to have managed to reserve a seat at a table in a typically over-crowded carriage, I was planning to shove my earphones in and bury my head in a book, and disengage from my fellow passengers. So when the strangers at my table started to chat- to each other, and to me- my heart sank a bit. But it ended up being one of the most interesting and engaging journeys I’ve ever had. My cross-country companions were Alan, a middle-aged gay actor; Kate, a young Maths teacher at a struggling comprehensive school in West London; and Henry, a Ghanaian-born scientist working in Washington DC. We covered everything in those two hours between London and Manchester: childhood, sexuality, racism, Trump, and perhaps inevitably- there being a teacher amongst us- education. Kate talked with sadness about how the new GCSEs were taking their toll on teachers and pupils alike at her school, how she’d been working every evening and weekend to try and get her Year 11s through. She said that the school was already feeling the effects of the cuts in arts subjects; that although she was a Maths teacher, the erosion of subjects that enhanced her students’ creativity and awakened their minds to the wider world, was already taking its toll on the mental health of the young people. Henry talked passionately about how, although he was a scientist by trade, it was the arts that gave him joy, that refreshed him and rebooted him after long days at the lab. Music venues, theatres, cinemas: these were his hang-outs of choice. Alan and I both talked about the opportunities that we had taken for granted as we started out in the performing arts, opportunities that no longer exist for young people growing up in towns like ours, from families like ours.

I, along with a dozen of my mates, left my hometown of Accrington at 18 to go to drama school in London, after a brilliant Theatre Studies teacher at our local Further Education College inspired us all to make a go of it and audition. There were five of us from that course at LAMDA at the same time at the end of the 1980s, all on full grants from our LEA. That FE performing arts course, I found out this week, no longer exists. Neither does the full local authority grant of course. And nor, I’d venture, does the philosophy that an education in the arts, or a desire to have a career in the arts, is a worthwhile pursuit for people from backgrounds like mine.

There has been an insidious mindset creeping into our national psyche, no doubt massively exacerbated by the prohibitive costs of higher education tuition fees, that somehow a career in the arts is pie-in-the-sky and unrealistic, and that an arts or humanities degree or drama/art school training is not worth the investment. God forbid that anyone should be enthusiastic about learning for learning’s sake and want to study philosophy or classics, never mind acting or dance, because of a personal passion for the subject, without wondering and worrying about how to make that choice economically viable in the long term. As Nicky Morgan, the then Conservative Education Minister famously said in 2014, “arts subjects limit career choices”, warning young people that studying arts at higher education could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. The majority of educationalists, of course, even those working in Science and Maths subjects, like my travelling companion Kate, would disagree. The study of the arts, and in particular the performing arts, are partly encouraged in top public schools like Eton, I’m sure, because of the confidence, social skills and interpretative thinking that develop as a result. The wealthy have never been discouraged from indulging their passion for music, film, painting, theatre and dance. A government report in November 2017 recorded that the creative industries were indeed thriving with the “£92bn sector growing at twice the rate of the economy” (www.gov.uk Creative industries’ record contribution to UK economy, 29 November 2017).

But it appears that a huge swathe of the population, namely the state-educated, the less well-off, the working class, for whom the decision to saddle oneself with over £27,000 debt at the start of their adult life is a major consideration, are being massively disincentivised to engage with the arts and humanities, from school onwards. It starts with funding cuts and continues as arts subjects are moved into a more theoretical and less practical curriculum framework at GCSE level. The controversial English Baccalaureate and its exclusion of arts is seen by many as the nail in the coffin of any meaningful creative education. Drama, art, dance and music at school have often been the only access young people have had to learning those skills.

There are, luckily, amazing organisations picking up the pieces and attempting to fill the gaps that current government policy are leaving. There is hope. Groups of people are crowdfunding to create bursaries to allow students from less privileged backgrounds to access arts and performance degrees. Theatres and art spaces are investing in outreach work to pull hard-to-reach communities into their buildings through youth theatre and specialised groups. Teachers and directors are setting up free training programmes, and watching their talented students overcome sometimes unbelievably challenging personal circumstances to thrive and succeed in an arts industry that they have been told is not for them: organisations like Alt, Nottingham-based Talent First and the mighty Arts Emergency.

Set up in 2011 by comedian Josie Long and campaigner Neil Griffiths, the Arts Emergency philosophy and aim is simple and effective: to create an “Alternative Old Boys’ Network”; to open up the same opportunities naturally afforded to those privileged few, who grow up with those school and family connections firmly in place, to everyone. They have pulled together an enormous number of experts and practitioners from a vast array of specialised areas and connected them with young people from backgrounds that have meant they have little access to the arts. Free talks and events are regularly made available, and when the scheme spread to the north a couple of years ago I became involved as a supporter and speaker in schools and colleges. There is an incredibly successful mentoring scheme that I have witnessed first-hand as my husband, the writer Ian Kershaw, has been a mentor for over a year now. His first mentee, a sparky seventeen-year-old aspiring writer, and the first in her family to access higher education won’t mind me saying that she thrived under the programme. Together they saw theatre, attended talks by leading writers, met people in the industry and visited studios and rehearsal rooms. She grabbed the opportunity she was offered to write for a local theatre-in-education tour, and did work experience at CBBC. She is now at University studying English with a creative writing pathway as part of her BA.

Maisie (not her real name) was clear about what she wanted to do from the off, and Arts Emergency enabled her, creating networks that simply don’t ordinarily exist for people like her. But sometimes the work they do is about opening up unknown worlds to their participants. A young person might, for example, be passionate about, and fascinated by, films and filmmaking, but have no access to the world of the studio floor or editing suite or post-production house. He or she might be a fantastic and naturally gifted vision mixer or a sound recordist but unless they’re given the opportunity to experiment in these roles, they’ll never know. As Arts Emergency say: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The working-class artists who were encouraged and supported by the state from the 50s through to my generation growing up in the 80s and early 90s, who are now part of the cultural landscape of the UK as writers, actors, directors, dancers, visual artists, musicians, directors, etc, are the last of their kind. Or could be, if we don’t act to change the current climate of exclusion. A culture without diversity is a sick one. If our future artists only come from a narrow stratum of society (the most well-off and privately educated) then who will be left to tell the stories of the rest of us? Who will hold a mirror to our world and ask the important questions about how we live now? Because art exists, not only to entertain but to reflect and inform and inspire. At its best, it can be transcendent and transformative, and completely democratic; in that, it is or should be, available to us all, regardless of where we’re from and who we are. The more diverse our culture, the wider the world of the stories we experience, the richer we all are for it. Perhaps most importantly, it creates, as I experienced on that Pendolino train a few weeks back, a point of connection in an increasingly isolating and fractured world.