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I moved to the capital when I was 18—young, full to the brim with anticipation for the adventure of starting my acting training at drama school. Blinded by the stunning views of the River Thames at night, the LED lights of the West End showed posters that begged me to buy a ticket; that endless fizzle of noise and energy... oh, London. The rush; the heaving, sweaty, smog-filled streets of your centre. You really had me. I felt home. I felt free. I wanted to explore every part of you and gorge myself on your sights. I was ready to become the city-wise, bohemian artist I felt I was destined to be. I could, and I would, write my story here.
Until I graduated.
With my student house and loan quickly pulled out from underneath me, my part-time restaurant job was no longer fit for purpose. I couldn't afford the combined cost of the rent of my run down East London house share and my daily commute. The days I spent at auditions and not at work started to take their toll. The theatre trips which had once filled my diary dwindled to nothing. Meet ups with friends became more and more scarce. As for trips back up north to visit mum and dad—they became impossible. By this point, I had had to begin work at an actor's call centre, futilely trying to make a living on a zero hours contract, and constantly under threat of being sent home if sales targets were not met. With no holiday pay and my wage not even hitting the legal minimum requirement, a virgin train ticket was just too much of a luxury. I became stuck. However, I was one of the lucky ones.
My career as an actor has not been unsuccessful. I have scored amazing opportunities to work for some incredible, truly wonderful theatres. I have spent my four years out of drama school working as an actor on and off for a total of 21 months. So my battle with being an out of work actor has only totaled 27 months. I am so, so, so grateful for this.
Because no one can prepare you for the battle of being an actor in "the real world." Getting non-acting work is difficult. Many employers will not let you attend auditions or will not accept you back when you return from an acting job. Often, your choice of career is mocked: "Oh, you're an actor? How's that working out? Hit Hollywood yet?" By employers who have no idea of the acting world. Much needed singing lessons, dance classes, acting workshops, and other tools for my trade became completely out of reach, and with increasingly high rent and living costs in the capital, I began to flounder—how can anyone possibly live like this??
Returning to my call centre/waitressing/teaching/children's entertainer/whatever-paid-the-bills job after a few brief joy-filled months in the theatre world did real damage to my mental health. I began to wonder whether those few months were worth it for the misery I was living in the remainder of the time. I considered what else I could possibly do. Join the police force? Maybe. Go back to university and retrain? Highly unlikely due to finances. Do a PGCE despite the fact I hate teaching and am totally rubbish at it (major respect for all you teachers out there!)? No.
We actors are always told London is where it's at. Our auditions are here, many of our agents are based here. But why? Why must we live in a city where we can barely afford to survive; where we are forced against our craft and our passions.
It took me almost five years to realise that this is all utter bollocks.
There are other cities filled with theatre folk. Cultural hubs with great opportunities.
And most of all,
THEY ARE AFFORDABLE.
We shouldn't need to sacrifice our well-being and the enjoyment of our youth in order to pursue this career. This realisation gave me the kick up the arse I had been waiting for. I packed my bags.
I recently moved to a city up north. My rent is £300/month. My living costs are lower. I earn the same wage as I did living in London, but have no daily commute fares as I can now walk to work. I live in the city centre. There are awesome theatres nearby—Storyhouse, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Theatr Clwyd, the Unity, the Empire, The Royal Court, along with many more fringe venues and smaller theatres. The train to London takes two and a half hours and costs £20 each way. Manchester is an hour away and tickets are £10. Auditions are still coming through. I'm actually saving money for the first time ever! I can afford singing lessons, driving lessons, and theatre tickets!
I haven't written this post with any agenda, particularly not to boast or moan, so please excuse the emotive content. I just want to encourage young performers to think about their options. London isn't the be all and end all. It will always be there (growing ever more expensive) and until a London living wage is instigated, it will forever be unaffordable for the young, working classes. My advice to those sticking with London is: Do all in your power to find work you enjoy—if that's teaching, brilliant. For me, it was waitressing. It sounds silly, but my workmates were the best people I could've wished for and kept my anxiety in check, and the extra tips helped me survive.
This is written based completely on the experiences of myself and my friends. There are many of you out there who get along fine with the capital, for whatever reason. But if you too are struggling, maybe this has provided a little piece of help and insight. There are so many options out there.
A career in the arts can be and should be wonderful.