Girls On Stage: The Reality Of Being A Female Actor

Treading the boards, professional pretending, acting… whatever you may call it, being an actor is an attractive career choice for many. Often romanticised, acting can bring you riches, night after night of applause, or, more realistically, sighs from your parents who gently nudge you towards a ‘real’ job and a hoard of friends asking for free tickets to shows.

No career in the arts, (especially in the current political climate that is cutting arts funding to the quick) is easy, and as always, certain groups of people will find it harder to climb the career ladder than others. There is heightened focus on the reality of being a female actor right now, with Hollywood, Broadway, and the West End coming under fire for under-representation, poor pay, and disgraceful sexual misconduct.

I spoke to a group of Brighton-based actors (or should it be actresses?) to discuss the realities of the profession, how Brighton has played a role in their career, and what particular struggles women in the profession face. What holds them back as a female performer? Where does the industry need to give women more support? Is Brighton too full of creative people for anyone to succeed? 

All is discussed with actors Carli Fish, Beth Hodd, Christine H., Lauren Whedbee, and Emily Feltham.

Do you need to study books to tread the boards?

Whether or not actors need to be formally trained is one of many hotly debated topics in theatre. Some controversial opinion articles in The Stage posit that there are too many actors being trained and not enough work to support them, and, as a result, many trained actors never work professionally.

However, with the security of a renowned drama school’s name on their CV—plus the opportunity to hone their craft and make industry connections—it’s clear to see why so many actors choose to train formally to pursue a career that doesn’t always require qualifications to get by.

Emily Feltham is one such actor, who has had an unorthodox journey through the profession with no formal training:

“I haven't trained 'officially'. I did a lot of youth theatre with Bristol School of Performing Arts and Bristol Old Vic, but then took some time out (apart from a couple of performances with Oxford University Drama Society) while I was doing an English degree.

“After that, I unexpectedly went into museum work and did an MA in The Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. For my dissertation, I worked with a West African theatre company, Iroko, about using theatre to share indigenous stories and diversify museum audiences. 

After that, I auditioned for a travelling company called Riding Lights who I'd admired for ages, and amazingly got a place. We had six weeks of intense workshopping and training before embarking on an eight-month tour of schools, prisons, theatres and streets. I learnt on the job, really.”

Beth Hodd spoke on the value placed on formal training in the industry:

“I think the industry is incredibly biased towards 'classically trained' performers, but that doesn't mean working in the industry is impossible for people who haven't. Training definitely gives you a few extra tools that you otherwise might not know or  think about.”

What do we want? More roles! When do we want them? Now!

Whether women have had formal acting training or not, the roles they are then offered once they step out into the industry are limited. Cue the slew of ‘broken but beautiful’ young women, attractive (or crazy ex-) girlfriends, bitter wives, and old crones.

With one of the women I spoke to wanting to embody underwater action roles, it’s clear that women want, need, and deserve, more space and variety on stage.

“As a child I would have said my dream role would be 'the princess in a pretty dress',” Christine H. said. “But the fun and privilege you have as an actor is that you get the chance to play and discover all different sorts of people—the good, the bad; the beautiful and the ugly.

“One role I played was cross-gender, and I played a quirky and shy man who was just as interesting as playing an extremely self-confident female toilet attendant. Any role that challenges me to dive into another person's world, way of thinking and behaving is a dream role.”

Is Brighton best?

How does Brighton itself treat its female performers? Is it a creative haven that offers a multitude of opportunities, or is it becoming over-saturated, overpriced, and—dare I say it—overrated.

“I haven't undertaken any training here,” Carli Fish began, “but it is a great place to work as an actor. The city is full of creative people and it feels like there's always lots going on.

“Myself and my writing partner, Hannah Robinson, also just took our debut play—'Have You Heard Guy?' which, funnily enough, is about two struggling actresses—to The Warren at Brighton Fringe. It was an amazing experience; the audiences were so friendly and receptive.”

Beth Hodd highlighted the benefits of being able to work in Brighton and keep your access to London “without having to live in that bubble constantly,” and Lauren said that Brighton was great for gaining local work, but “London is the place to be. Brighton can be very insular, and often recasts a lot of actors.”

What holds female actors back?

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Money, money, money, as a certain Swedish band once sang. As expected, one of the most common issues women face when pursuing acting is funding that lifestyle, one that demands them to take up one or two steady jobs on top of acting work to survive. The ‘privilege’ of paying to live in a city like Brighton doesn’t lighten the pressure on the purse-strings either.

However, Emily Feltham spoke about the difficult reality of being a woman of colour in the profession, which can hamper progress in equal measure:

“Personally I've been very, very fortunate in that I've never been out of work since entering into acting professionally—I've had serious disappointments, of course, (one of which actually felt like a break up—I cried for two days and couldn't eat)—but out of that learnt how to pick myself up and trust my own instincts rather than the boxes other people put me in.

However, as a mixed-race (Black African/White) actor, I've become very aware of the wider problems surrounding ethnicity in the industry. There's tension between attempting to diversify casts, as well as people seeing you as the 'token' minority. I recently had a very difficult conversation with a colleague who felt hard done by because he isn't black!

“In a profession so geared around image there's also the restrictions of a very mainstream framework of racial diversity. Fortunately, because I've produced much of my own work, it hasn't affected me much but I've still received the odd comment of not being black enough for the 'black' parts, but not white enough for the traditional period drama 'white' parts. Recently, an audience member asked me if I'd been painted white in the Christmas show they'd seen me in!”

While that final comment warrants an entirely separate article in itself, Emily Feltham calls for a shift in perspective to better the working conditions for female actors.

“There are and I couldn't even begin to identify all of the issues women face in the industry,” she said. “I think we need to be allowed to be bolder in pushing ourselves forward, in creating roles which are dynamic and funny and innovative that we will actually want to play. 

“Theatre is still dominated by male-heavy plays where there are only one or two female parts and they're not overly inspiring. For women to be empowered to pursue positions of leadership—writing and directing, as well as acting—it involves struggling past the men who have had a much easier route there. As well as support, it's about people refreshing their perspectives and stepping aside.”

Where do women feel they need more support in the industry?

“To me, it is mostly the financial aspect that warrants more support,” Christine H. said. “I need to work a full-time job to finance my course, so I can't get a flexible job that would allow me to participate in short films or other projects to build a CV.”

“Women need more support with the feedback about their physical attributes as these are often a deciding factor in whether they land roles,” Lauren Whedbee suggested.

“The industry is already starting to acknowledge the unreasonable expectations placed on actresses, so I'd like to see this continue,” Carli Fish said. “In the past I've felt pressured to accept roles, or aspects of roles, I'm not comfortable with. I think it's really important to give female actors the confidence and support to pursue the career they want, not a career at any cost.”

So there we have it. A brief but insightful look into the reality women face when working as an actor. While it’s certainly not a song and dance (unless you’re cast in a musical, of course), the arts as a whole are beginning to respond to issues in creative industries, and the lot of female actors can surely only improve.

Written by Lois Zoppi

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