Theatre Critic and Journalist

Actors and Agency

Actors and Agency

Published in The Stage,  23.01.2014

At the height of her fame in 1951, Josephine Baker, the legendary American actress and civil rights activist, boycotted any venue at which audiences were segregated by race. On occasion, that involved turning down offers of $10,000, but she is credited with triggering integration across Las Vegas as a result.

I bring this up because at the end of last year the writer-performer Cush Jumbo, whose acclaimed solo show Josephine and I revived popular interest in Baker last year, seemed to suggest that actors don’t necessarily have political agency in performance.

First glance might deem that absurd. We know theatre can be political – most, Jumbo included, would go further and say it’s always political – so it follows that the same goes for acting: to act is a political act.

However, at a symposium on political theatre last November, organised as part of Parliament Week, Jumbo – quite rightly – pointed out that it’s not always as clean-cut as that. “When you’re acting as opposed to writing it’s strange because, obviously, you don’t always choose the work you’re performing,” she said. In practice, that means an actor sometimes finds themselves performing “a character or a play that [they]…don’t agree with the politics of.”

For her part, Jumbo sees nothing wrong with that. “Your job is not to actually explain or discuss, or even to tell people what’s right and wrong,” she continues. “As an actor, your job is to be the vessel for some work that a writer’s written and let that pass through you and let the audience make of that what they will.”

In other words, acting is not advocacy. Now, on the surface, that seems obvious. It takes only the most basic grasp of the distinction between actor and character to understand that an actor needn’t literally mean the words they say. To argue otherwise would be to insist that only Nazi sympathisers can play Hitler. Acting is about empathy – understanding the other – but that needn’t imply agreement.

Or, for that matter, disagreement. It’s often said that non-judgement is one of the central tenets of acting. The actor, as Jumbo says, removes him or herself from the equation.

However, plays and productions do involve judgement. Many argue a position or put forward a case. At that level, I’d argue audiences do assume a certain level of advocacy – or at least, complicity – on the part of the performer. We think of theatre as a collaborative artform, so we might reasonably assume that the overall work speaks for the entire company, that everyone’s on board with it. We rarely pause to consider the scenario Jumbo describes above.

Jumbo rightly identifies that it comes down to choice. According to a recent Equity survey, only 13.6% of actors earned more than £20,000 from work in the entertainment industry last year and only 2.2%, over £50,000. Very nearly half, earned under £5,000; one than one in ten, nothing. It’s a cliché to say that only a tiny percentage of actors can choose the work they do, but there is some truth in it.

I say ‘some truth’ because, beneath it all, choice always exists, even if, according to one’s particular circumstances, it may not seem like it. We must admit that an actor’s political stance isn’t the only motivating factor. Financial circumstances and ambitions play their part, but, at base, an actor can almost always say no. To take on work that goes against your political beliefs is, at the very least, to consent to it’s existence, to those ideas being advocated.

There are other issues involved. Firstly, collaboration isn’t always a level playing field. Gloucester rarely gets the same say as Lear nor Laertes as Hamlet, and, for the sake of the production’s consistency, both must bend knee somewhat and make their artistic choices in relation to those of others. Hierarchies inevitably exist and, for a production to cohere, certain actors defer.

Partly, perhaps, it’s down to our writercentric theatre culture, where – as Jumbo identifies – actors kowtow to authorial intentions. Other cultures allow productions to engage in dialogue with a text, so that actors can play with or against it. You can see some of that spirit – and indeed, the all-round ownership that results – in the work of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre ensemble.

My first thoughts on reading Jumbo’s words were of Lucy Ellinson, an actor – and activist – whose stage work always seems (to me) to reflect her politics. There is, at the very least, a consistency in the thinking that runs between, say, playing a drained drone pilot in Grounded and a pregnant POW in Caroline Bird’s Trojan Women, between playing Julian Assange in Greyscale’s TENET and a flash banker in Unlimited’s MONEY: the Game Show. I imagine Ellinson’s choice of work is, to a large extent, informed, if not governed, by her politic beliefs – and it’s all the better for that connection and conviction. Because when Lucy Ellinson acts, you just know she means it.

Photograph: Iona Firouzabadi

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