With everyone out of work, how can actors make a living?

Actors, as Suzy Cooper freely acknowledges, are used to being out of work. They even have a special word for it. But never can she remember a time when they were all “resting” at once.

Suzy Cooper
Suzy Cooper

Powerless to act when not only the theatres but also the rehearsal rooms have gone dark, they have stopped calling their agents – and the old adage that the show must go on has acquired a hollow ring.

“There’s a strange calmness at the moment,” she said. “As an actor, you always feel you’re on the back foot – that somehow everyone else is working so you should be, too. But having no-one at all in employment is a first for everyone.

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“On the one hand, it’s a bit panicky. But on the other hand, there’s nothing we can do about it. So there’s a strange sort of reassurance in knowing that it’s not something anyone can be proactive about.”

Cooper is familiar to two generations of theatregoers in York for her annual performances as principal girl in a long run of traditional pantomimes written by her co-star, the comedian Berwick Kaler.

This year, the company is due to open in Dick Turpin Rides Again, at the Grand Opera House, having moved from their customary home at the Theatre Royal.

But although the curtain does not go up until December 12, the uncertainty among audiences – not least their worry at being able to afford tickets – is unsettling.

“The public needs to feel confident that if they buy tickets, they’re going to be able to go and see something. Or if not, that they are at least going to get their money back,” she said.

The constant rumour, fed by a lack of concrete information, did not help matters.

“People are supposing and guessing,” she said. “I heard a supposition, a few days ago that everyone might be able to go out and about in the summer and then be closed back down for the winter.

“Well, of course, for pantomime season, that would just be a nightmare – but it’s not coming from any reliable source, it’s just hearsay.

“All the same, it doesn’t inspire confidence, and something needs to said soon about what we can expect.”

Most actors, she said, take work where they can find it – a touring theatre production, a TV part, the occasional voice-over. In between, they may do other jobs.

In Cooper’s case, that means teaching yoga on the side, but that is also a line of work rendered impracticable at the moment, so she is attempting to move her classes online. Her husband is also teaching.

However, for most purposes, actors are in the same position as any other self-employed professional.

“Most actors live hand to mouth. Only around two per cent of the acting population have been able to amass savings,” she said.

“It raises the question, how do you make a living – because as welcome as the Chancellor’s help for the self-employed has been, it’s not coming in until June, and I’m not quite sure how the Government expects us to live until then. Handouts from parents? I mean, are we still at that stage?”

Had there not been more than 5m people in self-employment across the various professions, she doubted that any help for actors would have been forthcoming at all.

There is then the question of the stability of the theatres and production companies who employ them, she added.

“I’ve always worried about where my next job is coming from. It goes with the territory.

“But this is so colossal, I just don’t know how it can be sustained. People can only put their lives on hold for so long.

“I have to be hopeful that this Government will support the fact that the economy needs to kick in at some point.

“For theatres across the country, that’s the real worry – that this can be sustained maybe for a couple of months but that after that, it could be a very different story.”

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