There is an important little sentence that sometimes you just have to say out loud. And some people say it a lot, and some people hardly at all. It can be a tough thing to vocalize, and sometimes the four words can stick in your throat like a February wind, or a Strepsil you swallowed too fast. But you just have to say it nonetheless.
‘I can’t afford that’.
In my experience there are several different ways to say it. And I’ve done them all.
You say it when you are a teenager and hanging out with good mates, daft friends, who are maybe in a similar financial situation to you. You say it when it’s normal and okay to not afford things. Like nights out. Clothes from Gap. Day trips. Things that are sometimes just out of your budget. Just a little beyond your reach. But there’s no shame in it, and you all have a sweet and naïve understanding of it. Not affording things is okay. It’s a part of life. A tough but bittersweet chapter of growing up. You get your period. You get spots. And sometimes you just can’t have the things you want.
‘I can’t afford THAT!!’ you laugh as you yank at the tag on a slippery genuine leather coat. And then you shove each other and snort and stare back at the shop assistants, before marching out of River Island and down the High Street to C&A. Because there you can find a t shirt with a slogan on it for £6.99. And you’ll wear it with combat trousers and knock off Converse while you drink some Hooch in your best mate’s bedroom and feel like you’re a member of All Saints.
Then there are the times when you are older and finding yourself in awkward social situations where your funds, or lack of, suddenly become something you feel you have to disclose. Company meals. Whip rounds. Weddings.
‘I can’t afford that,’ I practically whispered to my flatmate when the invitation to a Scottish wedding dropped through the letterbox. We were in our early twenties and Michelle was the first in our circle to actually get married. The weekly wage of my fringe theatre gig was not going to stretch to trains, hotels, an outfit that would be suitable in a church and a ‘small’ donation to a fortnight in the Seychelles. I chucked the invite on our mug-laden coffee table where it sat amongst crumb covered plates for weeks, and despondently repeated myself.
‘I just can’t afford that.’
Then there comes the time when you are in your mid-thirties with dependants and nursery fees and a big fucking chip on your shoulder. And you get bold enough to straighten your shoulders, look people in the eye and say
‘I can’t afford that.’
That’s the way I say it now. But it took a long time to get there. And for a while I chose to not say it at all and instead just shouted it inside my mind. Like when the twenty four year old producer at the fringe theatre company wrinkled her nose in disgust when I asked her if there was a computer I could use.
‘What!? You mean you don’t have a laptop?’
Nope, Sasha. I don’t. And on the £350 a week you are paying me, I doubt I’ll be getting one any time soon.
Or you mutter it quietly to yourself when someone at the table of a company meal suggests splitting the bill.
‘Lets just split it eleven ways shall we?’ someone whines. ‘It’s so annoying when everyone has to work out what they had!’
Yes, yes it is annoying. But you know what, Karen? Some of us literally did just have the tricolore and a 7up. So pay for your calzone and pipe the fuck down.
In one of those situations I did actually decide not to just quietly bitch and moan, and I actually spoke up for myself and other company members. A well known television actor was playing the lead in a play I was working on at a regional theatre, and had decided we should all as a company go for dinner, but the restaurant he had chosen was particularly exclusive. The stage management team checked out the website and we were shocked to discover that starters were £27. (I didn’t even scroll down to see the mains. Just shut the window.) When I spoke to the crew and indeed, other cast members, everyone seemed to be saying ‘well I’ll just go and not drink and have a salad’.
What a FUN night out. Like going to a brothel because you fancy spooning.
I attempted to bring this up with the actor in question, but didn’t get too far. He just looked mildly amused and said ‘well Jess, if you can’t afford it, we could always have a whip round.’
Fortunately most lead actors who earn substantially more than anyone else in a company are not all total arseholes who want to create a weird class divide within their colleagues. Many of them are hugely generous and kind and sensitive to the fact that not everyone can dine in the way that they have become accustomed. But I have also had so many strange and unsettling experiences whilst working in this industry. Nobody ever warned me it would happen. And nobody ever really wants to talk about it. You mostly just have to work it out by yourself.
I grew up in Liscard. In Merseyside. My dad taught at a secondary school in Liverpool, my mum didn’t work and I had two older sisters from my mum’s first marriage. And life was pretty great. We didn’t have tons of spare cash. We never went abroad. But we always had food and shoes that fit and access to culture and activities. We were incredibly fortunate. And I wasn’t really aware that people had it any different. In a time before social media, the windows into a wealthier world were not yet open. And I assumed that having money or living in a house with a pool only really happened to Macaulay Culkin.
Once a week I would get driven half an hour to a slightly more affluent area where my after school theatre club was. I was one of about three people from my borough who went there. The others all lived closer to the village hall where we jumped about in our jazz shoes and tracksuit bottoms. They lived in Heswall. Or West Kirby. I was vaguely aware of their driveways. Their two cars. Their holidays to hot countries. But it didn’t really bother me. And it didn’t bother them either. We were all too busy learning dance routines to ‘The Wiz’ or seeing who could get into the splits the quickest to talk about that kind of stuff.
It was probably when I got to drama school that I began to work out that there were people who lived a different lifestyle to me. My sister, Jo, was six years older than me and had gone to Hull University. I had visited her on a few occasions and was totally enamored by her student lifestyle. Her and her friends were completely broke, but their tales of counting out pennies on shop counters for Pot Noodles or walking miles home because they had no money for the bus, were always regailed with squawks of laughter, high fives and affectionate eye rolls. My general understanding of student life was that everyone was skint, but you were all skint together. And because of that you made the most of it and got by.
With all of that going round in my head, drama school was quite a shock.
I took a one year stage management course at a very small and not widely respected drama school. It was £2000 for the entire year, which is pretty cheap considering the other three year courses that were available. But it was still very expensive for my folks. So they went into their savings and spread the payments over the year and they did it. I considered myself phenomenally lucky, as I knew that not everybody gets that opportunity to have that level of higher education.
There were no halls of residence so I found a flat near the college and rounded up three other soon-to-be students to share it with me. It was £90 a week in Zone 3 (god bless you 2001), and this was a cost I needed to cover by working evenings as an usherette at ‘The Lion King’. I’d finish college at 5pm, jump on the tube and sell ice creams and drinks before dozing off at the back of the auditorium during the big fight scene between Scar and Simba. Sometimes I would take home loo roll or the bashed up sweets that we couldn’t sell. And of course when we were doing shows at college in the evenings, I couldn’t go to work or earn money. So my wages had to be stretched to their limit. I couldn’t get a student loan as my course was only a year, so I just had to use normal bank loans which would eventually be paid back. With interest.
It was pretty early on that it started to dawn on me that I was having a different student experience to my sister. And actually a very different student experience to the other people around me. At one house party I got chatting to someone on the acting course who, it transpired, lived in the flat where we were doing shots of cheap, throat burning tequila. It didn’t really look much different to mine. Magnolia walls and a sticky bathroom floor and a gas oven with inch-thick grease on the rings. My flat was in Tooting and his was in Clapham which was nearer to the college. I asked him how much the rent was as I was wondering if I should move. He momentarily looked away from me to blow out his fag smoke, and then looked back.
‘Oh I don’t pay rent,’ he shrugged. ‘My dad bought this when I knew I’d be coming here.’ He carried on, oblivious to me trying to swallow a mouthful of Bacardi Breezer mixed with undiluted shock. ‘It just… you know… made sense.’
I eyed up this fellow student as he bemoaned the issues of being the landlord when some of his mates lived there too, and I tried to get my head around what I had just heard. He looked just like me. Sounded just like me. We both had H&M clothes, shit hair cuts, no phone credit and a palpable uncertainty about the career we were both embarking on.
But his parents had bought him a property.
He wasn’t being a dick about it. And, as he said, they just did it because it made logical, financial sense. It was an investment. An asset. A completely practical thing to do. When I started to write this I looked online at flats in the Clapham area, and compared the prices of them in 2001 to now. And I thought about my old fellow student. His parents, who just like mine, will have paid the money it takes to put their kid through drama school. Yet they will have actually profited from it. Profited from putting their child through college.
He was a delightful young person who wasn’t bragging about his landlord status. To him, it was just quite a normal part of his lifestyle. And as the year wore on I discovered there were many students living in family-owned houses. Or still living at home with their London-based family. Or just having their rent, bills and spending money completely covered by their parents
The following morning was a Saturday, and as I took a paracetomol and started to get ready for a loud, family-filled matinee (Hakuna fucking Matata), I started to realise why my student experience didn’t seem to be as fun as my sister’s.
It was because the majority of other people at my drama school weren’t really like me. The romance of pot noodles and cheap booze and walking miles because you don’t have your bus fare is only really fun if you are doing it with other people. Doing it by yourself is shit. I sometimes wonder if there were actually more people who shared my financial situation, but we were all so busy studying or working to notice.
I reached the end of drama school fairly exhausted, financially broken and in actual proper debt. As I’m sure most people do. I didn’t go to my graduation party as the ticket was £60. So what with the cab ride (no night tubes or ubers in those days) and the new outfit (I’d heard other girls talk about gowns and shoes from Debenhams) I just skipped it. I figured that my horrific social awkwardness meant I woudn’t enjoy it anyway.
And then I was out in the Actual World Of Theatre.
I had stupidly assumed that the financial gap between me and my peers would close up. But if anything it just seemed to get bigger.
My course was absolutely brilliant. I learnt theatre terms and how to make basic props and how to focus lights and mark out a props table and operate a lighting desk. It was an absolutely vital part of me learning the backstage ropes and giving me an understanding of how theatre worked. But I started to notice the difference in my education as I joined other stage management teams in the professional world. The majority of them had trained on three year courses, where what they had learned was far more sophisticated. In my first professional pantomime it became cripplingly obvious that I was out of my depth and had not learnt enough about bigger shows having spent a year working on what was essentially student fringe theatre. My ‘work experience’ was literally stage managing a fringe production of a new play. And I was completely stunned to discover that the graduates of the bigger drama schools had completed work placements at the Royal Court or the National Theatre or the Tricycle or in the West End. I already felt very behind, but getting out there and discovering how ill equipped I actually was destroyed my confidence in a way I never thought possible, and I questioned many times if I should just quit and try to find a new path. So many of my peers and competitors had already made contacts and gained experience that I could only dream of. And even though I knew that we were all at the bottom of our own ladders, I felt like mine had some rungs missing and that I was already lagging behind.
That’s the thing about ladders. It’s all very well having the nouse and determination and drive needed to climb them, but some people’s ladders are already in better condition than others, years before you even know which ladder you want to pursue. And often it feels like some people aren’t going to get a proper ladder at all. Just one of those stupid Ikea things with two steps.
It only gets you up to a certain point before you are precariously clambering onto greasy worktops or wobbly tables, quickly coming to the conclusion that whatever you are reaching for is probably not worth the fall you are inevitably going to take.
And you know what, even when I got higher up my ladder, there were often times when I wondered if I was meant to be there at all. So many people in my rehearsal rooms didn’t appear to have the same financial stress as I did, and it crossed my mind on more than one occasion that this was an industry for the elite and maybe I simply didn’t belong. I had never considered myself to be poor or disadvantaged. Far from it. But I did often feel slightly isolated by the theatre world.
All that time spent climbing a ladder. Only to practically search for the snake that would take me back down.
And sometimes colleagues did very little to make me feel any different. The snorts of derision when I didn’t know how to mark up a musical score. Or the eye-rolls when I lacked proper tools or equipment. And even a haughty look of disbelief from a director when I said I didn’t know the plot of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
‘You don’t know the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?’
I know. Crazy, isn’t it? Yes I’m sure you saw it AND studied it AND performed in it whilst you were at St Andrews, but some of us didn’t and, guess what? It’s not some kind of weird theatrical crime to not know the plot of every single Shakespeare by the time you’re 26.
I even vividly remember one technician eyeing up my little Samsung Netbook about two days after I had eventually saved enough to buy it and making his utter disdain known.
‘Why didn’t you just get a Mac?’ he scoffed, ‘They’re the best.’
Maybe it was around that time when I started to stop what I was doing, look people in the eye, and tell them why I didn’t have a Mac. Or why I didn’t come to the company meal. Or why I wasn’t subsidising the props budget until someone could give me petty cash.
‘I can’t afford it’.
Just because you are on the same company wage, it does not mean you have the same annual income. Or property portfolio. The numbers that come up when you all check your bank app on payday can be wildly different. And I’ve been in too many awkward situations where it starts to be clear that not everyone is sensitive to that. Interestingly the place where I have felt this most has been in fringe venues. The company members or creative who do the sums and decide that they have had a good enough year to be able to afford to take the part in the exciting piece of new writing. And the company members who, like me, didn’t have a huge amount of choice but are going to try their best to make it work.
I’m so proud of my route and my journey and the ladder that I got up and the snakes I refused to let pull me down. I left stage management earlier this year and am now at the bottom of a different ladder, but am working out how to climb it nonetheless. I have found an amazing network of creatives, actors, stage management and backstage staff who have all succeeded in this industry against the odds. Who don’t turn their noses up at those who don't know the entire back catalogue of every dead playwright, and who work hard at creating opportunities for people not as fortunate.
There are also people who were blessed with a smooth and well-made ladder, who do everything they can to get people to climb up it behind them. Before I left the world of production, I would see so many creatives empowering and encouraging their associates, and it gave me real hope.
I also try to pay it forward in the smallest ways that I can. Charities like Arts Emergency are developing and I see the determination from theatrical practitioners to keep the industry as open as possible. But as time goes on I do see less and less people get into this industry via slightly more unconventional routes. Especially young people. The one year stage management course I did is long gone. Even the universities that do offer theatre studies are becoming as crazily unaffordable as drama schools. Work experience slots are in high demand and will mostly get taken up by those on the bank-breaking courses.
The ladders of opportunity for the next generation are being pulled up one by one.
I clearly don’t have the solution to this issue. And this country seems to be so fucked up by people who bypassed the ladder, went round the back and took some magical LIFT that I don’t know how many affordable government-funded schemes are even on offer any more.
Plus there are too many people who, like myself, reached the top of their ladder and were made to feel so inadequate by some people up there, that they come to the conclusion that theatre is not for them and actually went back down. But something has to be done. Or one day we will just wake up and discover that theatre is entirely made by the elite for the elite.
And we simply can’t afford that.
Thank you so much for reading this. If you enjoyed it please do share.
Thank you so much for reading this. If you enjoyed it please do share.