An Actor Reflects on Being An Assertive Performer
Katie Elin-Salt reflects on the rights of actors in today's climate
To say it's been a funny old time to be an actor recently would be somewhat understating it. Only a few weeks ago I turned on my phone to see #harveyweinstein trending for the first time. Since then it has felt at times like standing under an avalanche with no shelter, at other times like being in the middle of a revolution. I, like so many, watched with horror as allegation after allegation unfolded in worlds that were both completely alien to me and alarmingly close to home.
Powerful campaigns such as #metoo and the Royal Court's "No Grey Area" event gave many voices a space to be heard, and as the extent of the problem came to light it seemed very hard as an actor, as a woman, as a person, not to feel anything but fear, anger and despair. Thankfully, out of all this darkness, there has been hope. Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court released a 30-point plan to tackle harassment in theatre, and many of the biggest names in theatre, film and TV have spoken out and committed to a monumental change, which I very much look forward to seeing.
But what is a jobbing actor supposed to do in the middle of all this? I don't have the answers right now but I wanted to share just a few things that I think are important for us all to remember whilst we are still out there on the front line.
At most, the person on the other side of the table may get to determine your career path for a bit but they do not get to determine your importance, your value as a person or your boundaries. Only you get to do that.
You are just as important as anyone else in the room
It is so hard to feel like this most of the time as an actor. There have been many times in my career where I have sat, deep in my overdraft and desperately unemployed, in front of man in a big chair who could take all that away and enable me to do the job I love, should I say the words in front of me in the way he wishes to hear them. The power balance in an audition room - even in a rehearsal room or on set - can rarely feel like it is in the actor's favour. There are many people out there who are aware and will not take advantage of the situation, but unfortunately, as has come to light recently, this is not always the case.
It is good to keep in mind that, no matter how much of a hot shot a director is, no matter how much money the producer is offering you, no matter how many times you could fit your entire flat into their audition room, you are just as important as they are. Your talent enables all of these people to do their job and is precious and important. You matter just as much.
At most, the person on the other side of the table may get to determine your career path for a bit but they do not get to determine your importance, your value as a person or your boundaries. Only you get to do that. It is never okay for someone to make you feel otherwise. You are strong, powerful, unique, talented and you are to be respected. If someone makes you feel otherwise then that is their unprofessionalism and disrespect, not yours. You deserve better.
You are not being difficult for saying no
A friend of mine had a part in a TV thing. They had run over schedule and everyone was stressed. At some point, she was pulled aside and asked if she'd mind renegotiating the closed set that had been arranged for a scene (which involved partial nudity on her part) to save time. She agreed, to the great relief of everyone - except herself. This is a small example of one of the many times actors can feel pressured into doing things they aren't necessarily comfortable with in order to not appear difficult.
It was not my friend's fault that the filming had run over. It was not her responsibility to get the time back and it certainly was not okay for her to be put in a situation where her own needs were put last. But somehow all of this fell onto her shoulders. I think it is very important for us to remember that we are allowed to say "no" to things that make us uncomfortable and to not feel guilty about it. You do not have to answer the personal question, wear the costume, do the sex scene or go for the after-work drink if it doesn't feel right. You are absolutely not being a "diva" (hate that word) and you are within your rights to set boundaries wherever you want them. Which brings me to…
Don't ever let anyone tell you that any performance you do is made better or worse by your own personal boundaries.
You are not any less of an actor for having boundaries
There was a time long ago where I believed that anyone who was willing to get their kit off in front of an audience should be given an Offie, an Oscar and a statue outside the National Theatre. I think I spent most of my first year of drama school parading around in diminishing attire waiting to be told I was now a dangerous and interesting actor. But then I was lucky enough to see some very naked but truly atrocious acting.
My point here is that having boundaries around certain things (or not) does not make you a better or worse actor. If you are ok with nudity, for example, then that is fine. But if that's a no-go area for you then that does not mean that you are any less of a performer. I know a brilliant actor who chooses not to swear as part of their work. Yes, it may mean you have to be a bit pickier about the work you do and yes it may mean an extra conversation before you take on a job, but it does not make you any less deserving of the work you do. Don't ever let anyone tell you that any performance you do is made better or worse by your own personal boundaries.
TALK (or if you can't, listen!)
One of the few good things to come out of this situation is that I finally feel able to talk about this stuff with both my friends and my industry. You know the bit at the end of the Emperor's New Clothes where everyone's complicit in worshipping this naked king, till a kid stands up and shouts, "Hang on a minute, he's in the nuddy!" Everyone realises they aren't alone thinking it and the Emperor looks like a big naked idiot.
Well, if all this shows us anything, it's that there is power in our voices and we will be heard if we stand together. This is one of the few times where we can use our (very well-trained) voices as one. You don't owe anybody a story that you are not willing to tell, and if you don't feel ready to put yourself out there, then listening, knowing you are not alone and things are changing, can be just as good.
If you have experienced or are experiencing something that you don't think is right, speak to someone (if you can) who can help. A colleague, a friend, the union (Equity is doing brilliant work on this issue at the moment). It seems like a long road ahead but we will get there much faster if we all support each other.
The most important thing - and the only thing you really need to know - is that it is never, ever your fault if somebody abuses the power they hold. I hope we can keep reminding each other of this and always know that we are powerful too.
Katie Elin-Salt is an actor, singer and musician from Bridgend in South Wales, now living in London. She trained at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and has done some nice bits of work over the last few years that she's chuffed with. Aside from this, she's most commonly known as Princess Elsa on weekends, and has also starred as Peppa Pig and Supergirl in various children's parties across the UK. You may also recognise Katie from working in the returns section of Ann Summers Cardiff during Christmas 2010. Series regular of Judge Judy (playing 'person watching it on the sofa whilst once again not in the gym'.)