Privilege in the Performing Arts
Why privilege plays a big, and sometimes unexpected, role in the background of people we see on stage and screen
By Sam Otto
When we talk about privilege in the entertainment industry, we often see discussions centred around wealth, education, class, gender, race, and the whole nepotism debate. I think, however, there’s a lot more nuance to how privilege plays a part in who ends up on our screens and stages, and it goes a lot deeper than we might think.
If we’re ever going to create a space of equal opportunity, it’s helpful to take a closer look at it.
Fortune favours the brave… and the privileged
We see the same pattern emerging in many workplaces – the idea that when someone is entitled from birth, they’ll put themselves in the way of more opportunity. When you’re told from a young age that you can be the best, be it through your education, what you’re exposed to in the media, or your surrounding environment, you’ll probably come to believe it. That shows up in your levels of self-belief and optimism, and the ability to fully present yourself to any given opportunity.
The age-old motif ‘fortune favours the brave’, is true. We’re exponentially more likely to get lucky the more we put ourselves in the path of opportunity. And how much easier it is to be brave when there has never been anything to instil in you the fear of failure, anxiety, and crippling self-doubt.
This goes the other way as well. The notion of imposter syndrome, of never feeling that you truly belong due to an often-self-imposed sense that your achievements are nothing more than a mere fluke, and that at any moment the grand circus of your accidental fortune will grind to a halt. Both ends of this spectrum serve to not only fuel us or debilitate our belief and confidence but also encourage or inhibit the development of skill and ability.
The unfortunate reality is that while privilege gives some individuals an unfair advantage in many ways, unrelated to their ability to actually do the job, it may also give them the more applicable ability for the job. Or at least makes it easier for them to achieve a certain skill level. In the entertainment industry, and specifically the pursuit of a career in acting, this is perhaps acutely highlighted.
Outside looking in
In my experience and opinion, once talent has been uncovered, and the preparation and work have been done, acting boils down to one simple thing, something Sanford Meisner would agree with me on: the art of relaxation. I don’t mean as a character or in a particular scene, I mean as an actor relaxed enough to know yourself and your abilities. To feel accepted and have a sense of ownership about the space you find yourself in. To allow yourself to explore and create. To try new things and reinvent yourself.
This is a far easier state to reach for someone who has spent their whole life feeling accepted, than for someone who hasn’t. People like those who didn’t grow up with money and had to work a lot of jobs to earn a living or those who feel like an outsider due to their class, race, gender, sexuality, or physical ability.
As someone from the ‘outside’, coming into a workspace that’s still mostly dominated by a particular subclass - the white, middle/upper-class, able-bodied man - immediately creates a feeling of alienation. To feel comfortable enough to immerse oneself fully into another character is perhaps incrementally more difficult for an ‘outsider’ and demands a much greater level of self-confidence and drive, in order to take one’s place around the table.
The wealth blanket
When you’re financially secure, there’s a clear lack of worry about simply getting by and having opportunities. This results in potential career-building jobs being nothing more than a stepping stone for career progression and something exciting to do. But for those of us for whom living costs and financial security are a real issue, suddenly every audition and meeting becomes far more important. Unfortunately, this sense of need often translates into a lack of ease and confidence in an audition, which is not conducive to landing the role.
Once again, the underprivileged must work that bit harder in order to not come into a room with what could come across as a sense of desperation. With a growing number of people attempting to break into the industry, and a cost-of-living crisis biting hard, that challenge increases by the day.
The privilege of performing
Even the chance to perform in the first place is something privileged few can do, dependent on socio-economic background, cultural context, or physical ability. This is why there’s somewhat more of an explanation for the nepo-baby narrative than simply being favoured because of name and or status. While that is invariably true, there’s also something to be said about the acceptance and ownership that comes from growing up around this industry all your life. From being on film sets and backstage, and the access, the ease, and the literal language that comes from living in that world from day one. If one or two jobs can be got on name alone, then afterwards, privilege is manifest in the ability to actually improve due to the time spent doing it.
While many of us don’t have a famous name, a million in the bank, or a Great Uncle who exec-produced a Spielberg film and knows the casting director of every show in town, privilege is ultimately a sliding scale that we all have varying degrees of access to. A ‘break’ is a tangible thing in this industry, and there’s no shame in taking advantage of any leg up that is available to us, to make that break come more easily.
We live in a fraught world, where the reality is that it’s a privilege to even be able to live without fear for your life or your rights, let alone be free to create whatever art you like. The best we can do is acknowledge and take ownership of the privilege we do have, whether that’s having Hollywood parentage, or simply being able to wake up each day with a roof over our heads, our health and happiness intact, and the freedom to continue chasing our dreams.
Actor, singer and writer Sam Otto made his television debut as the male lead in Peter Kosminsky’s explosive BAFTA nominated drama ‘The State’, just out of drama school, leading to recognition by Screen International as one of their ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ for 2017, before undertaking a series regular role in TNT and Netflix’s Emmy nominated ‘Snowpiercer’, recently wrapping its fourth and final season, to air at the beginning of 2023. Sam will next be seen on stage in James Graham’s Olivier-nominated play ‘Best of Enemies' at the Noel Coward Theatre, after a sold-out run at The Young Vic. Alongside acting, Sam can often be found singing original and adapted songs on his Instagram @_samotto.
Main image credit: Siora Photography / Unsplash
Headshot credit: Jack Alexander