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In an era when celebrity rules, Noni Hazlehurst worries that lack of opportunities for actors to do high-calibre work will have a negative impact on public perception of their worth

It is a great honour to be an actor. Through my work, I have discovered something my parents and my culture never taught me − that it’s okay to be me, that I don’t have to be perfect, that I am not alone with all my weaknesses and strengths, my doubts and fears, my highs and lows.

The joy of acting, of working on great plays that examine the human condition, is that you come to realise that it’s not just you who feels inadequate or does stupid things or feels insecure at times. And you experience the value of promulgating this liberating information and crashing through the ubiquitous barriers of spin and pretence that govern most of our public behaviour. Acting is about communicating not just emotions but ideas.

A major frustration is that most of the available work opportunities don’t allow us to deal with these great ideas. And when actors have few options but to accept scripts that are less than inspiring, it’s not illogical for the conclusion to be drawn that actors are not terribly valuable contributors to society.

Even the lucky ones who get the breaks and have the pick of the best work on offer don’t escape from accusations that actors are trivial, indulgent, easily dismissible show-offs.

When Cate Blanchett recently appeared in a pro-carbon tax ad on TV, she was widely vilified. Michael Caton was in it, too − but he’s a bloke who wears check shirts, so he didn’t come in for nearly as much attention. According to the Courier Mail, the Opposition Leader used parliamentary procedure to suspend question time to attack the government for being elitist, even though the ad was apparently funded by union and conservationist groups. He was quoted as saying: “This is a PM who is happy to listen to actors, but she won’t listen to voters. She wants to say yes to celebrities but she won’t say yes to the people of Australia. You do not give special weight to celebrities… to people who live half the year in Hollywood [hard to run a state theatre company and be a mother to three small boys if that were true] where there is no carbon tax [an emissions trading scheme comes into effect in California next year]. You give weight to the voice of the Australian people.”

This is an edited version of a speech given at Currency House’s ‘Arts and Public Life Breakfast with Noni Hazlehurst’ in October, 2011 and published in the Summer 2011 issue of  The Equity Magazine. 

In a nutshell, Cate has been defined as a non-voter and not a person of Australia, and she was described in one media outlet as “just an actor”. I can’t remember who wrote that but I suspect it was just a columnist.

Whether the attacks on Cate were just political point scoring or, more worryingly, a reflection of deeply held views about actors’ and artists’ capabilities, not to mention their rights, they raise the issues that I want to address: the conflation of actors and celebrities in the minds of far too many people; the misapprehensions that abound about the kinds of people actors are − as if, indeed, we are somehow different − and why for some reason we often seem to be deemed less deserving of respect than others.

So why the confusion between actors and celebrities? Well, it’s not hard to work out. Just a cursory glance at Google News and the banners under the mastheads of our newspapers provides one obvious answer. Google News doesn’t have an Arts category but an Entertainment one. Similarly, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Herald Sun carry Entertainment as the topic, with The Age and the SMH listing it tenth out of 14 items, Sport being fourth and fifth respectively. The Australian at least lists Arts, but the Canberra Times has neither Arts nor Entertainment advertised on the front page.

The predominant coverage under many of these Entertainment headings is of actors ambushed by paparazzi or appearing at promotional events for their projects, alongside shots of reality stars falling out of nightclubs, WAGs being paraded in their finery on a Lazy Susan and the surgical procedures performed on various personalities.

TV is seen to be the only valid currency for actors and, if you’re not acting on it, you don’t exist or you’ve retired. I’ve lost count of the number of comebacks I’ve supposedly made, even though I have been gainfully employed in other ventures. But the opportunities for doing something really satisfying on TV are few. Especially so for women. Even more so for women over 40, and women and men of ethnic origins other than Anglo-Saxon.

Australia is now a signatory to the UN Convention on Cultural Diversity, which places an obligation on government to raise the profile of arts, culture and diversity − both multicultural diversity and diversity of art forms. It is a given within the convention, and indeed in the National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper, that arts and culture determine our social values, enabling people to express themselves better and to work together to underpin our moral and ethical values. I agree − but the recent cutting of arts content on the ABC, when combined with the generally mediocre local offerings in the rest of the media, would suggest that the government has a huge task ahead.

If you only act in television dramas − and if you are an actor, that will kill you − most of the time you are cast according to your look, not necessarily your intelligence or ability. This is particularly true for young actors, many of whom get away with doing minimal work to develop and prepare themselves, and whose major preoccupation is more likely to be self-promotion than self-improvement.

And don’t forget that acting is one of the few professions that is publicly assessed. Actors have to be resilient and tough, and emotionally able to deal with frequent unemployment and with having their deepest, darkest feelings exposed or their reputations shattered by a bad review.

Of course, occasionally we’re paranoid. When you go for endless roles that you don’t get, self-doubt can start to creep in.

After I had my sons, I cut back on acting work quite substantially, as most of it took me away from them. Consequently, I only appeared in three or four plays over a 15-year period.

So when Robyn Nevin asked me to play opposite her in David Hare’s two-hander The Breath of Life at the STC, to be directed by the wonderful British director Max Stafford-Clark, I was thrilled but nervous. I met Max on the first day of rehearsal and was in awe of his reputation and soon-apparent high standards. It didn’t help that in a press interview early on in the rehearsal period, when asked why she had cast me, Robyn replied that she couldn’t think of anyone else she could bear to share a dressing room with for seven weeks. It wasn’t the response I’d hoped for − that it was my talent, wit and intelligence!

After two weeks of rehearsal, neither Max nor Robyn had given any indication that I was doing okay. Before we began work on the second Friday, Robyn gruffly said that she wanted to speak to me at lunchtime. I spent the rest of the morning feeling sick, trying to prepare myself for the inevitable DCM (don’t come Monday) speech. At lunchtime she marched me outside and said: “I want to offer you two more plays for the opening of the new theatre building.”
My knees buckled and I told her what had been going through my mind. She looked at me archly. “Don’t be ridiculous, Noni!” she barked. High praise indeed! It’s been a running gag between us ever since.

The truth is that every one of us, actors or not, has occasionally done things or exhibited behaviour that could be construed as egomaniacal, attention-seeking, precious, diva-like, air-headed, fragile, hypersensitive or stupid. If we’re honest, we must acknowledge our less-than-perfect states from time to time.

The actor’s job is to mine his or her own character and experience, to find the qualities demanded by the playwright in the telling of their story. We have to create a character who is alive and believable, that the audience can understand and feel for as a human being, and who, like all of us, has made choices that may or may not serve them well but who is still worthy of compassion. If we can do that, we are serving the great writers, like Shakespeare and Ibsen and Chekhov and Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, who write in the service of humanity.

Yet this niggling perception persists that acting is a frivolous pursuit, that it isn’t a worthwhile or honourable profession. My sense of worth comes from participating in a piece of work that has the potential to transform and inspire people, to illuminate and nourish them. Waiting in the wings, hearing the audience chattering, I feel thrilled knowing that it’s up to me to take them on a journey, to use my years of training and experience and living to try to move and inspire them, to make them think and feel, and to satisfy their imagination.

Theatre is completely different to television and film, not just because the stories and the quality of the writing are generally superior and far richer but also because it’s live. It’s a real human interaction. Hundreds of eyes are trained on your every move and hundreds of ears are tuned to every word. The audience members hand over their imaginations and wait to be transported to a different reality.

And just occasionally, we’re aware that we’ve struck a chord of recognition and empathy with the entire audience. You feel that delicate silence, that hovering sensibility, when you can literally hear a pin drop. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.

The frustrating thing is that there are so few opportunities to do this calibre of work. There aren’t too many directors who can draw the best work out of actors and, even if there were, there aren’t enough venues or productions to give enough actors the chance to work.

So does this work have value? Well, surely anything that reminds us that we share more similarities than differences with our fellow human beings has value. Anything that comforts, enlightens and challenges is valuable. Anything that is memorable because it provides us with solace or insight or empathy or temporarily transports us with delight has value. Anything that shows us that being beautiful, loud, bigoted, rich and/or rude are not the only ways to succeed is valuable.

But as Clare Bowditch pointed out on ABC’s recent Artscape discussion about the National Cultural Policy, artists don’t even have a category to define them if they have to apply for the dole. The creative industries aren’t considered a legitimate career. And virtually no employer is going to take you on, on the understanding that acting is your first love so you might need to take time off to go to an audition or do a three-day guest lead in a TV drama.

The National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper sets out the proposition that “it is time for a new phase of policy development designed to bring the arts and creative industries into the mainstream of Australian life… based on an understanding that a creative nation produces a more inclusive society, and a more expressive and confident citizenry by encouraging our ability to express, describe and share our diverse experiences − with each other and the world”.

But what happens if the expressive and confident citizenry is dominated by aggressive, abusive voices that engender intolerance, negativity, exclusion and ignorance? That can only lead to pain and despair. What happens if the mainstream media largely ignore the economic, emotional and intellectual value of, and contribution by, the arts and actors, while lauding image-focused celebrities and personalities who are primarily in the public eye because of the way they look, how badly they behave and how much money they earn? A cultural drought and the attendant despair of young people starved of true beauty and a sense of belonging. Junk food is bad for you, likewise junk culture.

Socrates said: “Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul?” Many people acknowledge that without an appreciation of, or exposure to, the arts, our lives are significantly reduced. More people need to be persuaded of that view.

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