The Arts industry is precarious at the best of times, especially for those who are at the beginning of their career. As The Guardian notes only 2% of actors are able to earn a living from the industry alone. Over the past two years, Covid-19 has only decreased the probability of ‘making it’ and being part of that 2% for recent graduates.
The creators behind the new Sky Arts series A Play in a Day have recognised the severe challenges new performers have dealt with and continue to face as a result of Covid-19. They provide 6 graduates with the opportunity to work with industry professionals and produce three fifteen-minute productions in dance, acting and musical theatre, in just twenty-four hours. Although the scope for opportunity is admittedly quite small, with only 6 graduates being able to benefit from the idea, I think the concept as a whole is a great way to raise awareness of the challenging reality for young performers.
The three-part series is narrated by the Artistic Director at the Young Vic Theatre, Kwame Kwei Armah, who wants to provide a career-starter for six budding performers. He believes theatre graduates are the ‘lifeblood of the industry’ who are currently ‘graduating into a cultural desert’, largely as a result of the pandemic. The idea is that two graduates from each genre are joined by one or two directors and a scriptwriter, as well as two professional actors that join the graduates on stage in the drama and musical theatre performances. These professionals include playwrights James Graham and Chris Bush, composer Ruth Chan, Peaky Blinders actor Charlie Creed-Miles, Bafta award winning actress Rakie Ayola, Tyrone Huntley, Maria Friedman, director Matthew Xia and world-famous dancer Sergei Polunin.
When I first heard about the concept, I didn’t think it was a particularly novel idea, having been given the same challenge of performing a play in a day in multiple theatre camps growing up. However, very soon into the first episode, I realised how naïve I was towards the true scale of the task. The series takes place in London’s Alexandra Palace Theatre and each production includes a full set, lighting and sound design that is only prepared in a thirty-minute technical rehearsal. Kwame Kwei Armah tells us that these performers are doing what normally takes five weeks in five hours as they urgently rehearse and learn their lines. The writers and composers are given the theme ‘ordinary people amidst an extraordinary event’ and have from nine pm to six am to script and compose their pieces and send them off to the performers. Whilst I recognise that this is difficult time constraint for all three genres, I think the musical theatre team certainly has the most challenging task. Not only do they have to come up with a concept and write the script, they have to compose at least 4 songs. We are told by playwright Chris Bush during this episode that it took the writers of We Will Rock You, 10 years to finish their musical. Similarly, according to Insider, it took Lin Manuel Miranda 6 years to produce Hamilton. Although admittedly the scale of this 15-minute musical is a lot smaller, I definitely sympathised most with the musical theatre graduate’s anxiety when they were desperately trying to learn their lines and music before the performance.
As someone who loves performing and who has definitely considered an acting career in the past, I really enjoyed watching this series, seeing the graduates being given such a great opportunity to start their career, as agents, casting directors and producers filled the audience. There are, however, a few frustrating aspects of this series. Whilst it is certainly a great experience for the graduates to perform alongside industry professionals, part of me felt that more graduates should have been involved and fewer professionals. Especially in the ‘Drama’ genre, there should have been a greater focus on the young performers, not only in how much they got interviewed in the show, but in the play itself. The graduates, Mary and Stefan barely got any airtime compared to the professionals who were effectively given the two main roles. There was a much better balance in the other two genres; Liv and Aoife were both given a long monologue and solo in the musical theatre production and Kamal and Leigh worked in almost equal partnership with Sergei in the development and performance of the dance piece.
Despite this critique of the logistics behind the ‘Drama’ performance, there is a particularly poignant moment during the play that is certainly worth mentioning. Mary, one of the graduates, who plays an aspiring producer, opens up to one of the professionals – ‘As someone who is recently starting on their path, looking at you, it seems like everything comes so easy. I’m scared that I’m going to make a mistake and I’m so worried that I’m not going to…live’. Ayola, who is playing a retired professional ice skater who is known for falling disastrously at her last Olympics, replies ‘Some people don’t get the chance to f*** up as extraordinarily as I did. I would rather fall on my arse a thousand times than never have been on the ice in the first place. So, my advice is f*** up proudly and f*** joyfully’. In an industry where failure is almost considered the standard, I love the relatable realism of this line. Failing is part of the process – it just takes one successful audition out of thousands of rejections to make all the failure worth it.
I would highly recommend watching this series. It does require a Sky subscription, but if you have access it can be found on Sky Go. A fantastic program and great concept, A Play in A Day is a must watch.
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