The pay’s the thing

We have 4,000 actors in this country, but most earn less than €12,000 per year. How do they survive? Colette Sheridan meets five actors and finds out

Liam Heffernan says it helps to be around other actors during periods of unemployment and inset as Blackie from Glenroe. The Cork-born actor took up a new role in the country’s leading soap, Fair City, earlier this year.Picture: Maura Hickey

THE recent headline-grabbing report about actor, Joe Purcell, convicted of stealing €58 worth of groceries, highlighted what jobbing actors have always known. Acting is a tough job and requires an ability to diversify — or sign on the dole between jobs — in order to survive.

Purcell, soon to appear in two episodes of the HBO fantasy series, Game of Thrones, said he had been desperate to feed his family. After a mix-up with the family’s child benefit, he had “no food in the house”. He stole bread rolls, milk, sugar and cornflakes.

According to Des Courtney of actors’ union, Irish Equity, the reality for most actors in Ireland is sporadic work and low pay. “You can count the Brendan Gleesons on one hand.”

He says that at one stage, an actor doing TV or radio work would get paid for any additional broadcasts.

“But in this jurisdiction, the producers have had a stranglehold on the industry for so long that they don’t give additional payments for additional broadcast formats.

“We’re in the process of trying to get best international practice agreements, whereby our actors will be treated in the same way as actors in the rest of the world.”

Social welfare can be another problem, he says.

“If you sign on, you have to be available for and actively seeking work. The difficulty for an (unemployed) actor is that they’re seeking work as an actor. The social welfare expects actors to seek work in McDonald’s or wherever.

“If we want culture in our country, the social welfare should adapt a strategy. The problem with training courses is that they take actors out of the profession for up to a year in some cases. Actors can’t apply for work within their profession because it’s not seen by social welfare as permanent full-time employment. But that is the nature of the industry.”

Courtney says the country’s 4,000 actors earn between €8,000 and €12,000 a year from acting jobs. So how do actors survive?

LIAM HEFFERNAN

For Cork-born actor, Liam Heffernan, landing a role in the RTÉ soap opera, Fair City, earlier this year, is “a blessing, particularly in this climate”.

Forty-nine year old Heffernan, who plays returned emigrant, Luke Dillon, has no idea how long he will play the role. That’s down to the storyline. But the job was the catalyst for his move back to Dublin. He lived there years ago when he played Traveller Blackie Connors in RTÉ’s rural soap, Glenroe. That role, for which he is still recognised on the street, lasted for 13 years until 2001.

“I’d like to have been able to survive in Cork but it wasn’t happening,” says Heffernan.

“There’s only one professional company in Cork which is Corcadorca. Some (local) productions are done at the Opera House and the Everyman Theatre. But it was tough to be in Cork. During unemployment periods, I was signing on. I got some work with RTÉ recording the Book on One and voice over work. I was travelling to Dublin for auditions which was expensive.”

Heffernan says it’s important for actors to have another string to their bow. He trained to become a drama workshop facilitator and worked with recovering addicts at Coolmine Rehab in Dublin.

“You have to have something to do when you’re not acting, so you won’t go crazy. I found the work in Coolmine intense but fantastically rewarding.”

Has Heffernan ever considered giving up on acting?

“I feel like that every week. That discussion goes on constantly. When you’re not working, sometimes you just need to be around other actors so you can feel normal.”

The Celtic Tiger passed Heffernan by. “I was probably more broke in those years than I am now.” He adds that he is hopeful “that some great art will come out of the recession. I know people are pinching and hurting. But artists work for the sake of it rather than for any financial reasons”.

JULIE SHARKEY

Roscommon-born actor, Julie Sharkey, who is in her mid-30s, is making a living in Cork. But she stresses that it is her two-day-a-week teaching work that keeps her head above water. Julie moved to Cork 16 years ago to take up a job with Graffiti Theatre Company after graduating from the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin.

“You wouldn’t want to be de- pendent on finding a job with a theatre company these days. I’ve always been of the DIY mindset. You have to generate work and luck is involved too. I’ve been very lucky to get voice over work. That has gone a bit quiet. There used to be bigger budgets to spend on voiceovers.”

To add to her CV, Sharkey went back to college some years ago and she gained an MA in drama and theatre studies at UCC. She works for the HSE, teaching drama to people with intellectual disabilities at St Raphael’s in Youghal and at Grove House in Gurranabraher.

Sharkey’s acting work is done in collaboration with Johnny Hanrahan of Meridian Theatre Company, a group which has lost its Arts Council funding. “We developed a one-woman show, Racoon, which was really well-funded when we started it about 10 years ago. It’s still running. We bring it to clubs and regions that wouldn’t normally get to see theatre.”

Hanrahan has written a new show which Sharkey is rehearsing. “The intention is to revisit all the places we’ve been to with Racoon. It’s another one-woman show, about an 18-year-old busker. There are numerous other projects with Johnny that are in the pipeline.”

Living in Cork doesn’t preclude Sharkey from going for roles in Dublin or elsewhere.

“I have done gigs in Dublin and Limerick. You just find somewhere cheap to rent. I’m in Dublin nearly once a week as PR officer with Castaways, an actors’ co-op. That keeps me clued in as to what’s happening.”

To make a modest living, Sharkey admits to having to work hard.

“I don’t have children or a mortgage. I’m comfortable for my own needs. Of course, I’d like to buy a house. But I’ve been renting the same house in Cork since I first came here and I love it. My mother always says I didn’t see much of the Celtic Tiger when it was in full bloom. But in many ways, work has been kind of steady all the time.”

MARK O’REGAN

Dublin-based Mark O’Regan, who is appearing in Anglo: The Musical at the Grand Canal Theatre, says 2012 has been a good year for him. He starred in Alice in Funderland at the Abbey Theatre earlier this year and toured with Marina Carr’s play, Woman and Scarecrow.

“We finished up performing Woman and Scarecrow at the Irish College in Paris which was lovely. But those little perks don’t come along very often.”

While O’Regan has been “sort of busy” all year, 2011 was bleak. “There was a lot of waiting around for the phone to ring. When it doesn’t, you start to wonder if it will ever ring again. It doesn’t matter how long you are in the business and how immune you think you are to disappointment and rejection. It’s still a bit scary.”

O’Regan, who is on the board of the Arts Council, says that to earn an annual salary of €35,000, an actor would need to be working nearly every day of the year. “Thirty-five thousand would be a fantastic salary for an actor.”

The reality for jobbing actors is periods of signing on the dole.

“If I was out of work and assuming I had enough contributions, I could apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance, but you need to accumulate a lot of credits. I haven’t been on social welfare for a long time.”

As O’Regan says, insecurity is all part of the acting game.

“Don’t get involved in this game if you want to make big money. Sometimes, people see programmes that result in an overnight success story. But whatever money is earned is evened out.”

At 52, O’Regan says he was lucky to be able to get a mortgage in the early 1990s. “I decided to invest in a property when it was kind of affordable to get a mortgage, even though interest rates were high. I had a small burst of film activity, playing the priest in The Commitments. The fee was enough for a deposit so I got on the so-called property ladder.”

O’Regan’s partner is a school principal. “It’s really important to have someone in your life who understands what you’re doing if you pursue acting.”

After Anglo: The Musical, O’Regan doesn’t know what he will be doing next. “I’m not complaining given the way the year has gone so far. I look forward to the New Year even though it’s once more going into the unknown. The ups and downs of the economy doesn’t really change things for us.”

CIARAN BERMINGHAM

Despite starring as Mord in the award-winning Game of Thrones shown here on Sky Atlantic, Cork-based Ciaran Bermingham is currently driving a taxi to support his wife, Michelle and two daughters. It’s all part of his survival strategy.

The New Year will see 46-year-old Bermingham filming for Game of Thrones as his character returns in the fourth season. This TV gig pays very well but Bermingham has to make the money stretch.

Bermingham is living the dream. He started acting professionally 12 years ago after his wife encouraged him to pursue his passion. He gave up a well-paid secure job with Musgrave’s where he was the supply chain coordinator.

“The first few months were terrifying but what I got for the price I paid was beyond my dreams, because I’m now happy.”

Having been involved in amateur drama, Bermingham was offered a part in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Cork Opera House. But it entailed a three month commitment. “I couldn’t get that kind of leave from work but Michelle said to go for it. I said I can’t. She said we can do anything. I went in to work the following Monday and handed in my notice.”

Bermingham has achieved his objectives. He wanted to be in a “really big” theatre show.

“I was lucky enough to get a part in I, Keano. I wanted to be on an Irish TV comedy and I got Killnascully. I always wanted to be in a Gaiety Theatre panto and I got the role of one of the ugly sisters in Cinderella.

“Then I wanted to be in a big TV show and I got Game of Thrones. I have a couple of plays in my head that I want to write. It all sounds very rosy but there were times when I was thinking, ‘Jesus, what’s going to happen tomorrow?’ You’re always waiting for that cheque to come in the door and you’re ducking and diving. I drive cabs between gigs.”

Also supplementing his acting work is a company that Bermingham and a friend set up, supplying actors for corporate role-playing. “We’re tipping away. We’re not going to be millionaires overnight but it’s an interest and it keeps my brain going.”

Bermingham has a mortgage and the family runs two cars. “We have gone through tough times financially but the mortgage is relatively small compared to other people. We had our recession 12 years ago. We have cut our cloth according to our measure. We don’t live beyond our means. I promised Michelle that we’d never go without — and we haven’t.”

ANN BLAKE

To survive as an actor in Limerick, where there is no professional theatre company, requires imagination and energy, says 34-year- old Ann Blake. “If you’re looking to work as an actor here, you have to make work happen. I would say I’m a performer. As well as acting, I do comedy improvisation with a troupe called Choke Comedy. I also do Murder Mystery events in hotels for corporate set-ups. They could take place all over Munster. I travel whereever the work is.

“I’m reasonably busy. Rather than just do a humdrum job while waiting for acting work, I would write a show. I also teach and facilitate workshops.”

In the past, Blake has had to sign on for social welfare. “I’m currently self-employed. My income can vary. At the moment, I’m looking very happy until Christmas.”

Blake has been acting since 1997. She lived in Dublin for a while and spent three years in Galway where she got work with TG4.

“Ultimately, I wanted to come back to Limerick. My family and my partner live in Limerick. My partner and I are on the verge of getting a house. But I let her apply for the mortgage on her own as I think I would have been seen by the bank as a discouragement rather than an encouragement.”

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