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Why Are Netflix and Amazon Poaching Theatre Actors?

Updated: Mar 1

Last week in The Stage via The Times, National Theatre Artistic Director Rufus Norris warned of an exodus of theatre talent to streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix.


And he's apparently not alone - The Stage also reported that bosses at the Leicester Curve and Birmingham Rep are seeing a similar trend of creatives prioritising the silver screen over treading the boards.


Why might this be? While I can't confidently answer for other theatre creatives such as writers and directors, as an actor I can see what might be convincing my colleagues to pivot into film and television work.


Theatre wages are stagnant and have been for years. The highest basic weekly wage I've ever earnt during my career was my first job out of drama school, at a prodigious regional theatre over the Christmas of 2015 - 2016.


That's 6 years ago.


Now granted, I have had some low pay and profit share jobs during this time. But I have also worked for producing theatres at the same level as that first job I landed 3 months after graduating. And, to be clear, this is before any deductions for agent commission, tax or national insurance.


No sector should be content with its workers being paid the same wage as when they entered the profession, let alone less. With the yearly rise of inflation and cost of living, is it any wonder that actors want to find more lucrative performance work?


It's no secret that screen pays better than stage. The budgets are bigger, which means more money in the kitty to pay the talent. And as an actor, there are other perks depending on the size of your role. No need to scramble to book train tickets up and down the country - a car picks you up and drives you to the shoot. No cold, grungy dressing rooms with 5 other people to share with - you get your own trailer. On the surface, it seams like a no-brainer.


But what if your passion is theatre? That's the camp I certainly fall into - would pivoting to screen acting mean giving up on this beautiful and immediate art form?


Demonstrably not. With celebrity casting increasingly the norm, especially in the West End, taking a few years out to do a television series or a couple of films could actually be a shrewd career move. By becoming a household name, you could return as the star billing theatre producers want to book. At the very least, your agent would have an easier time negotiating a hire wage for you.


So that explains why actors may transition from stage to screen. But Rufus Norris's gripe is also with actors turning down theatre roles to remain available for TV and film work. Why might this be so?


I have two hypotheses. The first is that some actors may feel ambivalent about theatre work. This could be because it was always a means to an end (most training focuses on theatre acting, supplemented with screen acting classes) or because they've fallen out of love with it. Either way, if actors feel they're in a position to turn down work they don't want, they have the right to do so however frustrating it may be for producers.


My second hypothesis is to do with the length of theatre jobs compared to film or TV. By and large, a run in the West End, at The National or at one of the regional theatres can be anywhere from 4 months to a whole year, including rehearsals. Fitting in auditions or filming dates around a rehearsal and show schedule requires the actor to asked to be released from they're contact for the necessary days. Which the theatre company is not obliged to do.


From speaking to friends who've done film and TV work, if you're a smaller role you may only be needed for one or two days of filming. And if production aren't sure when they'll need you, they'll pay you for as long as they need to keep you available. You could be paid a week's salary for one day of work. So if you're getting a lot of auditions for TV and film and you're doing well in them, you may think it's worth the gamble to keep yourself available, especially if screen work is what you want to focus on.


So what's the solution? How can producers stem the flow of actors away from the theatre? The answer is as nuanced and varied as the people who work in our profession. But to my mind, there are two clear places producers can start.


Number 1: Raise the pay of actors. This isn't wholly the fault of producers; actor's union Equity have not been as proactive as they should have been in advocating for wage increases. But producers don't have to wait for Equity to force they're hand. And if they want the kind of actors who are getting offers from Netflix and Amazon, they'll need to offer competitive salaries to win them back.


Number 2: Look for new talent. There are plenty of talented performers who would die for the chance to perform on the National Theatre stage and who haven't landed a Netflix deal (hi - my agent's email is on the 'Contact' page!). For established houses with a built-in audience and reputation, having a star name isn't as much of a necessity as in commercial theatre.


Those are just my suggestions. Take them or leave them, but I have a feeling they'll do more good than whinging.

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