By Claire Rammelkamp
"Is this a fabulous fame revolution, where fame is no longer arbitrary or elitist, but instead in the hands of the people?"
The Furnished Thespians
The idea that Etonians run the country is nothing new; the public school passport to fame and fortune is a concept still deeply ingrained within British consciousness. Recently, however, there has been increasing focus on how useful an elite private education is, specifically, for fame.
Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Damien Lewis. The pantheon of British acting giants is looking more and more like an Old Boy's network. This is unsurprising, to say the least. Eton College boasts a 400-seat theatre staffed by five full-time theatre professionals, a large orchestra pit, a state of the art sound system, scenic workshop and set storage, a well-stocked wardrobe, a make-up studio, a Green Room, and a 'spacious' dressing room. Essentially, Etonians have the famous actor experience from puberty.
Stepping onstage at the National, Etonian actors probably feel a comforting sense of familiarity. “Ah,” you can imagine Dominic West thinking, “this reminds me of playing Hamlet in year nine.” Stardom, it seems, is for those who can afford an early start in theatre training.
The problem is exacerbated by expensive audition fees for the traditional drama-school training, and the anxiety of supporting yourself as an actor without a financial security net, which deters so many working-class would-be actors from a career with no guaranteed income.
Celebrities in Your World
Cue the rise of the new, alternative path to fame, available to anyone with a smartphone. A generation of Instagram and YouTubers are becoming increasingly familiar with the 'microcelebrity', a term defined in the Collins dictionary as 'a celebrity whose fame is narrow in scope and likely to be transient.' Technology is redefining the concept of fame. Unlike the traditional celebrity—a distant, godlike figure and household name, the microcelebrity has a comparatively small following. Your Mum probably won't have heard of them. They won't appear in the tabloids.
But unlike the traditional celebrity, the microcelebrity will likely engage in a dialogue with you. If you tweet them, comment on their Instagram, they will respond. You will feel a close personal connection with them. You will find them attractively relatable, human, and fragile. You will feel part of their world. As such, the microcelebrity has a fiercely loyal fanbase who will support them, defend them, believe in them, and buy products from them. The term 'fans' has given way to the far more devoted sounding 'followers', and indeed many of these ‘followers’ will happily follow wherever these microcelebrities lead. The possible transience of this kind of fame doesn't seem to be a deterrent.
The stereotypical microcelebrity is the Love Island contestant who flogs protein powder on Insta, or the beauty vlogger who shows 300,000 tweens how to contour. It's often touted as a sign of the breakdown of culture—the vapid degradation of high art.
If this is the case, then, why are so many artists, musicians, and theatremakers flocking to Instagram, Twitter and Youtube to broaden their reach?
For young theatre companies, it seems this method of gaining a small, devoted online following is replacing the traditional model, simply because the traditional model isn't working for them any more. In richer times, a theatre company might reasonably expect to receive funding for a well-presented project proposal for an exciting theatre idea, or be granted a budget to turn a proven research-and-development success into a full scale production.
In the current climate, there is simply a lot less money to go around. Arts Council England were forced to slash its budget for 2018-22 by 156m, although the budget for National Portfolio Organisations remains untouched. This means big, successful theatre companies—the Kneehighs, the Complicités, the Headlongs—are taking the lion's share and leaving the fringe scene to fight over the scraps.
With the prospect of becoming an NPO a distant dream for most young theatre companies, it seems that this is yet another area where elitism triumphs. It simply becomes unsustainable to create for no pay while working coffee-shop shifts to pay the rent. Creating a devoted online following is more than a bid for fame; it's a financial lifeline. On Instagram and Twitter, theatre companies can market themselves, sell-tickets, and ask for crowd-funding. You don't need to be an NPO, you just need a smart-phone and creative vision.
Target Group Theatre
So is this a fabulous fame revolution, where fame is no longer arbitrary or elitist, but instead in the hands of the people? Has social media democratised fame? In some ways, yes. But theatre companies are having to change the way they function. They are targeting ever narrower audiences.
Many young theatre makers are turning away from a desire for traditional fame in favour of a niche following. They'd rather have a loyal fan base of, say, BAME feminists, or working-class queer socialists, who are interested in their specific brand of theatre. This targeted branding is also becoming so integral that often it threatens to eclipse the actual work of the theatre company.
Creating a kind of social media persona for your theatre company, with a specific aesthetic and voice, is hard work, and with so many competing voices it can be a struggle not to feel drowned out. Less of a fame revolution than rampant fame capitalism, with fierce competition to sell your product in an overcrowded market.
What saves this new kind of fame is the sense of community among young theatre companies. They promote each other, see each others' shows, collaborate, exchange ideas and advice. The new generation of theatre companies aren't looking for a monopoly on fame; they know that someone else's light doesn't diminish their own.