There’s never been a more challenging time to be an actor. Yes, there were 412 original scripted series broadcast last year, more than double the number seven years ago. But, says London based actor, Tibu Fortes, “it seems there are a lot more actors going up for every part. Everyone wants a taste of fame, so in some sense there are a lot more people now claiming to be actors.”
It’s hard enough in Los Angeles, and even in London which is full to the brim with fringe theatre, big theatre houses, small film companies, up and coming film-makers and large film production companies, there are also more actors than ever graduating each year. So competition, says Fortes, can be fierce.
Imagine going to one audition after the next, only to be told that you aren't pretty enough, handsome enough, talented enough, redheaded, blonde, black or Asian enough. You do stage work for little to no money. You work in indie films for free, or a couple hundred pounds if you are lucky. “Me and a lot of my thespian friends often would actually get excited when we got paid a union minimum for our work,” says actor Tibu Fortes.
Some of the trials for actors include finding an agent, getting in front of casting agents for the right kind of parts – and of course filling the hours while you’re waiting for a call back.
Enter The Actors Alliance, a London co-operative formed in 1976, which aims to be the answer to all of these problems -agenting, casting and part-time (unpaid) employment- in one fell swoop. Actors Alliance is an extraordinary collective of professional actors who also work as agents for themselves and each other. While most members of the acting profession can relate only too well to Gore Vidal’s remark that “every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies” for the 18 actors who make up the Actors Alliance, the reverse is true.
“It's just wonderful,” says Fortes, “especially if you somehow had a hand in it like submitting them for the part in the first place. It's a real sense of achievement and when I book the job because I feel like I made the right decision in putting them up. Sometimes at the end of the day, we’ve managed to get each other as many as 12 interviews and it feels like we've scored a goal.” When that happens, Fortes says he and his fellow agent-actors will high five each other and in true British fashion, celebrate with a cup of tea.
In the last year Actors Alliance members have got each other parts in west end shows such as Sunny Afternoon, The Bodyguard and War Horse; television shows including Holby City, Coronation Street and Pompidou; and feature films Exodus: Gods and Kings, Urban Hymn, Maverbricks, Alice Through The Looking Glass and Devil's Harvest. They have also scored big successes on stage with productions of Sense and Sensibility (Watermill), Playing for Time (Sheffield Crucible), Macbeth (Colchester Mercury), Time and the Conways (Nottingham Playhouse) and 'Peter Pan' (Regents Park Open Air theatre).
It helps, of course, that no two members of the collective are alike, so the actor-agents seldom send two colleagues up for the same parts. The Alliance is also very vocal when it comes to addressing diversity in the industry and it actively recruits actors from diverse backgrounds who share their work ethos. Check out their website and you will see a good representation of Black, Asian and Multi-cultural faces, as well as equal numbers of men and women.
Olivia Onyehara, is a Nigerian-English actor from Grimsby in North East Lincolnshire who got into acting through working with a Nottingham based charity dedicated to bringing Opera to people who would not usually have to opportunity to see it. Thanks to Actors Alliance she will perform in ‘Private Lives’ at The Mercury Theatre Colchester this spring.
“Private Lives was the first Noel Coward play I ever saw,” says Onyehara. But she never expected to ever act in it. “If I had to describe his work in brief I would say ‘quintessentially English’ (we know that means white!) I remember thinking I will never be in a Noel Coward play - except maybe, to play a maid. It was so exciting to even have the chance to audition for the part; needless to say I was over the moon to have been offered the job. Not just for myself, but I hope that other minority actors will come and see the show and think that it is possible for them to transcend social and cultural stereotypes and do any job they want to. Also, that other producers and casting directors will have their consciousness pricked.”
The Actors Alliance was started in 1976 by players who were frustrated with simply having to "trust" that their agents were working for them, especially when there was often scant evidence to support this notion.
“Simply having an agent gives you access to getting in front of industry professionals; casting directors and directors to be seen for work,” Says Onyehara, “But being part of a cooperative agency no less one like this one means that you don’t just have one agent in your corner, but a team of people behind you with their own industry knowledge, experiences and contacts to get you through the door.”
Adds Fortes: “It's so disconcerting when you have an agent and they don't even come see any of your work, it defeats the objective of considered representation in my opinion. A good agent is also someone who is very business savvy, has great contacts and knows their clients inside out.
Today the youngest members of the agency are in their 20’s and the oldest member, Donald Pelmear, was born in the 20s’. It is Donald, one of the membership stalwarts, who regularly receives the most fan mail.
Joyce Veheary was born in the Philippines and came to London as a toddler. Since being represented with Actors Alliance, Joyce has worked on staple British TV shows and on stage with some of her comedy heroes Steve Pemberton and Reece Sheersmith. She also loves to work in new writing for stage and screen, being part of the exiting scene here in London, this summer she will tour in the two hander Only Here to Buy Soy Sauce/ The Art of War. Says Veheary, “It’s a lonely profession being an actor sometimes but at the Alliance we’ve got each other for moral support and we’ve often worked together, kept busy with play readings, written scripts and even made films together. I know that the group that I work for are implicitly talented and professional.”
Veheary’s friends at the Alliance include Tibu Fortes, 29, who has been a member of the collective since 2014. His story makes a compelling case study for the Alliance, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year at a gala event in London. Born and raised in Tanzania by Indian parents whose life, running a safari company afforded him a wonderful, carefree “Out of Africa” childhood, where Fortes also picked up fluency in five languages.
“We did lots of plays at school and I remember my first Shakespeare play was A Midsummer Nights Dream, and at the time I didn't understand much of what we were saying, but we just rolled with it.” He then played Romeo when he was just 16, perhaps the perfect age for that part, as he had all the innocence, turmoil and bravado that is nigh on impossible for a mature actor to capture. He can still feel the applause, he says, that echoed through the school hall.
Fortes was then sent to Catholic Boarding school in the Lake District in Lancashire at the age of 16 and was introduced to a vibrant theatre department and an acting teacher who recommended he audition for the National Youth Theatre (NYT.) Tibu travelled to London for the audition and got in.
A Masters in Social Anthropology and a course in Social Policy and Criminology at the London School Of Economics followed, with Fortes all the while performing in NYT productions in the West End, and even China.
In 2012 Fortes was cast in the Volcano Production of L.O.V.E. an intensely physical production of Shakespeare’s sonnets. L.O.V.E was Fortes’ first paid acting job and he was over the moon. But his agent, who sounds rather like 'Estelle' (Joey's agent in Friends) never even came to see his performance, although the young actor was on stage every day for a month. It made him realize, “how invisible you become to your agent when they represent more than 100 clients.”
One person who didn’t miss Forte’s stage debut was Television Producer and Impresario, Remy Blumenfeld who was had a play on at Edinburgh at the time. “Even then, the raw power of Tibur’s physical performance and his smouldering, passionate and sensitive rendering of Shakespeare’s love sonnets, was something to behold,” says Blumenfeld. “It was clear that this strikingly handsome young man was a star in the making.”
But after L.O.V.E. Fortes struggled to even be seen for roles. “And I don’t really know why,” Fortes confides. “Maybe I wasn't pro-active enough, maybe I relied on my agent too much and maybe I was just a little naïve. I don't really know.”
In the profession that coined the term typecasting, Fortes found himself only being asked to read for the parts of terrorists, Indians and Arabs. But he didn’t even get those parts.
Since firing his agent and joining the Alliance he has booked his first TV job for a major BBC Drama that is also being shown in the US. I can't name the show or the part because the series has not yet been released. However, says Fortes, “It is far away from the kind of role you would expect a young Indian actor like me to get. I remember going into the casting thinking they were just seeing me to raise their quotas on diversity and the next day I booked the job! I don't think I would have been put up for the role if I was not with Actors Alliance.”
Last month, Fortes started working with Emma Rice, the thrilling new Artistic Director at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, on her first production, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was Fortes’ debut on London’s West End stage.