For more than 40 years it was a place where actors – from legendary stars to those struggling for a first break – could socialise, network and learn new skills. Among its patrons and members were Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Alan Bates and Julie Walters.
But last November, the Actors Centre – a registered charity in the heart of London’s West End – was “rebranded” by its new chief executive, Amanda Davey. It is now the Seven Dials Playhouse, a 100-seat theatre that describes itself as “truly inclusive … relevant, dynamic and exciting”.
The change has been met with dismay and anger among many members, who say the loss of such a vital resource for actors is unconscionable. They have set up a campaign, Actor at the Centre, demanding regular classes and workshops be reinstated.
The campaign has won the public backing of luminaries such as Sheila Hancock, who described the change as “heartbreaking”, and Mark Rylance. Last week, Equity, the union representing more than 47,000 performers and creative practitioners, urged the Seven Dials Playhouse management team to reverse its action, and agreed to contribute to the campaign’s legal costs.
According to Davey, the transformation of the Actors Centre into the Seven Dials Playhouse came out of a financial crisis exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. “The centre had been very successful, but it had begun to lose traction, to become slightly irrelevant. And then money just dried up during Covid,” she said.
By Christmas 2020, there was “just £40 left in the accounts”. Amid “real concern for the survival of the organisation”, Davey and the trustees decided “we had to do things differently, we needed to reimagine what the organisation was for, and we had to open our doors”. The rebrand had been “incredibly successful”.
But, she added, there was “a group [of members] who do not want change” and were clinging to a “golden age” that was no longer relevant. “Institutions can become a bit archaic. The world is a very different place today.”
The new Seven Dials Playhouse, a receiving house that hosts productions for up to six weeks with accompanying workshops, opened in February with Steve, a play with a central LGBT+ theme.
Kate Maravan, a key figure in Actor in the Centre, said there had been a woeful lack of transparency and consultation over the changes, which were a blow to young actors struggling to establish their careers or in precarious employment.
“It’s easy to think of all actors as ‘luvvies’, but a large percentage are regularly unemployed, facing financial difficulties, often very isolated and suffering from mental health issues,” she said.
“The Actors Centre was a place where people could learn, collaborate and experiment, a place for cross-pollination and support. It was a community in the heart of London.”
Classes included sight reading, voice technique and working on camera, and rehearsal spaces were available to members. Now, said Maravan, although the Seven Dials Playhouse was running ad hoc workshops alongside its productions, they were one-off creative events aimed at a broader clientele, rather than ongoing bread-and-butter skills training for actors.
The centre was accessible and affordable, and had initiated a number of projects addressing diversity, she said. “The idea that we’re a group of white, older middle-class people stuck in a nostalgic past, harking back to the good old days is really not true, and it was never the case.”
Louise Bangay, another member of the campaign, said the group was keen to discuss with Davey “a way back in that works with the theatre she is running, and to see if we can negotiate our space back as an actors’ centre as it was originally intended in 1978”.
Paul Fleming, Equity’s general secretary, said: “Equity believes strongly in the provision of a space and accessible training for actors and other creative professionals in the centre of London. We share the disappointment of the Actor at the Centre campaign about the lack of consultation with longstanding partners – including the union – and service users over the change of the Actors Centre to the Seven Dials Playhouse.”
The union hoped that the “new management will review their approach, and transparently put actors’ and creative professionals’ welfare and professional development at the heart of their mission going forward”.