Trust exercises benevolence as actors enter new life stage

Matthew Reisz reports on the bursaries helping ex-thespians to pursue higher education goals

January 10, 2013

Career change: actor Jo James is training for the ministry with the trust’s help

At a time when many students are scrabbling around to make ends meet, one support organisation has “unallocated funds” that it would dearly like to distribute to help former actors into higher education.

The Equity Charitable Trust, which unfortunately can help only those with “at least 10 years’ experience as an adult professional performer”, was set up by the actors’ union Equity in 1989 but is now “entirely independent”.

Each year it provides educational bursaries, allocated on the basis of financial need, to about 40 performers seeking to build new careers.

Among those it has helped is Xavier Fontenille, who worked for a theatre company performing and running workshops in schools until budgets for such activities began to be squeezed by what he calls “an obsessive focus on maths and literacy”.

However, after going to “a fantastic open day” for a drama therapy course at the University of Roehampton, he discovered a new pathway.

At the end of the first year of his studies when money was getting tight, a tutor encouraged him to contact the trust, which offered to pay his second- and third-year fees and most of his supervision and therapy costs.

“The trust has made it possible for me to use the creativity I learned as an actor in a new career that can make a real difference to people’s lives,” he said, explaining how drama therapy had enabled him to see “how people with no experience or confidence as actors can be gently encouraged to play and be creative”.

Another recipient of help from the trust is Connor McIntyre, who after more than two decades as an actor was forced by health problems to consider a career change.

He embarked on a joint degree in fine art and art history at Plymouth University and secured financial support from the trust for both an undergraduate degree and a subsequent master’s in contemporary art practice.

After gaining first-class honours in his BA, he was “invited to represent (the university) at a very prestigious gathering of artists in Singapore” and has since exhibited at a number of events in the South West.

Even more striking was the change in Jo James’ life. Performing under the name Jack James, he had “worked steadily if not spectacularly as an actor for 20 years. Starting at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I went on to work with Anthony Neilson at the Royal Court, Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic and Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre.”

It was while based at the National that he “became aware…that I was less and less satisfied with life in the theatre and that the Equity Charitable Trust offered assistance to actors wishing to retrain”.

The real change came, however, when Mr James became involved with leading worship at his local Unitarian church, and eventually was encouraged to look into training for the ministry.

When he secured a place at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and discovered that “alongside the (generously supported) ministerial training I would also have to attain a further theological qualification”, he turned to the trust, which offered to help with childcare costs as well as fees.

He believes that retraining for the ministry has given him “a calling as acting had once been, but which allows me to do what the theatre never could: deal with reality”.

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