No need perhaps for a poll to tell you that a majority of performers would applaud my colleague Mark Shenton’s recent call (The Stage, October 18 issue, building on his October 4 column) for actors to get tough with fringe venues and start demanding proper payment.
We all know that a line should be drawn somewhere in the work for a living versus work for experience debate – but where precisely?
An acquaintance of mine is off for a stint to New York, working at one Off-Broadway (or should that be Off-Off-Broadway?) venue. He’s doing so for no financial return and, before you assume it, no, he doesn’t have a trust fund or millionaire parents to subsidise him.
What he does have is the income saved from a paid position in his previous job at my old local venue, Watford Palace theatre.
My default position would be to say don’t swap paid for unpaid – but I’m talking from the perspective of a middle-aged mortgage payer with a family to support and a long history of being remunerated.
In my friend’s case, the issue is one of gaining necessary experience. If your interest is the American playwrighting tradition and working in script editing rather than front of house, there isn’t much option (unless perhaps you can tap one of the Kennedys for a contact).
Given this, I have to agree that in such circumstances I’d have felt his was the correct decision, not least because it’s come on the back of doing paid work in the more practical aspects of the business. On top of that, it’s for a finite period and with a clear goal in mind.
Let me now declare an interest: The Stage itself offers unpaid journalism placements in the editorial department. These are however for one week only and it is our intention that all participants receive the most thorough grounding in the business that we can provide within the allotted time.
At some point working for nothing is a rite of passage that almost no-one aiming to get into performance or media can avoid
Adult placements with appropriate training work on our newsdesk, school-aged ones may find themselves compiling and conducting short interviews mentored by our Show People editor Kevin Berry. Any placement subsequently commissioned to write something for us after this week receives at least our standard payment, regardless of age.
Many of the bylines you’ll see at the top of articles belong to freelance contributors who’ve been through this system. The ex-placement list includes too our Deputy Editor Alistair Smith (university), our En Pointe columnist and former Reviews Commissioner Katie Colombus (school) and the present Reviews Commissioner, Emma Harlen (school). So it certainly works.
In my day (believe me, I tried so hard to avoid that phrase) placements were non-existent. You worked in term time for one reason only: money.
By the time I began my journalism training, for every day in university I’d spent one variously painting several thousand yards of walls, worked in an asbestos factory, driven a forklift truck, been on endless production lines, done door to door sales (badly), office removals, been a rates clerk, done kitchen work, spent the better part of a year as a school caretaker at young Mr Miliband’s school, been a hospital porter and handled 10 corpses. What I had never done was set a foot into a professional newsroom.
I realised that at some point working for nothing is a rite of passage that almost no-one aiming to get into performance or media can avoid. So it’s worth thinking in advance, where do you draw your own line in the sand?