There’s an ongoing debate around free (or poorly paid) labour models in the theatre, whether it be armies of unpaid interns working behind-the-scenes, amongst actors working for so-called profit-share on the fringe which basically invariably means working for nothing at all, or indeed amongst theatre journalists, filing reviews and other copy to myriad theatre websites, for ‘experience’ or just the bonus of getting free tickets for shows while holding down regular day jobs as accountants and the like.
Of course it may well be that all this activity would be simply unsustainable if the theatres and publishers were paying real, living wages (I was going to say market rates, but the market now frequently seems to be not to pay at all, so it’s a redundant concept). But if it’s not sustainable without it, should it be given sustenance at all?
The question has been posed to me twice in recent days, first after I welcomed Charley’s Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory by writing:
If Brazil, according to the most famous running gag in theatrical comedy history in Charley’s Aunt, is where the nuts come from, Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory is where the hits come from.
An actor sent me a series of direct messages on Twitter, saying, “Sadly not where the actors get paid a living wage. These two things don’t sit easily together for me.” And he continued, “I won’t audition for them and informally lobby other actors in my circle not too as well. For me their success is being subsidised by actors, but don’t theatre managers and/or Equity have a responsibility here as well? Also, whilst this is well known in the business, it doesn’t seem to be public knowledge at all.”
Actors fall over themselves to appear at the Menier, of course, because of the future prospects that it may bring them: Daniel Evans, Douglas Hodge and Alex Hanson all went on to the West End and then Broadway respectively in Sunday in the Park with George, La Cage Aux Folles and A Little Night Music, after first starting out in Southwark. And given the high standards to which work is produced there, it’s worth lending your talent to. But tickets for the next production Merrily We Roll Along are hitting £37.50 – so it’s not coming cheap for audiences. At those prices, you would expect actors to be remunerated fairly.
Again, earlier this week I wrote about two terrific productions I’d recently seen at the Finborough, a venue that (partly of necessity) pays its actors even less than the Menier does (it has far fewer seats). One commentator replied:
Please can we stop this sycophancy towards fringe just because they happen to stage a nice play (their raison d’etre) and start berating them for their business models sustained only by unpaid labour (both young and old), their discrimination on the basis of class and age and their inability to change – or is the price of West End seats somehow a more ethical debate?
So I’m having it now. And reluctant though I would be to see the fringe vanish – the Finborough is easily one of the most consistently interesting theatres in London, from a programming point of view – the question does need to be raised about how it is paid for.
It’s not, of course, a problem confined to the entirely unsubsidised fringe. Even the National – which gets the most state subsidy of any theatre company in the land and attracts the largest audience for plays of any in London – has to fight to maintain its position. In Nick Hytner’s introduction to this year’s Annual Report, he states,
There will be no let-up in the National Theatre’s efforts to secure funding from the public purse, from private individuals and from the commercial exploitation of its successes.
He also addresses the wider theatrical community:
It would be foolish to pretend, however, that there is no threat to our creative confidence from reduced public funding and a nervous financial sector. This threat seems to me to be even more serious outside of London. The National does what it can, whether offering fundraising advice and marketing support or, this year, underwriting the London run of Bristol Old Vic’s Swallows and Amazons; but it can never be enough. There is a pressing need to recognise that special support must be given to cultural institutions in the regions. They face a double threat – from cuts to their Arts Council funding and to local government funding. If theatres are required to play safe, they quickly lose an audience with a taste for adventure, to the point where they play safer still and eventually risk losing any audience whatsoever.
One of the biggest attractions of the fringe is that, with no money to make or to spend, it can provide that taste for adventure unsullied by commercial considerations. But it comes at a price, literally, for actors, directors, designers and stagehands who are doing it entirely for the love of it instead.
Of course, it’s not entirely altruistic – it’s also a career opportunity, in the sense of getting noticed (national critics invariably turn out in force for shows at the Finborough), and who wouldn’t rather be doing the craft they’ve trained to do than sit at home twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the phone to ring or the e-mail to ping?
But another actor friend has also suggested to me that, as long as there are theatres that don’t pay actors a living wage, she won’t be going to see shows at them. She’s going to withdraw her support as an audience member. And maybe that will force those theatres to examine their business models again.
They are sustained by actors who surrender their rights to be paid at the first audition, and audiences who subsidise the theatres by still buying tickets for them. It will only change if both the actors and the audiences behave differently.