The tiny Union Theatre in Southwark, London, was named fringe theatre of the year at the The Stage 100 awards in January. Meanwhile, last weekend, the Offies, otherwise known as the Off-West End Theatre Awards, shortlisted productions and players that were seen at the Union and at venues including Southwark Playhouse, the Arcola, New Diorama, Old Red Lion, Finborough, Upstairs at the Gatehouse and the Jermyn Street Theatre.
I was a judge on the panels that considered these awards, and there’s no question that there’s a lot of fantastic work being done in places such as these. However, there’s another, more dispiriting thing that most (although not all) of these venues have in common, too – those whose efforts we are applauding have mostly done so for little or no pay.
Is that morally, professionally or even legally right? No actor, director or designer, of course, has a gun put to their head and is forced to work for free – they have exercised their free choice, in every sense, to do so. And it goes without saying that the box office income possible in tiny fringe venues is substantially less than it is in the West End houses.
Chess, currently running at the Union Theatre where it is sold out, will be seen by fewer people across its entire five-week run there than A Chorus Line in one night at the London Palladium. So it is hardly surprising that, by the time the theatre has paid for performance rights, rent, rates and production costs, there’ll be little left over to pay anyone much.
Yet Chess is, in its way, every bit as revelatory and impressive a piece of theatre as A Chorus Line and with a cast of 16 plus a band of six at the Union, they’ve not stinted on numbers to achieve a wonderful result. But is the alternative to not paying them not to do it at all? In the midst of the fierce arguments that rage over whether participants in fringe theatre are being exploited – and that audiences and critics are complicit in it by continuing to support such work – is it seriously being suggested that we simply shut down the fringe and not offer people opportunities to practise their craft that they may not be able to gain elsewhere?
Louis Maskell, who appeared in the Union’s production of The Fix last year, could be found at the Sheffield’s Crucible by Christmas starring as Freddie Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady. It was tremendous to see his rapid progress through the ranks. By the same token, the more veteran Beverley Klein – who I once saw play Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd for none other than Opera North – starred in the title role of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Bernarda Alba, again at the Union, in 2011. This, she told me, was an opportunity to play a great role she wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Yet when I praised a show I’d seen at the Finborough last year, a reader posted a comment online: “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?”
The Finborough, of course, is one of the most consistently interesting theatres in London from a programming point of view, but it is true that it is paid for largely by the actors allowing themselves to go unpaid or minimally paid. The answer, alas, isn’t simply hoping that places such as the Finborough receive more funding. In an era where funding is being radically cut, not expanded, it might also create more problems for them – with funding comes responsibility to pay properly, and the large casts that they often employ would not be possible. One of the biggest attractions of the fringe is that, with no money to make, spend or pay out, it can provide a taste for adventure unsullied by commercial considerations.
But arts journalist Simon Tait recently drew attention in his online column for The Stage to another, mostly unsung, initiative that could mark the beginning of the end to the unpaid workforce in the arts. This is the Creative Employment Programme, funded by Arts Council England to the tune of £15 million, which aims to offer 6,500 arts apprenticeships to young people in the next two years.
The fringe offers a kind of apprenticeship, too, as well as crucial research and development. Perhaps a parallel scheme could be developed, with arts council help, which could see the fringe participate so that it can offer remuneration, too. But even within the existing models, the fringe should at least offer its participants a greater sense of transparency and honesty about where the money it takes is actually going. An unpaid workforce should be able to see clearly why it is not getting paid.
Read more from Mark Shenton at www.thestage.co.uk/columns