How can we have a fringe without exploitation?

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Where do you stand on the whole ‘low pay/no pay’ issue?

For some, a new minimum wage ruling has marked the death of the fringe and it's certainly worrying terrain. But while arguments around the issue of pay are becoming increasingly circular, for me the situation also shines a light on other problematic areas of the fringe – namely rental costs and definitions of professionalism.

As we try to find and maintain more reasonable ways to run the sector in the middle of the recession, hiring costs are a major obstacle towards a democratic fringe. The ‘tyranny’ of producers and directors has been passionately argued, but what about the financial power that the theatre venues hold?

Rental rates are often the largest drain on company funds - they make it impossible to pay actors and necessary to overcharge audiences. Lower rates allow more cash to be spent on the show and encourage innovative audience growth schemes such as 'pay what you can' to be put in place.

While running a building certainly costs money, it is not clear how much, with companies often at the behest of seemingly arbitrary rates. These same companies are being asked to be transparent about their finances before entering into partnerships with actors – surely they should have the same courtesy from the venues they book.

I think that a survey of venue rates should be undertaken. If theatres were to publicly outline their costs and share best practice perhaps savings could be made.

Is it naive to suggest that the Society of Independent Theatres could ask its members to provide such information via their website?

Moreover, lower rental fees could lead to a policy being put in place that expenses are a basic requirement for cast and crew within fringe productions. That people do not earn anything is and should remain a personal choice but that they are put out of pocket through their involvement seems grossly unfair.

[pullquote]Maybe it’s time for Equity to call an open meeting to discuss how we can have a fringe without people feeling exploited[/pullquote]

Perhaps most importantly, money does not have to be synonymous with professionalism as it has been in the past. Being a professional means a myriad of things from quality to temperament, focus to dedication.

I don’t want to turn this into a discussion between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ but the exploitation felt within this current Equity case appears originally to have been more around ideas of treatment rather than cash. Maybe it’s time for Equity to call an open meeting to discuss – as Jennifer Lunn suggests  – not just the ‘pay actors’ conversation but ‘how we can have the fringe without people feeling exploited’ one.

For many, the feeling of being belittled in what they do and not being paid properly too often go hand in hand. We may not be able to do a lot about the latter immediately but the former should and can be dealt with now.

4 Comments

  1. Is it naive to suggest that the Society of Independent Theatres could ask its members to provide such information via their website?

    Kind of – plenty of the members don’t even quote the rates on their websites. Its all handshakes and horses for courses.

    Maybe it’s time for Equity to call an open meeting to discuss – as Jennifer Lunn suggests – not just the ‘pay actors’ conversation but ‘how we can have the fringe without people feeling exploited’ one.

    Why? The law is the law – Equity don’t govern employment law and conditions. Theatre producers are the responsible persons – your problem is they have no viable trade association with which to address the matter. And therein lies the issue – the fringe doesn’t want to professionalise – even if you’d like it to, it has neither the will, the organisation, structure nor impetus.

    Don’t try and draw in Equity its just doing what its members want – if producers want something more or new then they need to organise – heaven knows they’ve had 40 years to do it!

  2. No one thinks there were massive profits made on the fringe. HOWEVER most will agree that some people, venues and companies have made their names and reputations on the backs of many many unpaid actors.

    Imagine an impresario, well known, who has had a good long run on the fringe. Much of his work has helped other people and raised their profile a little tiny bit. Of course I can’t think of their names… But who could doubt that this fellow has really boosted his own profile on the backs of all those unpaid actors. Now he is truly one of the crown Princes of the Fringe by seniority, wit, charm and now distinguished good looks.

    He has taken full advantage of the unpaid fringe and now everyone who aspires to work in unpaid theatre knows who he is.
    I say good for him.
    It is a pity that he did not get his incredible impresario mind wrapped around the minimum wage when it rolled out all those 14 years ago (1999-) . NMW was only £3.60 then. He could have had a three hour rehearsal session off someone for just over a tenner. Think of all actors he could have paid while he was making his name. And making some pretty good plays if you don’t mind my saying so. Not so much recently, but hey it’s tough out there. But now all of this is impossible because the actors are going to cost a fortune!

    This is the death of the fringe? Really? Please don’t be so gloomy.

    I have more faith in the Princes of the Fringe. They will find a way! They will figured it out. There will be a way forward.

    And Equity has already done most of the work- pointing the princes at co-op agreements.

    Equity also gave plenty of warning that they were looking for a minimum wage case in theatre. And by the way they didn’t ‘sue’ anyone and they are not ‘policing’ the fringe. It was the workers who brought the claim, not the union. Equity supported actors making a claim for wages in a tribunal. But Equity would do that, being a modern trade union.
    And good for them too!

    There have been cases brought forward by many unions on behalf of members (and non-members) in other creative fields. This is done by trade unions on the balance that it improves pay and/or conditions for the workers they represent.

    The principal remit of a trade union is pay and conditions. There are subsidiary purposes such as providing insurance, artistic freedom, lobbying for government support of the arts, etc. But pay and conditions are primary. Equity does not have to take on board much less prioritise (even as much as they have) the considerations of it’s members when they act as employers. Especially when they are engaging staff unlawfully.

    And the Princes of the Fringe don’t fool anyone by pretending this is all a surprise. The minimum wage has been in the discussion for years. (just searh the stage’s website for ‘Minimum Wage’) Actors have already claimed through tribunals this way for film work and actors are even mentioned in National Minimum Wage government guidance (example no.4). And employers are responsible for knowing the law as well as following it.

    The ARC (Equity’s annual democratic representative meeting) voted unanimously to crack on with the no pay/low pay campaign. This tribunal ruling seems very likely to be democratically supported within Equity. So can someone please tell me who actually believes the fringe will die?

    So lets imagine the Princes’ pity party and all the foot stamping is over. Lets figure out how the fringe will go forward:

    If people want to work for free they will have to enter proper partnerships or co-ops. If they can’t get anyone to partner you then they have to be employers and pay their workers a little bit of money. You can even have a core partnership and hire a few extra people in on Minimum Wage. How much will that cost?

    I reckon a three hour call at minimum wage costs about £20 including holiday pay. You will have to start respecting actors’ time more to use these calls well, and maybe use more skilled actors so they get on with it in fewer rehearsals (and the audiences will thank you for that.) That’s £20 per short rehearsal or a performance call.

    Princes, if you can’t figure out a way to come up with that sort of money, move over for someone who can. I’m sorry if it seems tricky. It’s not so impossible. Get over it and go make me some theatre.

    The genie is out. What’s done cannot be undone.

    I’m buoyed up by the hope that if the Princes can’t, the next generation of young producers will be able to innovate around these very reasonable costs. Nothing can stop the fringe.

  3. How about starting the debate by asking Edinburgh University and their Student Union how many millions of £’s the fringe generates for them they are one of the biggest winners as are the bars, restaurants, letting agents, landlords, B&B’s and hotels in Edinburgh. THen ask the Fringe and Edinburgh Festivals ceo’s what they get paid. After that ask the tech teams how many hours they have to do and what they get paid. Then ask the shows how much they earn after paying for accommodation, venue hire , hiring in equipment that the venue said they had but didn’t etc and you will see who the financial losers and winners are and it’s been like that for years and years and years……

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