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Wage against the machine: why actors need to talk about money

As a Grade 1 theatre, Leicester’s Curve has to pay performers an average of £515 a week. Photo: Iain Jaques
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Although many performers are delighted just to be working, few realise that there might be room to negotiate better rates of pay. Paul Clayton examines pay practices across the sector and asks industry figures what you and your agent can do to ensure you are paid what you deserve

Over the past couple of months, I’ve come into contact with quite a few job advertisements – helping to write some and looking at others that people were applying for. The language is often bouncy, uplifting and inviting. Then comes the phrase which says it all: “Salary dependent on experience.”

In the real world, it seems that your CV counts for something. The starting point of any offer will often be your current salary. More than likely, the offer will be higher.

But when it comes to the acting profession, many actors are just grateful for work. More often than not, the last thing they consider is the pay. Actors have a passion for acting and that’s what they want to do.

Several agents told me that many young actors these days are happy just to accept the fee offered and may be oblivious to the fact that agents will try to push the money up a little. This might be fine if you’re young, keen and fresh into the business, but should actors be paid in line with experience?

This thought has increasingly crossed my mind as I reach the age of 60 and start the journey through my seventh decade. If you were to list my CV in full, it would run to several pages, but is it actually worth anything?

There was a time when your CV did count for something. When the BBC produced its own programmes, actors’ payments were made on a sort of civil service basis. They were called category fees. The more often you worked with the BBC, the higher your category and therefore the bigger your ‘cat fee’ for the programme.

A young actor making his or her first foray into television and lucky enough to play a leading role could be offered a ‘special high’, but in general, the more work you did for Auntie, the higher your fee. All this went out of the window when programmes began to be made by independent production companies.

Remnants of this system still exist within companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. The RSC rewards actors who have worked for them a great deal, and performance fees at the National can reflect the amount of work done for the company. Longevity and experience is rewarded. No bad thing, one might say.

But today most work is not for companies with whom the actor has an ongoing relationship. Quite often it’s for a company set up specifically to produce a particular programme or series. Once they have spent their money hiring, for example, Olivia Colman and David Tennant to lead the drama, the rest of the available budget will be spent according to role size and shooting days needed. Rarely is the age of the character, or the experience of the performer, the concern.

In general terms, older characters mean more experienced actors, though not always. I recently worked with an actress who had started out at the age of 51 and whose CV was relatively slight. So should the older roles automatically be recognised with a higher fee?

Agents and casting directors are not particularly keen to have their remarks about pay attributed, so spoke to me on condition of anonymity. Casting directors seem particularly good at acknowledging what an actor has done before. They told me they try to find the budget to get better pay for somebody whose CV stretches to more than two episodes of Hollyoaks and a fringe show in Cockfosters. But, in reality, the experience of the actor counts for little in financial terms. Producers will pay for profile, but not for experience.

Yet it’s this experience that allows the actor to do a job. A voice-over artist remarked to me recently that he earned £5,000 for a job that had taken him 12 minutes. A marketing manager engaged in the same conversation was astounded and rather upset at the rate of pay. But that fee wasn’t for the 12 minutes he’d spent in the voice-over booth, but for the 38 years’ experience that allowed him to do it in that time.

The fabulous new trend for re-establishing repertory companies is reinforcing the idea of a company wage. Most theatres outside London offer exactly that. But is it right that someone straight out of drama school with five lines as the messenger should be paid the same as a married man with two children, and an extensive CV, who is playing Capulet?

I was under the misapprehension that the mid-range salary level system that applies to subsidised theatre was to help older actors. In fact, it is designed to ensure that the greater the level of subsidy, the higher the wages paid to the actors. So, while the minimum that any subsidised theatre must currently pay to an actor is £420 a week, a Grade 1 theatre (such as Curve in Leicester) has to pay an average salary of £515 per week.

These theatres can choose to pay everyone the higher rate of £515, but some choose to pay certain actors less and others more. The average pay per actor per week has to be £515 on average over the year. So company wage decisions lie with the theatre.

When I started working in the theatre in the late 1970s, the Equity minimum was £45 per week. Looking at historic rates of inflation, that would now be worth £257.27, so in real terms we would seem to be better off – not that most actors feel that way.

This situation might all be helped by actors talking to each other about money, but that thought terrifies agents. One can only imagine how the Duke of Buckingham might receive the news that he was getting £40 a week less than the Duke of Clarence. Somebody may be ending up in that barrel of claret sooner than they intended.

Actors should talk to agents. If you hear a rumour that somebody is getting paid a higher rate than the company wage, get your agent to check it out. Agents and casting directors do talk to each other, and both have an understanding of what experienced actors bring to a production.

But at the end of the day, it’s also down to you. If you’re satisfied with the money you’re offered for the job, then that should be good enough. We all need different levels of pay to achieve the same level of survival. Work out what yours is and why. Be prepared to say no if necessary. The more people accept a low wage, the more it will be offered.

Know your worth and ask for it.

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