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Careers Clinic: Should I honour my Edinburgh Festival Fringe contract?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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Since leaving drama school, I have done one commercial and some very small stage jobs. I don’t have an agent yet, but have been asked to do a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year. It’s a topical revue show, so the sketches aren’t written yet, and rehearsals aren’t due to start for a month or two.

When I got the contract, I was so pleased to have my first proper run coming up that I just signed it and sent it back without reading it fully. Then I went back to auditioning. I’ve just heard back from one of those auditions and, to my amazement, I’ve been offered a role in a show from last year’s fringe that did really well and is now doing a proper theatre tour.

Unfortunately, the dates clash with the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I really want to do the tour as it is much higher-profile and far better paid, but how do I handle the fact that I have already signed to another show?

My short answer is that I can see why the new show seems a more attractive proposition, but you have already signed a contract that you would expect the production company to respect, so you should also respect it.

Fortunately, there’s a longer answer, too. In our business, we often find ourselves having to commit to a project several months or even a year in advance without knowing what else will be on offer nearer the time. The only way to avoid this kind of dilemma is not to commit to anything, but that is unlikely to help our quest to be working actors.

The current situation is a timely reminder that a decent agent does a lot more than just ‘get an actor work’. By navigating exactly this kind of situation, agents earn their percentage even for work coming from other sources. In the absence of an agent, the reason I think you have slightly more chance of sorting this out amicably is that the fringe is still a little while away, rehearsals haven’t started yet and no money has changed hands.

This doesn’t minimise the inconvenience to a producer of an actor pulling out of a show, but it does give you a little leeway to put your case. I’m also assuming that you haven’t done any photoshoots for pre-show publicity and that the show is being promoted on the name of the production or the company rather than on the names of individual cast members.

Sometimes not being a ‘name’ can work better for you than being a brand. This is one of them. To be honest, if you decided to go with the other show and dig your heels in, most fringe producers would probably give in, contract notwithstanding, because who wants a grumpy, resentful actor in what is probably a low-budget show? However, as many actors have found to their cost, the ‘stroppy diva’ approach is not so helpful in terms of your long-term reputation, never mind your long-term employability.

As I said at the beginning, respect is the key. Check the contract and see if there are any break clauses or notice periods. Either way, approach the producers as soon as possible, let them know your situation, acknowledge the inconvenience you are causing and ask to be released. I can’t promise they will be happy, but I do think that with enough time to recast, and, hopefully, being performers themselves, they will understand.

I wish you luck – but whatever happens, my even bigger wish is that this is the last time you sign a contract without reading it properly.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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