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Dear West End Producer: ‘Should I sign a West End contract for an unnamed part?’

West End Producer West End Producer. Photo: Matt Crockett
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This is naughty of the producer. How are you supposed to commit to a year-long contract (they usually are) if you don’t know what you’re actually committing to?

Obviously, it depends on the type of production, but usually if you’re offered a contract, you are told specifically what role you’ll be playing. It changes everything if you turn up on day one expecting to play Hamlet, only to be told during rehearsals that you’ll actually be playing Spear Carrier No. 2 (although that’s better than Spear Carrier No. 3, dear).

Some productions are fully created during rehearsals – but this would be made obvious during initial meetings. These kinds of shows rely on actors improvising and creating characters along with the creative team (I do hate that directors, musical directors and lighting designers are called the ‘creative team’, while the actors just ‘actors’. It says a lot, doesn’t it, dear?) Many companies follow this kind of method – for example Kneehigh and Out of Joint. But that’s a very different situation from a West End musical.

In the past, I’ve heard of actors being offered their main characters, only for others to be added during rehearsals (for example, another second cover). But this is acceptable, as their main roles had been allocated before they accepted the job. But to be not informed about any part at all is unfair.

I appreciate that sometimes directors can be unsure when choosing between two people, and maybe that’s the case here. Perhaps they want to get to know you in the rehearsal room. In fact, it could be seen as a huge compliment that you’ve been offered the job without them knowing what role – as you impressed them so much they simply had to have you anyway.

Being an actor is hard enough, and getting offered any job deserves congratulation. I think you have to weigh up the pros and cons: do you like the musical enough to be in it without knowing your role? Is it a director you respect? Does working in the West End support your lifestyle?

It’s a difficult situation to be in, and one that could be made so much easier – after all, that’s what the audition process is about. And that’s my problem here: the rehearsal room should not be made to feel like an audition. It’s not fair on actors at all, and can be bad for a performer’s mental health.

Get your agent to voice your concerns, and ask if they can at least indicate what they think you may be playing. And if they can’t do that, you have the difficult decision of whether to accept the job or not. They obviously really want you, but they should show you the respect that any other business would and tell you what your job role involves. After all, no other industry would expect you to sign a contract without knowing the full job description.

And my final bit of advice: if the show is Free Willy the Musical, only accept it if they offer you the role of the first cover Willy. You deserve it, dear.

Send questions to your dear agony aunt via Twitter @westendproducer

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