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The Green Room: Are there unfair balances of power in theatre?

Alfred Enoch and the company of Tree at Manchester International Festival. The play was the subject of a recent row over its authorship. Photo: Marc Brenner

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked in regional theatres and is a writer and street performer

Peter Of course – inevitable when the laws of supply and demand work so vigorously against the actor. Unless you’re a star.

Beryl Of course, generally the people at the bottom of the pile are the same bunch as ever: women; those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds; working class. I could go on…

Annie I think the industry is probably as unbalanced as the rest of society is – no better or worse.

Beryl Yes, I’m sure unfair balances of power exist in every industry. I think we are surprised to hear of them as we’re all supposed to be artists who are in it together, as it were.

Vivian I’m going to stand on my soap box and say that casting directors are the pits! Can I say that?

Albert Why? That’s a bit general?

JonVivian, of course you can. Somehow this column always seems to come back to casting directors and I’m not entirely sure why.

Peter In conversations I’ve had with casting directors, they all talk about how they’re at the mercy of producers. They’re also competing for work. A well-known casting director had an online rant recently about it.

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Vivian They hold the keys to getting into the room. It’s their initial vision of who out of the 10 actors they normally cast should play all the parts. My eyes have been opened to the amount of work they do in other countries. And here there is no impetus to see outside of their limited portfolio.

JonI wonder if casting directors are where we should be focusing for this topic, though? They’re generally freelances like us and only have a limited amount of influence.

Peter There’s also a power relationship among agents. If you’re not with a top agent, there are certain jobs you don’t get a sniff at.

Vivian Because the casting directors won’t send out submissions to all the agents.

Albert That’s because some agents send in dreadful submissions. If you’ve ever put a casting brief out, you’ll know how bad they are.

Peter The big players at the moment are the streaming companies – like Netflix. And Apple is soon to join. They’ll be massive. They have the power to make really tricky demands – such as exclusivity clauses.

JonExclusivity, as in ‘you can’t be in anything else’? Yikes.

Albert Yes, and dubbing clauses – that’s the latest – they have the right to dub you in your own language.

JonThat’s depressing. Without getting too Black Mirror about it, that feels very close to “and then we can replace you with CGI if we want”. Although voice dubbing has always happened, right back to Jason and the Argonauts – there are tons of examples.

Peter I heard recently of an actor who was offered a contract that said she couldn’t play another Eastern European role for five years. She’s Polish. She turned down the contract.

Vivian Wow, I’ve never heard that before. That’s worrying.

Albert The people with the money have the power. And then people with clear and original talents, if they get seen or heard, can get power, as the people with money often don’t have the talent. It’s like life.

JonTV and film are one thing, but how about in theatre? I guess we’re in Tree territory here – we’re looking at the balance between producers and buildings (aka the money) and creatives. How can actors and writers be better protected? Should unions or agents be pushing for codes of conduct?

Vivian The Tree fiasco has been so interesting. I want to say something about it, but it’s all so confusing. I can’t pin down what and where it went so wrong, apart from how bad it is that they had to go public with it.

Peter Am I being stupid? What is Tree?

Albert I don’t know either. Another bloody acronym?

Annie I don’t know either!

JonPeter and Albert, Tree isn’t an acronym. It’s the Young Vic/Manchester International Festival co-production for which two writers are claiming their work has been appropriated. That’s one way to put it, anyway. As Vivian says, it’s pretty layered.

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Albert Ah yes, the play that ran at this year’s MIF and is now at the Young Vic in London. Allegedly, Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah ditched the original writers, whose idea it was. It should be an acronym: Try Ringing Equity Everyday.

Peter Talking of codes of conduct, Equity produced a casting manifesto in consultation with casting directors and agents. The casting directors signed up, but it’s still hard work getting them to stick to it.

Vivian There is a culture of safeguarding, rather than nurturing, in the production houses and among power holders, perhaps. The Tree thing could have been so easily rectified if the focus was on collaboration and communication.

Beryl In the age of social media, imbalances of power seem easier to expose, so at least the conversations are happening. But I don’t know how far up the ‘chain of power’ it will reach.

Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email greenroom@thestage.co.uk

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