‘Our sector values the work not of the many, but of a few’
In order to survive this pandemic and to make theatre stronger, actors have to take an uncomfortable look in the mirror to understand why we, the heartbeat of our industry, the voices and bodies of its stories, are so susceptible.
First comes the acknowledgement that our industry pits us against each another. Therein lies a paradox because actors can be the most collaborative people there are, but, gone unchecked, the sharp edge of ambition makes the game ruthless and so we get separated out into silos of individual career trajectories.
We must find unity and, unfortunately, our union doesn’t help us with that. Yes, Equity has campaigned well over the years for pay support (some may argue not hard enough) but there’s more to a union’s role – it represents us not just in business but in spirit and there was little pastoral care in evidence when Equity chose to pay out Laurence Fox. In so doing it placed itself in direct opposition with actors of minority ethnicity.
So, we need to build a stronger community and union. Next, there’s the unpalatable issue of money. Right now, the only aid government has for us has not been an entitlement for all. Furthermore, unlike our furloughed friends, beyond Covid-19 we are vulnerably employed.
The truth is, our sector values the work not of the many, but of a few – just the 2% who make a living from acting, to be precise. Directly or indirectly, many of us will give up as a result of Covid-19. And the tragedy of that worsens when you consider that many of those will be actors from already underrepresented demographics.
In order to remedy this, we need to make ourselves a few promises: the first is to stop, totally and absolutely stop, working for free. Ever. There can never be a case for exploiting an actor’s desire for recognition by offering an unpaid job in exchange for ‘visibility’ or ‘exposure’. It just lowers the bar for everyone.
Secondly, we have to be open about who is paid what – it’s how the film industry is addressing the vast pay disparities between male and female leads and is the only way to address the epic gulf between the literally starving fringe actor and the TV or film star.
Lastly, we need a place for an actor on the board of every major theatre and production company. These organisations are the icons of the industry, they speak the truth to power – we need them to stay afloat and they need us for their work. Our voice is essential for companies to be able to properly structure and make work that can engage freelancers sustainably.
We are all hoping, dreaming, that we will go back to normal someday, that magical day when the vaccine finally arrives. But it absolutely cannot be the same normal as it was pre-Covid.
This time has hurt us badly and we must heal stronger.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.