How can we have a fringe without exploitation?

Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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Where do you stand on the whole ‘low pay/no pay’ issue?

For some, a new minimum wage ruling has marked the death of the fringe and it's certainly worrying terrain. But while arguments around the issue of pay are becoming increasingly circular, for me the situation also shines a light on other problematic areas of the fringe – namely rental costs and definitions of professionalism.

As we try to find and maintain more reasonable ways to run the sector in the middle of the recession, hiring costs are a major obstacle towards a democratic fringe. The ‘tyranny’ of producers and directors has been passionately argued, but what about the financial power that the theatre venues hold?

Rental rates are often the largest drain on company funds - they make it impossible to pay actors and necessary to overcharge audiences. Lower rates allow more cash to be spent on the show and encourage innovative audience growth schemes such as 'pay what you can' to be put in place.

While running a building certainly costs money, it is not clear how much, with companies often at the behest of seemingly arbitrary rates. These same companies are being asked to be transparent about their finances before entering into partnerships with actors – surely they should have the same courtesy from the venues they book.

I think that a survey of venue rates should be undertaken. If theatres were to publicly outline their costs and share best practice perhaps savings could be made.

Is it naive to suggest that the Society of Independent Theatres could ask its members to provide such information via their website?

Moreover, lower rental fees could lead to a policy being put in place that expenses are a basic requirement for cast and crew within fringe productions. That people do not earn anything is and should remain a personal choice but that they are put out of pocket through their involvement seems grossly unfair.

[pullquote]Maybe it’s time for Equity to call an open meeting to discuss how we can have a fringe without people feeling exploited[/pullquote]

Perhaps most importantly, money does not have to be synonymous with professionalism as it has been in the past. Being a professional means a myriad of things from quality to temperament, focus to dedication.

I don’t want to turn this into a discussion between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ but the exploitation felt within this current Equity case appears originally to have been more around ideas of treatment rather than cash. Maybe it’s time for Equity to call an open meeting to discuss – as Jennifer Lunn suggests  – not just the ‘pay actors’ conversation but ‘how we can have the fringe without people feeling exploited’ one.

For many, the feeling of being belittled in what they do and not being paid properly too often go hand in hand. We may not be able to do a lot about the latter immediately but the former should and can be dealt with now.