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Fringe directors need clarity about minimum wage rules

Richard Franklin as the Provost in Measure for Measure at the Union Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander
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I’m alarmed to see Christmas is fast approaching. I love all the festivities but hate that dreary few weeks when I’ve finished directing panto and paid work starts again in January (with any luck). Of course I could chill out and catch up on some reading in December but if I was capable of a sensible work/life balance I wouldn’t be in the arts. Periods of doing nothing really get me down.

In the past I’ve staved off the winter blues by getting actors who feel the same together and, unpaid, putting on some Shakespeare (as obscure as possible to give us all a real mental work out). Since directing a female Lear I’ve become very interested in skewering the very male plays towards female protagonists and I’ve got this idea of stripping back the Henry VI trilogy to focus on Joan, Eleanor and Queen Margaret. I’m realistic about the limited appeal this will have for critics and box office so ordinarily I’d be trying to find a small fringe theatre (around 50 seats) for the project.

Except this year. This year is different: anyone thinking of directing a fringe show is full of trepidation at the moment while it’s so unclear how minimum wage legislation effects them.

No one knows for certain whether the law regards us as self-employed professionals in such circumstances, free to collaborate for a profit share should we so choose, or as workers who are only allowed to practice our craft if someone pays us the national minimum wage, financed in this instance from the revenue generated from 50 seats. (No business is going to sponsor obscure Shakespeare under a railway arch. What’s in it for them?)

Equity has gone to great pains to reassure everyone that genuine artistic collaborations such as the one I hope to initiate aren’t under threat and that they’re only interested in prosecuting anyone exploiting unpaid artists for financial gain. Unfortunately, they tested the waters by going after a guy directing a large cast, promenade production in a church hall, performed by actors who’d volunteered and had full access to the accounts, bewilderingly holding this up as an example of what they wanted to clamp down on.

The director made the mistake of expecting everyone to turn up on time and adhere to standard industry practices. Apparently in the eyes of the law that instantly redefined him as an employer rather than a collaborator and suddenly legally obliged him to pay everybody the national minimum wage.

Can this really mean that anyone with no budget drawing up a rehearsal schedule on the London Fringe currently puts themselves at risk of breaking the law? It’s a very grey and muddled area, muddied still further last Friday when the Employment Appeal Tribunal overturned Equity’s prosecution of the church hall director. And this isn’t over yet – there’s another tribunal to come.

I really hope we can get better clarification of the law soon and we can go back to practicing our craft on the fringe between wage cheques, if we wish. The current muddle is also a blackmailers’ charter. Only the other day someone threatened to use these confusing laws as a weapon against a past collaborator with whom he’d quarrelled.

The other solution, of course, is to put on only productions that are commercial enough to generate box office to cover the national minimum wage for the cast and crew. That would make staging Shakespeare the exclusive preserve of those well-connected enough to work with powerhouse producers such as the National or RSC.

So… which celeb would you like to see in my one person, Union Theatre revival of Sweeney Todd?

Read more columns from Phil Willmott

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