Mark Shenton: The economy according to the theatre business

Christine Grimandi and Scott Garnham in Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Aviv Ron Christine Grimandi and Scott Garnham in Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Aviv Ron
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I know I’m one of the (really) lucky ones: I get paid to do what I love, namely go to the theatre and write about it. Like actors, musicians or artists, I suspect I’d want to do this even if wasn’t being paid.

And nowadays lots of people working in those industries – and journalism, too, as witness the rise of the Huffington Post culture – are doing just that. They’re working for the love of it. But it doesn’t pay the bills – and people have to take second and their third jobs to pay for their passion.

There was a great piece on the Guardian’s money pages the other day about the Edinburgh Fringe and how it creates an awful lot of money for the city it is located in – and the residents and businesses of it, who inflate their prices (for drinks, for hotel rooms, for renting out their flats to meet the demand) – but not for the people who actually create the event (and spend their money there), namely the performers who bring their shows to the city. As the online introduction to the piece summarised it, “Welcome to Edinburgh, site of the perfect capitalist model: where the owners of assets such as hotels skim off large profits, while the people who make those profits possible walk away penniless.”

As Patrick Collinson went on to say, “The business model for the creative industries is broken. For every performer at Edinburgh working for nothing, read musician on Spotify or writer on the net. Providers of content make peanuts, while the controllers of the infrastructure, such as Google, walk away with extraordinary profits.”

Is a citywide Edinburgh tax the solution?

He proposes a citywide tax in Edinburgh as one possible solution, to provide a fund to “transfer some of the wealth grabbed by, say, hotels in Edinburgh and hand it to the people who generated it.” The trouble is that any such tax would simply be whacked on top of the existing prices, and make Edinburgh even more expensive (and it’s the people who generate the income who are paying those inflated prices, too).

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer, just as there isn’t to the problem of creative artists trying to monetise their work in a culture where distributors make the money but not those who’ve generated the content. Huffington Post, to cite my earlier example, was sold to AOL for $315 million four years ago, when the site was built (and continues to be largely populated) by content supplied for free.

I have several friends who’ve contributed to HuffPo, including professional journalists, and I understand why they do: it provides a platform for exposure and promotion of their work and a certain amount of legitimacy. (One of the questions I’m asked most often by people who write blogs is how to get traffic to their sites: HuffPo provides a ready-made audience and a media brand).

A similar argument, of course, revolves around the low pay/no pay model of theatre production – that the actors, without whom there would be no show, are at the bottom of the food chain in terms of getting paid, once all other expenses are paid. But the slight difference here is that, by and large, there aren’t huge amounts of money being generated by fringe shows in the the first place – in a 50-seater theatre, the producer is lucky if he or she can cover costs at all, and the actors are not subsidising an operation which is then sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.

There’s a lot of love and not a lot of money in the arts – it has ever been thus. (You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing, is one of my favourite mantras about working in the theatre; a rare few hit the jackpot with a long-running West End or Broadway show, but for the most part, there’s a lot more money lost in those arenas than made.)

Yet I hit a different kind of jackpot when I fall in love with a show. Regular readers will know that I can become a bit obsessive over shows I cherish: just this week I went to see Southwark Playhouse’s Grand Hotel again twice in less than 24 hours, seeing it on Monday night and then again at the next day’s extra matinee. As one wag posted on Facebook about me: “This is stalking. Any more and he’ll need an ankle tag.”

I’d happily wear one if it gained me automatic admittance to some shows around town, like Bend it Like Beckham which I went back to last week (the CD is just out this week – full disclosure, I wrote the liner notes). I also returned (for the third time, too) to see What’s It All About? at the Menier this week, taking my brother, his wife and my husband. (It cost me £140 for the tickets – returning to sell-out shows is an expensive business.) But some things are worth paying for. And theatre is a finite art: both Grand Hotel and What’s It All About? vanish after they close at Southwark Playhouse and the Menier this weekend (last performances for both are on September 5). So I need to catch them while I can. (But please, please – can we have an album of What’s It All About? It needs to live on.)

I am also going this weekend to catch the last performance of Cats when it plays Blackpool, so I can see Jane McDonald’s Grizabella. I interviewed her for The Stage before it opened there, and enjoyed our meeting so much I made a promise to see her in it, which I’m now going to fulfil. Sometimes repeat views are also about seeing different performers in the same role.

And as someone who goes to the theatre for work, I sometimes like to go to the theatre just for sheer pleasure. When I go back to a show I really love, I can indulge just that.