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Phil Willmott: 7 steps to fulfilment and happiness in fringe theatre

James Horne in Phil Willmott's production of Finian's Rainbow at the Union Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander
James Horne in Phil Willmott's production of Finian's Rainbow at the Union Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander
Phil Willmott
Phil Willmott is an award winning director, artistic director, playwright, composer, dramaturg, arts journalist and occasional actor. A former Equity councillor and ex co-head of musical theatre training at Arts Ed he is one of the most commissioned writer/composers in the UK and a pioneering director of Greek drama. He directs classics, musicals and cutting edge new writing internationally and has been theatre critic for BBC London, Attitude and Gay Times.
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The other day I was part of a panel discussion at the Actors Centre. Towards the end of the Q&A bit, a young actress told me she was worried she might be exploited if she did profit-share fringe theatre.

What a tragedy. In my day, we all got involved with shows on the fringe, unpaid, without hesitation, whenever we could afford it.

As West End Producer pointed out last week:

At any one time approximately 92% of the profession are out of work – with the same 8% being the ones who are always in work, while the other 92% can’t even get a foot in the door.

So how else could we have made a name for ourselves?

And people really did. Alas, it never led to anything terribly meteoric for me (let that be a warning), but friends and colleagues established high-flying careers as performers and many of the directors, penniless then, went on to become today’s big hitters whose shows now employ thousands of people in major, award-winning work around the world.

In recent surveys, many of today’s graduates have cited concerns about fringe theatre, which to be honest isn’t surprising. Regular regional rep work, aspects of which bugged my generation, is virtually a fantasy these days, as are the regular bit parts on TV and film which sustained me as a young actor. So of course fringe theatre is going to be of concern for thousands of graduates for whom it’s the only option.

Back at the Actor’s Centre, we were winding down so I just advised the actress that she’d be okay if she stuck to 50-seat venues because, logically, if there were such a thing as a fringe theatre producer (in the traditional exploitative, cigar-chomping, capitalist oppressor sense) there wouldn’t be enough income from ticket sales for such a fiend to make illicit money out of her.

But if there had been time, I’d have offered up the following tips for a happy experience on the fringe.

1. Don't make assumptions

Don’t be surprised to find it’s actually quite difficult to even get an audition for the better, higher profile fringe work. Hundreds of actors apply.

2. Be realistic

Understand that appearing on the fringe probably won’t get you the agent or casting director exposure you want. Although it might. I’ve seen many, many actors thrive as a result of exposure in the top venues. But, of course, lots don’t. Hope for the best but expect the worst. If it’s your whole focus, you’ll be miserable when/if it doesn’t happen.

3. Check the schedule

Any credible fringe project will timetable rehearsals around your commitments elsewhere if you’re clear about what you need from the beginning. You should also be able to take time off for auditions, gigs and short filming commitments. But check to be absolutely sure that’s the case.

Only apply if you can afford to fit rehearsals around your survival job, childcare commitments etc. If you can’t, wait until you can. We all have periods of being scarily broke. It’s the nature of the profession we signed up for, fully aware this would be the case.

It’s not fair that fringe work is the only thing that’s realistically open to you with your current agent, but it’s also not compulsory. No one can, could or would force you to work for a profit-share.

4. Do the maths

Apply a bit of basic intelligence when you come across the term 'profit-share'. You can easily find out the seating capacity of a potential venue and seat prices and calculate how much money will be left to share after the theatre rental and basic production costs have been paid out of the income from a modestly-selling show.

Once you’ve got that figure, then work out how many people the 'profit' would be shared between (don’t forget the creative and backstage teams). Voila! There you have the amount of money you might see at the end. If it’s an unacceptably small sum or impractical for you to work on such terms at the present time, simply don’t apply.

Ask if there’s anyone involved whose skill sets are sufficiently in demand that they’re likely to be paid to service the production. People such as stage managers, musicians and publicists are sometimes paid on the fringe, unfair though this seems. If you’re not comfortable with this, don’t participate.

5. Beware committing to costs

If you’re initiating a project yourself, don’t be dazzled by venue managers who make grandiose statements about how much people should get paid in their theatre, then pass the costs on to you, financing wages for their own handful of in-house productions from your rental.

Even if they tempt you with a no-money-up-front deal, that rental will have to be paid back eventually, usually after you’ve bankrupted yourself from trying to meet the venue’s wage policy from the income from the 50 seats. You could easily be left tens of thousands of pounds in debt, while the venue manager is showered with glory.

Remember the more costs you commit to, the less rehearsal time you’ll be able to afford, something to bear in mind if you want to be well-rehearsed in something you can be proud of. It’s been interesting to see how major critics have drifted away from reviewing shows in venues where small casts are barely getting 10 days of rehearsal.

6. Don't overestimate your funding

Be realistic about your chances of crowdfunding success or getting a grant. Too many people are landing themselves in debt because they've overestimated their chance of finding funding. If you envisage finding backers, do remember you’ll have to be realistic with them about the chances of paying them back from sales.

7. Make sure it's right for you

Consider very carefully whether the play, part and process will make you happy. Ask around about the director (check out his or her Facebook page – they’ll be checking out yours and calling past directors you’ve worked with before offering you a role). Check with other performers who’ve worked at the venue as to whether it was a good experience. Remember, if you’re not going to make money, your time on the fringe has to deliver enjoyment and artistic fulfilment.

Once you’ve got your head around that lot, you should be going into the production with your eyes open. Apply for an audition and hope for the best.

There really is no reason why you shouldn’t be as happy and fulfilled by the occasional fringe gig as generations of actors before you.

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