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Phil Willmott: Here’s why a new generation of directors is too scared to make theatre

Phil Willmott's production of Shakespeare's Play of Thrones. Photo: Scott Rylander Phil Willmott's production of Shakespeare's Play of Thrones. Photo: Scott Rylander
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Is Equity’s ‘Year of the Fringe’ over yet? I do hope so.

Let’s get the formalities out of the way. Like all of you I believe everyone who wants to work in our business should be able to. All the time. And get paid loads. Especially me. Hurrah for full employment and high wages and the whole country valuing the performing arts and nightly wanting to hand over their hard-earned cash to watch us playing make believe.

Where you and I might differ is that I just don’t get why anyone thought closing down voluntary profit share collaborations in zero budget circumstances, which only exist when there’s no opportunity to earn wages from a project, would suddenly create paid work for us all.

It’s been horrible to watch our otherwise splendid union’s desperate attempt to boost membership by pretending there was enough money to be made in 50-seat fringe venues to convert productions into paying jobs and trying to sign people up on that basis; giving in to the haranguing of ‘retired, ex ENSA, of Tunbridge Wells’, those well meaning senior members who have no idea how tough things are these days.

And so many of us swallowed it, seduced by the absurd idea that closing down voluntary fringe collaborations in tiny makeshift theatres would lead to paid employment. Not even taking a moment to do a few income versus expenditure sums before baying for blood.

God, it’s been ugly.

We’ve had celebrities with famous parents, who entered the profession with the kind of advantages the rest of us can only dream of, writing in the union magazine of their bewilderment that any of us need to work for free.

We’ve had the absurd assertion bandied about that profit-share disadvantages the poorest of us when volunteering to work for a profit share around the ‘day job’ is the only opportunity most of us have to get noticed in our profession.

We have a new generation of directors too scared to volunteer their skills and set up the same the same fringe collaborations their predecessors were able to do to establish their careers. Those are the people now creating tens of thousands of jobs and running major theatres.

We’ve seen our union employ someone who hasn’t the slightest idea of the reality of theatre people’s lives to write threatening letters and bully us.

On one occasion when I’d advertised for actors who’d like to volunteer to make a show with me in between our paid work this hired enforcer emailed me saying he’d heard from some union members concerned about the morality of it. I replied that I’d also heard from some union members, nearly 1,000 of them, asking for an audition, so on balance I thought morally I was fine, thank you very much. I didn’t hear back. Which was a shame because I’d enjoyed his earlier visit to a profit share rehearsal when he’d encouraged us to sue the producer only be disconcerted to discover, as is often the case, that we didn’t have one. (I liked to imagine him hunting around out the back later for a cigar chomping capitalist sitting on bags of secret cash, like Bush and Blair hunting for weapons of mass destruction to justify themselves.) Anyway, let us wish him well in future endeavours.

Some vindictive fiend has been combing the accounts of my projects

I’ve had some idiots I’d never dream of volunteering to direct in a million years haranguing me on social media (not to mention the anonymous trolls), I’ve had people contacting me in tears for advice after being bullied by the very union they, like me, have always supported and I even had some vindictive fiend combing the accounts of projects I’ve been part of desperate to find something to hurt me with. And I’m absolutely sick of it.

There have been some eye-popping estimates of quite how much Equity has spent vilifying a director who staged a play in a church hall. I understand that the National Minimum Wage dispute has been a useful way to clobber a few unscrupulous bustards who might have got off sexual harassment charges etc. Good. But at what cost to our profession and the next generation of directors who don’t have rich parents to bankroll company wages or wealthy friends to enjoy their crowd funding videos? There must be another way.

If I sound angry, that’s because I am. If I’m working for free I only collaborate with people I admire so I was pretty certain I’d never directed anyone stupid enough to believe they were being exploited or who couldn’t see the difference between venue owners hiring out spaces, for which there is a demand, and our inability to hire out our services, for which there’s none. But there was always the danger that the hired enforcer might, just might, catch someone at a weak moment and encourage him or her to join the union for the express purpose of dragging me through the courts for directing them.

I hate the opportunity for blackmail Equity’s ‘Year of the Fringe’ has created and I really hate criticising a union I believe in, have been a proud member of for decades, which I’ve served on the council of and which has helped me and my colleagues in so many wonderful ways while doing so much good. But this whole debacle has been ill thought out, cruel and dishonourable.

I don’t know why the judge at a recent tribunal branded a fringe director as dishonest. Maybe he deserved it, maybe he didn’t, but I know one thing for certain: anyone who applies for a voluntary collaboration knowing full well it’s profit share, goes to audition recalls, rehearsals, costume fittings etc in that knowledge and then sues for a wage that was never promised or offered because they decide they don’t like the director… it doesn’t get more dishonest than that in my book.

Perhaps we should run a ballot, as they did recently in LA

Yes, a handful of fringe venues have pledged to pay actors the National Minimum Wage and all power to them, but do the maths. They’re going to pay you by the hour so how much rehearsal do you imagine you’ll get? You don’t believe it’ll pay you enough not to have to juggle rehearsals around your ‘day job’, do you? I’d suggest that if you’re going to put yourself through the financial hardship of creating a showcase for yourself, you might be better off volunteering for something that’ll be properly rehearsed around your commitments and that you can be proud of.

Perhaps we should have a union ballot about the way forward. This was done in LA recently and members overwhelmingly told their union to get stuffed.

I suppose it might depend on how the question is worded. I’d favour:

Would you like your union to continue to spend thousands of pounds attacking artists whose lack of paid work obliges them to volunteer for profit share collaborations?

or

Would you like this money to be used for a hardship fund?

Some of you believe I get paid a lot for writing this kind of stuff. If only that were true. It’s not, but I’ll happily donate anything I do make for this piece to kick that fund off.

Here’s to mass public demand for the performing arts allowing for full employment and good wages. Until that time leave those of us who opt to practice our craft voluntarily, between gigs, alone.

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