Alistair Smith: Show producers’ pay stance hits a bum note
The West End regularly comes under fire for high ticket prices. But one of the reasons that producers need to charge these prices is that they are paying people properly.
West End performers receive West End wages, as do the staff working backstage in the theatres and the creative teams making the shows. Paying people decent wages makes creating great theatre an expensive business.
You Me Bum Bum Train is not a West End show, but with tickets priced at £48.50 across the board, its tickets are more expensive than the average price paid for a ticket to a West End show (about £43). It has also received public funding from Arts Council England, unlike the majority of West End shows.
There has already been an argument over whether all performers in the show should be paid (they are not). Bum Bum Train’s producers have argued that they are volunteers and that the show would not be stage-able without them. And anyway, the argument goes, it’s as much an experience for them as it is for the paying customers.
Having seen the show – which, by the way, is superb – I can come some way to appreciating this argument. The volunteers are an intrinsic part of the experience and – just as much as you are experiencing the show as a paying customer – they are experiencing your performance from the other side. I’m still not sure I’m 100% comfortable with this argument, but it at least has some merit.
However, the Bum Bum Train producers’ latest pay fiasco – unpaid interns performing roles that would otherwise have been undertaken by paid production assistants – is a step too far. It would be bad for any employer, but for one in receipt of public money it is much, much worse. Rather than dancing around the issue, Arts Council England should be explicitly coming out and condemning this behaviour.
This is exploitation, pure and simple. It is not a collaborative exercise, there is no grey area. These people are doing jobs that otherwise the producers would have to pay someone else to do. If they argue that they would otherwise not be able to stage the show, or would have to charge more for tickets, then that’s fine – producers have to make decisions based on business plans all the time.
But not paying people should not be part of any business plan.
And don’t get me started on Toys R Us.
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