Jess Gow: Producers of Posh offering a pittance to stage management is an irony too far
A couple of days ago I read about the all-female production of Posh. I concluded it was something I would probably really like to see. They’ve taken a hugely popular and still incredibly relevant Royal Court play, and given it a female voice. Plus it’s going to star the brilliant Hannah Murray from Skins, God Help the Girl and that telly show about dragons and sex that everyone loves but I haven’t seen, despite the high count of bare bottoms.
The show has already received a lot of publicity and rightly so. I mean, it’s bold and it’s topical and it has an all-female cast. What’s not to love? Sounds great. Book me in.
All my good vibes turned to anger and disbelief
But yesterday I saw the advert for the role of company stage manager for the piece. And any positivity or support I had previously felt about the production quickly turned to anger, disbelief and an overwhelming urge to query the decisions that have been made when staffing this show.
The advert stated that the CSM would be paid £250 per week plus profit share and open-book accounting. From looking at the dates on the advert and the dates on the website, it would appear that the CSM will receive this weekly wage for a three-week rehearsal period and a four-week run.
To keep within the current London Living Wage, the CSM would only be able to work a maximum of 27 hours per week. That could admittedly be possible on a performance week. But with a typical rehearsal week taking you up to 35 hours, I’m genuinely struggling to see how that’s achievable. Even if you work only 27 hours per week, is £250 really going to cover your bills, rent, travel, tax, pension, National Insurance and food?
I see adverts for atrociously paid stage management work all the time. But this time it wasn’t for a few days' work in a room above a pub, or a short piece produced by a couple of students. It drew my attention because it is a high-profile production gaining a lot of publicity with a sizeable and experienced cast.
So I asked myself: ‘Who exactly would be in a position to accept this role without falling into debt or poverty? What kind of person, living in London, would be able to work on this play, without taking on a second job, and still live comfortably?’
The answer is, of course, painfully obvious and predictable. But what makes this even worse than the usual ‘we do it for the love’ job is just how cruelly ironic it is given the important subject matter of the play.
You see, the producers of Posh have perfectly highlighted the very issues that are slowly yet systematically dismantling our industry, even our country. They have brought much-needed attention to why the privileged middle classes get opportunities that other people don’t, and they haven’t even staged their production yet.
Because all they had to do was place this advert.
And within this advert they have used my favourite word to describe such a position: "Exciting."
That word is used in low-paid adverts an awful lot. Because surely it must be pretty ‘exciting’ to work on a high-profile production with a famous person in the cast that will almost certainly sell well. Right?
Sadly, there is nothing exciting about working on a production that pays you this kind of money. The weekly wage of £250 is not adequate for someone working full-time, especially when you are catering to the demands and expectations of a director, designer and cast.
I’m willing to place a bet that the cleaners of that theatre will be on more than £250 a week. Which is fairly astounding seeing as the CSM is meant to be the one person holding everything together. Yeah, it’s a low-budget, fringe theatre. But most fringe companies these days recognise that £250 is an appalling and sub-standard offering, and will at least offer £350-£400. I’ve done shows on those kind of wages. It’s grim and it’s hard but you can just about manage it. But £250?
If you come from a background that can support you financially while you live on this wage, that’s great. A ‘small’ top-up of another few hundred a month could just about get you within the guidelines of the National Minimum Wage. Or maybe your parents already live in London so you don’t need to pay rent. Perhaps you live in close proximity to the centre of town so can remove travel from your monthly budget.
But not all of us enjoy these luxuries. Which means that the group of people who can apply for this job in an already overcrowded and competitive industry is narrowed right down to a very small and particular set. And some people who are looking for an opportunity and to get a foot on the ladder are excluded, simply because they lack the finances to essentially fund their own job.
This exclusivity, if I’m being brutally honest, makes it genuinely hard not to start resenting your own working-class background. I fear that the day is fast approaching when we look around and see that the working classes have been simply pushed out of the expensive cities and the theatrical arts completely.
Putting on a show is hard. I get that. There are so many overheads and hidden costs and, in this day and age, it shouldn’t only be the large, publicly funded companies that get to stage plays.
But I truly struggle with the argument of ‘if we paid people properly we wouldn’t be able to stage the show’. I mean, most of us just live within our means, so why can’t producers? And if corners do need to be cut, why is it the stage management department that ultimately takes the brunt? I don’t eat in restaurants I can’t afford and then simply decide not to pay the staff. So why employ a stage manager when you are not in a position to pay them?
When you’re a creative or an actor, working on low-paid shows can be the only way you can get your work or face seen. Your cripplingly low fee might be bankrupting you. But on the plus side you are getting your work out there, which can lead to other jobs. This in itself can be adequate compensation when being paid poorly.
But for stage managers, it’s not quite the same. A bad wage is a bad wage, despite how high profile the production is. We remain invisible and unseen and it’s only occasionally that the promise of ‘this project will lead to other work’ actually comes to fruition. Accepting a badly paid job on the off-chance it might lead to future work is a huge gamble. Just as accepting any job that promises a profit share is a massive financial risk, even if it is with open-book accounting.
I honestly wish the production of Posh a huge amount of goodwill. I hope that the run is massively successful, that all of the backstage staff are satisfied and that the piece itself is reviewed warmly. I want to believe that the producers will closely monitor the hours of the stage management team and at no point let their ambition for the piece overshadow the well-being of their company.
But mostly, I hope that's a typo in the advert and the whole thing is a total misunderstanding.
If not, I ask the producers to take into consideration just exactly what it is they are asking of their employees, and genuinely to consider the dangers of paying somebody such a low wage, while simultaneously denying so many an opportunity.
Messages in press-night cards don’t pay our rent. Brilliant reviews don’t top up our Oyster cards. And promises of other opportunities don’t foot our supermarket bill.
To work diligently and consistently on your productions, we need to be paid an adequate amount, not just a contribution to our living expenses. For a stage manager to perform a job to the best of her ability, she simply needs to be paid the adequate Equity minimum wage.
Because not everyone is lucky enough to be posh.