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Editor’s View: Fringe pay debate exposes lack of clarity for critics and audiences alike

Generic-fringe-actors-on-stage-rehearsal-shutterstock_196937648 Photo: Shutterstock/Christian Bertrand
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Our associate editor Mark Shenton’s intervention into the fringe pay debate has provoked some lively dialogue.

He outlined his intention to stop reviewing shows “for which actors and other participants are not paid, unless they’re in a collaborative, non-hierarchical venture”.

Mark Shenton: Why I will no longer review shows that don’t pay actors and crew

Not everyone will agree with his stance, but he has opened up the conversation around what has long been a divisive topic.

Despite sharing some of his concerns, The Stage has no intention of following Shenton’s lead. We will continue to review the same broad range of theatre across the UK (and beyond) we do at the moment.

We feel that with the diminution of coverage elsewhere, it is more important than ever that we cover as much theatre as we can to give emerging talent the exposure they need. This is the thinking behind our extended coverage of the Vault Festival, the huge amount of theatre we review at the Edinburgh Fringe and The Stage Debut Awards, launched last year.

But that is not to say that the current situation is entirely unproblematic.

Director Phil Willmott says “the fringe is not a greedily run, money-making operation but a group of volunteers with no one under any illusion that even 100% ticket sales could cover their wage bill”.

That is probably true when it comes to most people working in and and around the fringe. But it’s not true of audiences, many of whom labour under the misapprehension that the actors they are seeing on stage (and other theatre workers they don’t see) are being paid.

I’m not convinced many punters know the difference, for example, between a visit to London’s Gate Theatre (Arts Council-funded, pays union rates) and the Finborough (not Arts Council-funded, not signed up to the Equity Fringe Agreement).

But there is a fundamental difference between a show in which participants are paid and one in which they are not. The right approach might not be to stop reviewing the latter, but greater clarity is needed. A show at the Gate will operate under a completely different business model – and a different set of pressures – to one at the Finborough.

Our expectations of a show and its working practices should be different if it is operating with subsidy, as a commercial venture, or under a system in which people are volunteering or agreeing to work for no or low pay.

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

Update 9/03/18: This piece originally used the Print Room at the Coronet as an example of a fringe theatre that was not signed up to the Equity Fringe Agreement. It is not signed up to the Equity Fringe Agreement, but it is a member of the Independent Theatre Council and from April will pays ITC rates. The example has been updated to the Finborough Theatre.

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