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

The Union Theatre in Southwark, one of the fringe theatres that is not signed up to Equity's fringe agreement
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Theatre is a vocation and people are motivated, first and foremost, by the sheer love of doing it. But you can’t live on love; you also need to be able to eat. The theatre culture that has evolved in which a lot of work is expected to be done for nothing is simply untenable, at least in professional terms.

The other day, director Phil Willmott put forward a proposal to address the high cost of drama training (£9,000-£15,000 a year, just for the fees). This got me thinking. Yes, professional actor training is expensive, mainly because it is expensive to provide. And, unlike other professions for which people undergo expensive university training – being a doctor, lawyer or accountant, say – there’s no guarantee of recouping your investment at the end. That is, unless you are one of the lucky few who achieve global celebrity and start earning multi-million-dollar fees for films – Daniel Craig was rumoured last year to have a deal worth up to $150 million to return to the role of James Bond for the next instalment.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the food chain, a multitude of student actors burden themselves with massive debt before they even begin to compete in a massively oversubscribed job market. So Willmott’s plan, to afford people professional training who can’t afford it, is laudable.

And in a utopian future, where no one has to buy food or pay bills, the idea of free training provided by experts free of charge, to train you to work for nothing and be reviewed by unpaid critics, might just work. But the rest of us expect to be paid if we work. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby.

Some people can afford their hobbies – they have alternative sources of income, like indulgent parents or partners – or they put a lot of work into self-funding them, by holding down ‘regular’ jobs. And though it is undoubtedly a hardship and challenge to be among the latter, nobody is forcing anyone to try to establish a career in the theatre.

But neither can it be right that some people are taking proper salaries at their expense, when they do try to do so. One of the frequent rationales is that they are being offered exposure in return for their labour: that doing an unpaid (or expenses and profit-share, should there be one) job will pay dividends in other ways. I  always remember one actor telling me that he had resorted to being a minicab driver to pay his bills, but after working at London’s Union Theatre, he got a new agent – and has since starred regularly at the National and elsewhere.

Not everyone can afford to do this, though. And just as the high cost of drama training limits the diversity of theatre’s workforce, so does the expectation that people must work for little or no pay to get their break.

I have also come to realise that, as a critic, I am complicit in this exchange. By going to review work at venues where actors are not paid, or paid very little, I am effectively endorsing a system that advantages some at the expense of others.

So now I’m making a personal commitment not to review shows for which actors and other participants are not paid, unless they’re in a collaborative, non-hierarchical venture.

An individual or group of friends who collaborate on a show together make their own decision to do so; the moment they hold auditions, they’re holding a job interview. The same applies to arts journalism: I will only read reviews and features written by people who are paid to write them.

A similar caveat applies for those who self-publish. It’s fine as they are not helping to line anyone else’s pockets.

My own contribution to stopping the exploitation of actors and other theatre workers is only to cover those that commit to paying properly. This involves a bit more work for me: I now have to ask producers what their remuneration policies are before I attend.

Some theatres are already transparent about this, and have subscribed to operating under the Equity Fringe Agreement, such as the King’s Head, Hope Theatre, Jermyn Street and New Diorama; or seek to do even better than that.

This issue is also not just about salary but about working conditions – about matters like working hours and meal breaks that an Equity agreement also brings. I’ve already contacted a few, and followed one up with an enquiry to Equity. If other critics follow suit, where will this leave fringe theatres that don’t operate under an approved agreement?

Those that are unwilling – or unable – to pay could simply redesignate themselves as amateur houses. The next generation can receive their invaluable experience, but there are no illusions that way and no one is profiting from their labours. There will also be a cost benefit, as the shows can be produced under amateur licences. I realise the actors and directors that work there want to be seen as professional. But being professional means paying and being paid.

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