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Phil Willmott: Don’t pretend that fringe shows make enough to pay everyone

Photo: Christian-Bertrand/Shutterstock
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Anything on social media suggesting producers on the fringe could convert profit-share to paid work, if nudged, gets us all clicking “like”. But to have a sensible debate, we must start dealing with facts rather than reiterating the myths that excite us.

The key belief many people cling to, despite evidence to the contrary, is that profit-share shows have a producer in the conventional sense – someone who has entered into the project to run it as a money-making business. Yet even the most basic calculations will tell you it’s impossible to make money from box office income in theatres with 60 seats.

The fringe is not a money-making operation but a group of volunteers, and no one is under any illusion that ticket sales – even 100% ticket sales – could cover their wage bill.

The next refuge of those who believe there’s enough money in fringe theatre to pay everyone is the bizarre notion that hiring a venue makes the operator your producer and therefore responsible for your wages.

This isn’t expected in any other industry, in the West End or even in venues that operate the Equity Fringe Agreement. This agreement allows those signed up to dictate that visiting companies pay both their own wages and a rent to cover the employment of the venue staff, without any financial risk to themselves.

The London fringe is the only place where most people can hone their craft and build a CV that just might get them into audition rooms

Only a small percentage of theatre artists get a shot at the top jobs and enough auditions for paid work to sustain a living. The London fringe is the only place where most people can hone their craft and build a CV that just might get them into audition rooms.

The good news is that these days, thanks to encouragement from Equity, working practices have been re-examined and most reputable fringe productions will base a rehearsal schedule around when you can volunteer your time. And if you don’t have enough free time, luckily fringe theatre is in robust health, and it’ll be there for you when you need it.

Virtually every major writer and director in the West End who didn’t start with the benefit of influential friends and family ‘broke through’ based on the press exposure of their fringe work in the 1990s. If we deny emerging artists similar exposure, where will tomorrow’s Nica Burns, Thea Sharrock, Erica Whyman, Rufus Norris, Tom Morris, Timothy Sheader, Conor McPherson and others come from?

If rogue producers are somehow exploiting us in tiny theatres, a bit of common sense and some basic maths will help weed them out. Yes, call out the people running productions that are clearly financially viable yet don’t pay everyone, but if a show is obviously impossible to finance commercially, then back off.

We’re not idiots: we’ve all volunteered in the knowledge that we won’t make any money. We want the joy, experience, exposure or work-out of doing a non-commercial project between paid jobs, when we can afford to participate. As one actor said to me the other day: “If I were unemployed in New York, I’d be spending a fortune on classes. This is free.”

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