Paul Clayton: Actors’ working conditions often no better than pittance paid
They’ll send a car. Four words guaranteed to give an actor a feeling of warmth, success and importance. That joy is often tempered by the additional words ‘non-exclusive transport’, which means being taken from home via an illogical route to pick up other actors before heading to somewhere pretty close to the starting point.
But still, a car. As fees for jobs get lower these little extras mean a great deal. They don’t necessarily help the acting – though I do tend to be in a more receptive frame of mind if I haven’t had to battle with the 5.53am to Elstree – but they do help us feel wanted.
‘Every time we allow something to be cut from what is agreed, it makes it easier for others to be offered less’
That means a lot when an actor has been forced to accept another low fee for work again described as a ‘special project’.
This happened to me recently. I wanted to do the work, especially as a great director was attached. And they know this, just as fringe theatres know actors will give weeks of their time for a play that pays less than a few hundred pounds.
Often there are no dressing rooms, no toilets, and at a fringe theatre I attended in November, no heating. No matter, the actors will cope. After all, we want to act. We will take all this in our stride. What one person called “exploitation” another calls “opportunity”.
Actors take jobs in the hope they may lead to something more worthwhile and financially lucrative. And those in charge know that.
Yet it shouldn’t be the case. Acting is my job. I don’t take jobs for what they might lead to, I take them because it’s what I do to pay the mortgage. If I have to accept slightly lower fees in the current climate, then I grit my teeth, have a moan, and get on with it to pay my gas bill.
‘We spent the day sat on infant school chairs, knees tucked into chests’
But it’s not only fees that are being axed. The car for a recent day’s filming never turned up. After arriving by tube I found there was no dressing room, even though it had been agreed by the casting director with my agent. The casting director and agent were unaware I and my fellow cast members were changing in a communal schoolroom through which members of the crew regularly had to pass. This wasn’t just the fee I had surrendered. It was my dignity.
On a recent corporate job, I found two young actors changing in the toilet. It’s not on. I spoke up and a room was found for them. On the film, both casting director and agent spoke to the production company. Huge apologies were issued, but nothing happened. We spent the day sat on infant school chairs, knees tucked into chests, resembling a run-through of Blue Remembered Hills.
Most actors are loathe to speak up. They don’t want to be known as difficult. Actors with enough status to do something are rarely subjected to the same lack of agreed services, so know little about it. Yet every time we allow something to be cut from what is agreed, it makes it easier for others to be offered less.
It’s possible to point out omissions politely but firmly. We might be being paid shit money, but it is possible not to treat us like shit as well.
Paul Clayton is an actor, director and author