I can’t put it off any longer, so buckle up: today we’re going to talk about designer fees. In the interest of impartiality, I’m going to launch a fictional company called Smart Theatre. (For the record, I have a much better name for my actual imaginary theatre.)
First thing Smart Theatre does is commission a director to direct a play. The director then picks designers that they would like to check are available. Then the company asks the potential designer to read the script and come for an interview, or perhaps several interviews, bringing their updated portfolio. This costs a little bit of time and money, but is a valid process when hiring people.
A less moral theatre may ask the designer to bring a sketchbook full of their ideas and not pay them for their time. But here at Smart Theatre, we wouldn’t do that.
Next, we need to work out a fee. A lot of theatres have a couple of ‘going rates’, and which one you are offered is based on your experience, the type of show and whether or not you’re a man (am I joking? Hopefully).
Although there is a push now towards a standard rate for every show, there’s nothing wrong with a tiered system, as long as it’s done fairly and we don’t stick to these rates for years and ignore inflation. That would be crazy.
Right, so now our director has picked you to be the designer. Congratulations! So how much do you think you’re worth? Okay, great. Now take that figure, subtract 10%, which goes to your lovely agent, and 20% of what is left goes to the taxman.
And how much time will Smart Theatre need you for and does that fee really cover it? In my personal experience, a white card and final model take eight weeks of work, then two weeks of costume drawings – that’s rounding down and not including the time actually to come up with the ideas.
Working out how much designers are subsiding the arts by going ‘above and beyond’ will yield crucial data
Then there are four weeks of rehearsals. Okay, so you don’t have to be there 10am to 6pm every day, but having a show in rehearsals means your hours aren’t that far off. Then there are technical rehearsals: usually a 10-day ‘week’. Forgetting artistic value and intellectual property, how much should we pay you for that many hours? Okay. But all that is totally fine, because you can be working on multiple shows at the same time, right?
It seems that designers are getting booked later and later, causing all their creative and model-making work to be compressed into a tight knot of brain ache. It’s the same amount of work, but in a stinging sprint with no warm-up. It makes doing shows as if they’re overlapping cross-country walks impossible. So, Smart Theatre will be sure to book you as soon as possible.
Currently Equity’s Directors and Designers Committee is asking everyone to add up their hours. Properly working out how much designers are subsiding the arts by going ‘above and beyond’ will yield crucial data. Get on it. But in the mean time, be honest: what do you think we’re worth?
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart