While actors are often the focus of Equity fair-pay campaigns, designers face similarly poor conditions and crippling overheads. Lighting designer Robbie Butler says it’s time to join a union and demand higher fees
We need to talk about money. For a while, I’ve been wanting to scream my lungs out about low fees – and even apparently fair fees – offered to designers and technicians, who have frequently been hesitant to speak up for fear of being blacklisted as troublemakers. But Shona McCarthy’s recent comment about the impossibilities of “fair pay” on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Come on: Edinburgh is the largest arts festival in the world. It’s fair to say that those who work in the arts tend to be liberal-leaning, yet our flagship festival goes against that ethos and is built on very shaky foundations. The major production companies at the fringe are a revolving door of shows – they’re not small start-ups in a shared workspace. A ‘Trump Teviot’ venue wouldn’t look out of place alongside the Gilded Balloon every August.
Put simply, defending the practice of denying fair pay to those who build, maintain and strike your festival, makes you directly complicit in fostering a broken industry. We work in such a magnificent trade. We are a community whose members truly look out for one another, sharing our tips and skills. Why do we do all this for each other but not take action to guarantee ourselves a basic sustainable income?
In order to answer this question, I did what any millennial would do: I took to Twitter to vent my anger, frustration and despair. And in the spirit of an open and honest discussion, I did something that was uncomfortably exposing. It went something like this: So far this tax year, I have made £20,338.67. Of that, £14,048.29 was for design work, while £6,290.38 was for technical and other work.
This might seem like a reasonable income, and if you were in a regular career that supplied the tools you needed to do your job, it would probably be fine as a starting salary. But my rent so far this year has been £6,000. I’ve spent £8,867.38 on business expenses, which are just the usual things that I need to do my job: Vectorworks SS, Transport, After Effects and Photoshop as well as plugins for both, ETC Dongle, phone contract and new laptop battery – that type of thing.
So my total essential outgoings have been £14,867.38. No luxuries, just everything I need to spend in order to be in London and do my job.
That means that I’m left with £5,471.29 to cover myself for 10 months. That’s £136.78 per week for everything else: to pay for food and groceries, to buy clothes, to save for a deposit, to travel to see my fiancé, to travel to see my family, to save for a wedding, to save for a holiday, to go to the pub, to go out for dinner, to cover a gym membership, to cover a TV licence, to go to the theatre, to go to the cinema, to save for being sick, to buy Christmas presents and to cover small stupid things like new bedsheets or a new bag or even just a cup of coffee.
If all you can expect after training at university or in the field is to get to a point where you can earn the minimum wage, then you’d be better off working in a supermarket where in the same period you could climb the ladder to a managerial role.
Going to a supermarket without checking my bank balance first is not something I should have to aspire to when I’m working all the time
I’m very lucky that I currently don’t have any dependants. I don’t know how I would cope if I did. I don’t feel that going to a supermarket and not having to look at my bank balance first is something that I should have to aspire to when I’m working all the time.
I am able to deduct that £8,867 from my tax bill at the end of the year, but it’s not money I ever get back. People in ‘normal’ jobs who earn £20,000 don’t have to that level of business expenditure. They can do things like go on holiday once a year or get a take away for dinner without worrying. They have sick pay, and holiday pay and they also don’t tend work 70-hour weeks. Is that lifestyle too much to ask for us designers?
All the work I did last year was on, or above, the minimum rates set by the unions Equity and BECTU, and I had a very busy year. So even on a so-called fair wage and being busy pumping out a lot of work, I still barely managed to scrape by.
It’s no wonder when you look at some of the rates: follow-spot operators in the West End can be paid as little as £40.02 per show. This is supposedly the epitome of theatrical craft in the UK, yet these people could be required to work for up to six days a week and they are being paid peanuts in return. How have we allowed this to happen?
On the fringe, the Equity minimum for a lighting designer is £550. To my knowledge, no lighting designers were consulted when that number was arrived at. It’s based on one’s statutory rights, but fails to encompass the overheads that exist before you even step foot into a production meeting. If I design 12 shows in a year, and want to make £20,000 (which, as we’ve seen from above, isn’t enough), I would need to charge a minimum of £1,600 per design. Effectively the Equity minimum would need to be trebled.
The reality is a cruel one: the union minimums now do more to serve the needs of theatres and producers than the artists they were written to support. Theatres are exploiting their artists so that they can keep their tickets affordable. Keeping bums on seats is more important than keeping artists out of poverty. To see “professionally made, professionally paid” plastered across posters and programmes and knowing that there’s a design team on the end of it whose members have likely been paid less than £1,000 each for their work is wounding.
If a business graduate wanted to gain experience in business, you wouldn’t expect them to go and work in McDonald’s for 70 hours a week at £3 per hour and for them to bring their own deep fat fryer. Why then is the equivalent expected in our industry?
So how do we fix this mess? Do we strike? Would we last? Would theatres even notice? I’m forever baffled when I turn up to Equity member meetings and the room in one unified breath moans about all the work they’ve been doing for no money.
I find it bewildering that people join a union if they are then going to be complicit in sustaining the very problems they are complaining about
I find it bewildering that people join a union in the first place if they are then going to be complicit in sustaining the very problems they are complaining about. You reap what you sow. The union isn’t meant to be a therapy group – although it can be, and that’s nice. Its primary function is to be a group of allied voices with each individual member committed to the values of an improved working landscape for the wider collective.
Working for anything less than the union minimum unravels everything, for everyone. The only way to make things better is through the unions. Those who know their history will know that Equity and designers have never been the best of friends. I joined Equity after I was burned by a company paying union rates to their actors but not to the creatives.
I joined the union to try to change it and I now sit on the Directors and Designers Committee. I’m really excited by the strides that Equity is now making as it gets bigger and stronger. Organisers are listening to us and they want to work with us to make things better. But we need the clout of the full workforce behind us to get these fees up to something sustainable. Designers, it’s time to join your union.
Robbie Butler is a freelance lighting designer who has worked on productions including Southwark Playhouse’s Mother Courage and Her Children, Bolton Octagon’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Complicité’s The Happy Tragedy of Being Woke. Details: robbiebutlerdesigns.com