With less than a week to go before the start of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, another report has just been published that shines a spotlight on the inequalities of the world’s biggest arts festival. But what’s fascinating about the Power Play research into gender inequalities is not just what it reveals about the fringe but how, in providing a snapshot of what happens in Edinburgh, it raises wider questions about British theatre, gender and opportunity.
The good news from the research is that women are very well represented in all creative areas on the fringe – from writing and directing to technicians and producers. They make up 60% of the creative workforce. The bad news is that, even at this level, there is a 60% earnings gap at the fringe, with women earning less than their male counterparts.
That is, of course, if they are being paid at all.
The study found that 38% of all practitioners, whatever their gender, went completely unpaid and those in the sample who did receive payment had a median income of £400 for around six weeks’ work. Power Play points out that this works out at £9.52 a day. That is less than the cost of a single ticket to most shows on the fringe.
But that is what you get in an unregulated free market, and one where young artists feel they must have a presence if they are to have careers in the theatre industry. On the one hand, the fringe offers a platform and a voice to those who might not otherwise be heard, but on the other hand, the model is strongly skewed towards those who can afford it.
There may, in some cases, also be privilege operating around those who feel that they can afford to absent themselves, because their careers are already on track or they can see clear pathways into the profession. We say that everyone has a choice about whether or not they decide to take work to Edinburgh, and indeed nobody puts a gun to anyone’s head and makes them fill in the registration form and reserve a slot in a venue. But, while some forge successful careers without ever going near the fringe, others don’t feel that they have the option to absent themselves.
Taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe is theatre’s equivalent of buying a Friday-night Lottery ticket
Hence the story last week about Demi Nandhra, who wrote a blog about taking out a payday loan to get to Edinburgh, where she will be performing her show Life Is No Laughing Matter at Summerhall. “We all know the lucrative opportunities the fringe can offer,” she wrote.
There’s the rub. There is no other moment, or rather three weeks, in British theatre that offers such potential opportunities for young theatremakers – and is open access. Going to the fringe is theatre’s equivalent of buying a Friday-night Lottery ticket, a moment to dream. Like the Lottery, the odds aren’t good that your numbers will come up.
What the Power Play research does is raise the question: what is the value of the fringe to individual theatre careers, but also much more widely to the industry?
If the fringe is a significant place where many start their careers, and where producers and programmers go each year to fill their programmes and find new talent, then does the industry bear some responsibility for the conditions in which young artists find themselves working? And how might it take steps to help improve those conditions?
Furthermore, if the fringe is so important to future careers, why is it that women (who predominate in all roles on the fringe, where there is little or no financial recompense) don’t go on to predominate in paid creative and producing and technical roles within British theatre at its top tiers?
As the budgets get bigger, why does their presence get smaller? Why do they still often find themselves less well remunerated than their male contemporaries? Earlier this year, The Stage reported that two years after the industry’s biggest employers were forced by the government to reveal their gender pay data, the situation showed minimal improvement.
One of the things other research by Tonic has demonstrated is that the volume of women working in all areas of theatre, often in more lowly paid admin roles, masks the inequalities of both power and pay that exist within arts organisations. Back in 2016, research by The Stage found that women leaders at top theatres were paid £29,000 less on average than men.
The Power Play research suggests that the unconscious biases and gaps between perception and reality around gender equality may well be already operating on the fringe and manifest themselves in the pay gap. Such gaps add to the already considerable precariousness of trying to make a career as a freelance within the theatre industry.
This summer, Power Play will undertake another survey, this time looking at race and class. That should make fascinating reading, because we still have too little research about how the culture of the fringe impacts at the intersections of race, class and gender.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner