It’s awards season again, and I’m proud to be the patron saint of the best costume design Offie award for a third year. The ‘Offies’ – more formally called the Off West End Awards – recognises not only the effort and skill of those who work in these productions, but the circumstances of that effort.
The quality of the costume design in these shows is little short of a miracle considering the resources, budgets and fees. What I admire most is the ingenuity and cleverness of costumes that work hard for their money. Constraints can lead to the most marvellous discoveries: lack of money breeds creativity.
But we must recognise that on an hour-by-hour basis, costume designers are among the worst-paid professionals in theatre. Even when at the top of their game they are not paid as much as designers of set, light, sound and AV. And that career will often have been built on a foundation of badly paid jobs and free work.
When we talk about legal minimum wages we imagine it would be illegal to pay someone less than the minimum, which currently stands at £7.83 per hour. We would be wrong.
Designers are paid by fee. That means a single figure for the design process, all the hours they spend sourcing costumes, attending fittings, tech and previews. If they have a costume supervisor the load is lessened, but if not, they will probably do all the shopping, making and alterations.
Let’s say the fee is £1,000 (this is generous: I have heard of £300 fees). The creation of even a small show can take 300 hours. The bigger the show, the longer the hours but the fees remain the same. It is no exaggeration to say the hourly rate may be no more than £3 an hour.
There have been discussions on whether the exposure and experience of working Off-West End, while ensuring its survival, is enough of a reward to allow people to work for nothing.
Equity and BECTU have campaigned to have members paid for their work, while others argue Off-West End is a crucible in which cast, crew and creatives have to prove their staying power, dedication and talent. And as a crucible there is a little less scrutiny, there is space for experimentation and trial and error. Those who survive can go on to have amazing careers remembering their time there with fondness.
But how can we ensure these roles are not just for the privileged, moneyed few? The acting world has been reflecting on the number of privately educated actors who are getting higher paid, more prestigious work.
In the same way that 67% of British Oscar-winning actors come from fee-paying schools there is a danger that the world of design is going to be restricted to those who can afford to work for nothing. Living in London costs money. Rent, travel, supplies, food, heat and electricity cost money. How does a person from a non-privileged background live in London on £3 per hour? How can they develop their craft?
As an industry we need to face up to these issues. In the meantime, thank heavens for the Offies doing what they can to shine a light on the astonishing work produced Off-West End.