We need to talk about money. I know, it’s embarrassing. But it’s necessary. Back in 2013, theatremaker Bryony Kimmings started an online campaign called I’ll Show You Mine. Kimmings realised that when trying to negotiate touring fees with venues she’d no idea how much other artists were being offered.
Kimmings’ idea was that if everybody trying to book tours shared information it would create a climate of greater transparency, as everyone would know who was being offered what. For a brief time, I’ll Show You Mine kickstarted a proper conversation about who gets paid what in theatre and the gap between need and what is actually offered.
But it did something more. In the wake of the campaign’s launch, I recall Battersea Arts Centre’s artistic director David Jubb publishing a breakdown of exactly where the theatre’s funding went. Others running venues also talked in detail about how hard it was to make the ends meet when the ends keep changing. These were not excuses, but rather an attempt to be open about the difficulties faced by all parts of the industry.
I’ll Show You Mine was not about pitting artists against venues, but about creating a conversation in which those working on salaries in buildings understood the situation of artists, and the artists had a genuine grasp of how much it costs to keep a building open. Buildings and artists are not and never should be enemies. The one cannot exist without the other. But they can be far better allies.
They need to be, but the reduction in funding from government and local authorities means that the inequalities between buildings and independents, the salaried and the freelance, have exacerbated. Salaried staff are overstretched and freelancers are making an ever more precarious living.
The current pandemic has exposed that the economics of theatre do not stack up, and theatre’s freelancers – 70% of the workforce – are most vulnerable. Is it right that unfunded artists and independent companies should bear the brunt? Is it right that an industry that makes a major contribution to the economy – and one that turns £5 in investment into £25 – does it on the backs of artists who put in so much poorly paid labour?
When you read the testimonies in This Is the Time, a document compiled by independent producer Louise Blackwell detailing the difficulties faced by artists and their dreams of a better future for themselves and the industry, or you see the comments of the grateful artists who have benefited from the #TerribleRage micro-grant fund set up by designer Bethany Wells, it is impossible not to be moved and angry.
One of the things the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated is the extent to which poorly paid artists use their own time and limited resources to help artists less fortunate than themselves. Crowdfunding culture has exacerbated that with theatre’s poor giving to theatre’s poorer. As Katherina Radeva put it in a piece I wrote last week: “When we have a little cake, we like to share it.”
But what happens when there are only crumbs? Over the past three months, I have heard heart-rending stories from companies and artists who see no future in the industry. The theatremaker Nastazja Somers has set up a thread #theatrepaysme on Twitter in which artists, many long established, come clean about what they do – or in most cases don’t – earn. It is a story of long hours worked for often paltry returns, so paltry that they have been unable to benefit from the self-employed support scheme.
The Stage has previously detailed the inequalities in pay at the top of theatre’s salary tree, but the real scandal is that so many working in theatre, not just emerging artists, but people whose work is admired and who are perceived as having good careers, are living on the edge. It is not sustainable.
People who are perceived as having good careers are living on the edge. It is not sustainable
A couple of weeks back, Kate Maltby wrote a well-intentioned blog about how theatre, the first to close due to the pandemic and likely to be the last to open, needed to learn to speak more Tory to secure the help it so desperately needs from government. I disagree. Theatre in part finds itself in its current predicament because it has learned too well how to be more Tory and embrace the structures of capitalism. That includes paying as little as possible. That’s how capitalism operates.
But it doesn’t have to be like that, and it shouldn’t be, because it is divisive, setting up one part of the workforce against the other. National portfolio organisation Slung Low operates on a wage system in which everyone – staff or freelancers, artistic director or somebody doing a single day’s work – is paid the same rate.
I’m not saying that would work for everyone and every scenario, but I do know we need to use this time to rethink how theatre and funders, salaried and freelancers, might work together to find a best practice that values all and encourages everyone to be better allies.