Here’s a question: what’s the one thing you can’t do without if you want to put on theatre? Actors. And which category of worker is least likely to get paid when budgets are tight? Yes, you’ve guessed it, actors. Why is this, we wonder? The practice seems to go all the way to the top, with performers reportedly working for free at the 2012 Olivier Awards, despite a massive sponsorship deal with Mastercard. Then we have the original cast of ‘Les Miserables’ having to fight to retain their right to receive royalties on the original cast recording, a recording which no doubt was continuing to make money for everyone else.
Low or no pay for actors on the fringe is hardly a new issue, but ‘The Stage’ has designated it one of its ‘hot topics’ and describes the issue as ‘divisive’, regularly giving over space for a lively debate. The recent court ruling against Gavin McAlinden, which found that he must pay his actors the minimum wage despite advertising his production of ‘Pentecost’ as a profit share has brought the debate to a new level. Once again, the death of the fringe is foretold, and the actors who took action treated almost like traitors even by fellow cast members, with their union, Equity, portrayed by some as a heartless organisation determined to finish off every last creative endeavour on the fringe. Mark Shenton even went so far as to speculate whether this was some kind of artistic censorship.
Can it really be that actors are the problem here? Theatre is a business – plenty of people have made huge amounts of money out of it, and we are constantly told that showbusiness brings in significant amounts of revenue to the UK. The unpalatable answer is that if the fringe is truly dependent on the unpaid labour of actors for its existence, then die it must. Why should creative enterprise be any different to any other exploitative employment practices that have had to be abandoned because they are unjust?
It’s time that some of the irrational beliefs that continue to prop up this practice were tackled. For example:
- It’s OK not to pay actors if I tell them in advance and they agree. Even the term ‘profit share’ is invidious. In other sectors, profit share refers to receiving a share of company profits on top of a basic wage. Only in entertainment, it seems, are actors’ wages paid out of ‘profit’. Of course profit share is generally considered to be a misnomer, as in so many cases there are few or no profits. But in many cases actors have no access to the accounts, and no idea if profits have been made and paid out to others. Moreover, it is usual for musicians and technical crew to be paid as employees because they don’t generally subscribe to a ‘no pay’ culture. Actors are often at the end of the queue, and expected to be grateful just for the ‘opportunity’. Equity has recently produced some guidelines which explore this further, and explain why as a trade union they would generally advise against entering into such arrangements without a very good reason.
- It’s OK not to pay actors because I am doing something ‘artistic’ and I don’t want to be tainted by commercialism. Theatre in the UK has long suffered from a false dichotomy between the commercial and the ‘artistic’. This dichotomy continues to feed into a romantic vision of the fringe as some kind of vanguard of theatre, which does not need to take into account financial sustainability. In fact, the fringe encompasses a huge variety of venues and output, often no less conservative than the West End, and the fringe also includes subsidised venues. These are unlikely to die out because of any ruling that actors have to be paid – they already pay them, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to receive public funding in the first place.
- Unpaid work leads to paid work. This is a highly questionable proposition when there is such an over-supply of performers willing to work for free. And what do agents think? Some interesting guidance on the casting call pro website discusses some of the pros and cons, and mentions that a string of unpaid projects can devalue a CV. Of course, these projects can always be omitted. So, not only do actors get to work for free – they might end up removing this work from their CV in case they look unemployable. Interestingly, a recent report by Creative and Cultural Skills suggested that it is working in the subsidised sector rather than the commercial fringe, which most benefits the careers of aspiring performers
- Taking unpaid work is a decision for the individual which does not affect anyone else. If actors took the decision en masse to demand wages, they might suddenly find that the money can be found. So, work may be less plentiful, but as it is unpaid work, does that really matter? The argument has been made many times in the context of internships, where those you can afford to effectively buy their way in to an industry by working for free. It is no different with acting, so why should people who can afford to work for free be romanticised as somehow more committed to their art? Committed they may be, but there are just as many talented and committed performers who don’t have the financial wherewithal to work for free. Perhaps some reframing is needed here. Instead of ‘taking unpaid work to gain experience’, we should refer to people ‘paying to jump the queue’, or buying advantage in the industry. And perhaps if some of these projects are so uneconomic, they should be described as the theatrical equivalent of ‘vanity publishing’.
One of the most disturbing things about this debate is that we frequently praise small venues for the high quality of their productions, and yet we have no clue what or whether the actors are paid. It seems ridiculous that paying audiences should have no access to this information. We are sure we are not the only people who would like to exercise some consumer power to support the performers who make the theatre worth going to. We selfishly want to see the best people performing, not just the best who can afford to work for free.