Amidst the ongoing low-pay/no-pay debate I suddenly had a revelation – maybe it’s fine that actors don’t get paid – or directors, designers, producers or anyone making artistically fulfilling work. Now before I get hit by a barrage of anger and hate mail – just give me a chance to explain myself.
Don’t get me wrong – I really care about fair pay for a fair days work. I’ve had bitter arguments with friends and producers about it, and probably burnt some professional bridges as a result, I’ve refused to make new work where my company can’t pay people at least minimum wage – in fact I’ve been so worried about it we’ve only been able to make one show in the last two years and that was no fun at all because the pressure of the two years of fundraising, that was necessary to pay everyone, properly took all the joy out of the process. I’ve actually got to the stage of considering leaving the industry because the pressure of guilt surrounding money was so great it was all I could think of. The irony being that the one show my company runs which only goes from strength to strength is a monthly showcase for people to experiment with new work – which therefore isn’t paid – which means it hasn’t become a slave to a spreadsheet.
At the moment I’m currently in Buenos Aires, as part of a year in which I’m travelling to as many different international centres of theatre as I can to see how they do things. The first thing is that everyone – no matter where they are – believes there isn’t enough money, audience or support. But that’s by the by. What is interesting is that so far it’s only in the UK that I’ve found people so readily aggrieved they’re not getting paid to make work.
I shall use Buenos Aires as my example simply because I’m here now. The first thing that is radically different here to the UK is that there’s only two types of work – commercial work, which makes money but has no artistic credibility, and fringe theatre – which is artistically credible but never really makes any money. This gives people a straight choice – pay or credibility. With such a stark contrast its easy for people to be happy with their choices. The issue for us in the UK is that thanks to the unique funding model – and existence of the subsidised sector – we actually do have rare examples of work which is both artistically credible and commercial – The Warhorses of this word – as well as non-commercially successful productions that non the less can pay due to the subsidy they receive. So if it’s possible to be both financially successful and artistically credible why wouldn’t we want to be? But as we all know this is only the rare minority of shows.
So if some people are getting paid to make credible work in the UK why shouldn’t we all aspire to? Clearly – if someone offered me the opportunity to get paid for a show I thought would be artistically fulfilling as well, I clearly wouldn’t say no. But I think the current obsession we have with fees and payment is in fact getting in the way of our creativity. To misquote Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins – in a society where everyone can aspire to be the President – anyone who isn’t will consider themselves a failure. So too in a system where everyone feels they have the right to get paid – everyone that doesn’t (the vast majority) will feel like a failure too. Even if the work they are creating is justification enough for what they’re doing. I know this is certainly the case with my own work. The constant sense of failure that I’m not able to either pay myself or the people working with me as much as I think we deserve, has definitely made me devalue what we’re doing, and got in the way of the work we’re making. I would go as far as to say anxiety over pay is the largest creative block I have as a theatre maker.
So why have we got to the situation we’re in? Why are we so obsessed with the low-pay no-pay debate in the UK? I think there are several and varied strands of argument:
The recent high profile arguments about low-pay no-pay have been spurred on by the successful application of minimum wage legislation to Fringe theatre. As I argued here I think there is something very disingenuous about using this legislation to cover fringe theatre – it was clearly not what it was designed for. But recent test cases have indeed upheld it and Equity in their infinite wisdom have just put a large chunk of their resources into employing a full time member of staff to bring more cases of minimum wage infringement. However as long as a profit share project is actually being run by a collective – and that collective is properly constituted – there is no reason that it wouldn’t be legal. Someone just needs to find a lawyer to come up with the right structure and contract – and once this happens this argument will dissolve. Though Equity will have spent tens of thousands of pounds pursuing it, bankrupting a few more theatre makers with successful cases along the way – and the industry as a whole will still have just as little money to pass around to its members, who will still be just as poor.
Historically the issue that we have is that – theatre used to pay better. We still run the industry as though the rep circuit was in existence, as though non-west end theatre made money and people entering the industry could hope for something approximating a ‘normal’ career by working in theatre. Non of these are the case any longer, not that you’d know it if you talked to any of the dinosaurs in Equity. The result is that the way we design rehearsal periods, performances and our own lives imagines a scenario where making theatre is a full time 9-5 job. So of course we need to get paid – how else are we going to pay the rent? Putting this into contrast – as far as I know in both North and South America it is never expected that if you make artistically credible work this will be your full time job – without needing to subsidise this through teaching or other paid employment. Again going back to Buenos Aires the standard practice is to rehearse a show for 2 nights a week for about 3 to 6 months, before performing it for one night a week for up to 2 years for a standard show or up to 5 years for a successful fringe show. The longest running fringe show in Buenos Aires is coming up to it’s 25th year this year.
Fear of Exploitation or The Bogey Man
This mindset also makes us believe that someone somewhere is making money out of the projects we’re involved in – so if we’re not getting paid it’s because we’re being exploited by someone somewhere. Again this is a view heavily perpetuated by Equity who learned industrial relations in the 60’s when the poor workforce (actors) were being exploited by the rich bosses (read producers) – the sad fact today is that on the fringe no one is able to make the money they’re worth, venues are constantly on the point of financial collapse, producers are usually the last people to get paid, directors end up putting in their own money to subsidise productions and the cast are just as badly off as everyone else. This is why it’s very comforting to have a bogey man. If there is indeed some fat producer in a pin-stripe suit and cigar steeling all the money from the poor starving artists – then the solution is easy – just attack the producers and then we’ll all be able to get well paid for being creative and live happily ever after. If on the other hand that isn’t the case – that in fact there just isn’t enough money for us to make the quantity of work we do and get properly paid for it – then the future is far less rosy. It is easy to see why we’d prefer the bogey man option – but sadly on the fringe it just isn’t the case.
The Spectre of Am-Dram
One of the main reasons I think we shy away from accepting an unpaid industry model in the UK and that’s the spectre of AmDram. Surely if we’re happy to work a full time job and then create theatre on the side then we’re ‘no better’ than AmDram performers. This is really nothing more than snobbery. Most people making theatre aren’t getting paid. In that sense they’re already AmDram. The difference is one of mindset. If the quality stands up then that’s what matters – it doesn’t matter to the art if anyone got paid. But this is a very strong prejudice in us and very difficult to change. It speaks to that moment of horror we all received at some point in our formative years as artists when someone, usually a parent or teacher, turned round and told us our ambition was a ‘hobby not a job’. I remember my careers adviser at school, with a sneer I’ll never forget, telling me that it was all very well if I wanted to paint at the weekend, but what was I going to do during the week to earn money. These comments hurt so much, not because they were saying you’ll probably need to earn some money on the side of your art – which actually probably would have been good advice, but rather because what they were saying was your art is worthless, I don’t value it, society doesn’t value it, and really you shouldn’t be doing it at all.
The Continental Example
That is to say – creatives in both France and Germany get paid… why can’t we? The model in both is very different to the UK. Within the UK there is a very low barrier to enter the industry. Basically anyone can put on a play. Back in the day that didn’t used to be the case. The old ‘closed shop’ system where union membership was compulsory on productions meant unions could effectively control the size of the workforce. However since Thatcher abolished the closed shop system basically anyone can make a show. In a sense that is fantastic – it means anyone who wants to can make work. But it also means there is a pool of performers and creatives far larger than any subsidy could ever reasonably support. In both France and Germany entry into the industry is far more controlled. So in Germany for example there is a state funded regional theatre network and an official registry of artists (ZAV) that can only be entered by audition or attendance at a notoriously difficult to enter state theatre school. Thus by having less people and making less work there is a lot more money for the people who are left. We could do that in the UK. But it would mean the majority of us no longer being able to work in theatre at all, along side a massive reduction in the number of shows. And many would argue a massive knock on effect to the overall quality, experimentation and vibrancy of the scene.
So what am I actually arguing for? Do I think we don’t need a subsidised sector? No not at all – we have the best quality theatre in the world thanks to it. Do I think we need less subsidy or should be happy with what we have? Again – hell no – like any industry we should fight for every single penny of support we can wring out of the government or anyone else. Indeed one of the reasons that I’m constantly so depressed by Equity is that if they spent even half the time they do on battering and criticising other members of industry representing the entire industry and battering government for more funding we’d be in a far better place.
So what is it then I am actually saying? I guess it’s this. Let’s carry on as we are – lets not let the lack of pay get in our way – and lets stop constantly beating ourselves up about it – both individually and as an industry. Lets not expect to be paid – as this will just lead us to being constantly disappointed when we’re not – which in turn will effect our own self image and the work we make. Instead lets be grateful (and surprised) when we get paid work – but lets judge our own and others success on the artistic merit of what they’re doing, not their pay cheque. This has obvious implications for how we work – we’ll need to accept making theatre is something we do alongside a paid money job, which will effect the kind of show and rehearsal schedules we can run.
It is now fairly accepted that theatre companies need a mixed revenue stream – commercial work and teaching to bring in the money, and creative work to make it all worth while. Why can’t we treat ourselves the same. It should be accepted, and more importantly respected, that everyone should have a personal mixed economy – commercial non-theatre work to pay the bills and artistic work to make being alive feel worthwhile. This is already the case for most of us – and yet it always feels like an admission of failure that we’re not working full time in theatre. I think it’s time to remove that stigma and just accept that this is how the theatre industry is going to work from now on. What I don’t think ACE, Equity and the Stage realise is that every time they launch a new assault on low-pay no-pay work, they make all of us making work for low-pay no-pay feel like failures. I think it’s time to stop beating ourselves up over the lack of money and start caring about making outstanding work instead.
UPDATE – so about half an hour after publishing this article I was contacted by Equity’s Low Pay / No Pay officer to suggest we should have a chat in person – here is the summary of what we discussed.