Shortly after posting my last blog piece here – outlining why I want to stop beating myself up about not getting paid enough – I was contacted by Equity. It turns out more people than I thought read my blog and rather flatteringly someone actually forwarded it to Emmanuel de Lang – Equities new Low Pay / No Pay officer who I mentioned in the piece. So in the spirit of putting their side of the debate forwards Emmanuel suggested we meet up for a coffee – an offer I jumped at – and I’m thoroughly glad I did. Having mentioned this in the comments of the first blog a lot of you asked what was discussed – so I will attempt to give an overview of our conversation here – if you want to jump straight to the conclusions of what I think needs to happen moving forwards I’ll put them in a second post here.
So caveats, admissions and apologies. We spoke for about two hours – so there is no way I’ll be able to cover everything we spoke about – inevitably I’ll give bias to the bits that have stuck in my mind so please forgive me if this is a very one sided version of our conversation. I will also explain that I am part of a ridiculously small niche in the theatre industry. I trained in collaborative theatre at Lispa, a Lecoq based school in London. Everyone I work with tends to have had the same or similar training and the vast majority of them went to either Lispa in London, Lecoq in Paris or one of a handful of international schools teaching a similar collaborative method. This means I have been sheltered from the vast majority of commercial theatre and the experience of most jobbing actors. When I talk about performers working on a project I don’t mean actors who are the passive vessel for someone else’s artistic vision. I mean artists who are fully engaged in the creative process who can feel a full and equal creative ownership over whatever is produced. Clearly if you’re just being hired to help realise someone else’s vision you need to be paid for doing it. But that is not the world I work in.
I should also say from the outset – that during the vast majority of what we discussed I found myself in agreement with Emmanuel. Both his tone, argument and pragmatism. I hope that will be clear from my description of our conversation – but as is the way with these things – the areas we didn’t agree on will probably be more interesting to write about and given more exploration than the areas we did – so again I apologise in advance if that’s the case. I have also run this blog post past Emmanuel and removed any parts that he thought didn’t represent what was discussed. Which it turns out was quite a lot.
LOW PAY / NO PAY AND THE MINIMUM WAGE
Minimum wage was never designed for fringe theatre. And in all honesty we both agreed that the people who framed it would never have intended that is was. Emmanuel’s pragmatic and honest analysis of this was frankly a breath of fresh air, after the high handed pieces one reads in the Stage et al. So why invoke minimum wage at all then? Basically because it’s really easy to prove. If a production is being badly managed, if directors or producers aren’t being as collaborative as they said they would, if the atmosphere in the rehearsal room is toxic, if other verbal promises are reneged on – and a cast member feels they have a justifiable complaint – it’s all really hard to prove in a tribunal, if not impossible. Minimum wage on the other hand is really easy to prove – were you employed yes/no – was minimum wage paid yes/no – there you have it. So essentially minimum wage is a very good stick to beat bad management with when they do something else wrong. We kind of all secretly knew that’s what was happening on the ground. But great to hear it confirmed.
So why the big focus on low pay / no pay and minimum wage at all then? And here is where my ignorance kicks in. As I’ve already said I work in the smallest of niches of theatre. The kind of theatre I make is massively time intensive to make, takes lots of people and therefore is never ever profitable. Ever. When it does make money that’s only because the huge costs of creating it have been covered along the way by subsidy. However Emmanuel made a strong and convincing case that this just isn’t true across the whole fringe – that there are a minority of commercial producers deliberately producing work on the fringe to justify not paying people, whilst earning a good living themselves. I have no reason to doubt him and if they do exist – all I can say is he has my whole hearted best wishes and support in going after them!
THE ISSUE OF TONE
My main concern with this whole debate is one of tone – and the effect that has on our collective morale and creativity. While in person Emmanuel was incredibly nuanced about the spectrum of shows at the lower end of the industry, the tone set in articles in the trade press and on social media, is basically everyone who can’t afford to pay is just as bad as each other. I know how much this has sapped my morale and creativity over the last two years.
Clearly, however, the issue isn’t that everyone is evil, but rather there simply isn’t enough money to go round, and while Emmanuel was slightly more optimistic that there are as yet untapped revenue streams from things like crowd sourcing and private donors, we both agreed there will always be companies who despite their best efforts don’t have enough money to pay everyone.
So accepting that they are always going to exist – we need to know what best practice is for running those companies. If you look at Equity’s current advice on running a collaborative company it’s basically three pages of why you shouldn’t, how it’s probably not collaborative anyway, and why they don’t want to represent you if you do, followed by a paragraph of advice. It couldn’t be less encouraging if it started by telling you to go and sit on the naughty step before reading it. However I’m very pleased to say Emmanuel is currently rewriting this – and though its slow going due to the various legal implications of giving advice – at least it’s in the pipeline.
What I hope it’ll provide is a carrot as well as a stick. At the moment it feels like the low/pay no/pay campaign is all negative – but what we desperately need along side the criticism of non-collaborative badly run theatre – is a celebration and stamp of approval for well run, well managed collaborations. Because in my experience everyone I know making theatre spends a huge amount of time agonising about how to do it fairly – not use people – and make sure everyone feels ownership over the project. The issue is that most of us don’t know how to do that when it comes to actual structures on the ground.
IGNORANCE NOT MALICE
In my own case – I don’t feel like I have ever been deliberately exploited by a theatre company – no one has ever sat down and decided to make a profit from me by not giving me a fair deal. I have however been treated very badly on several projects and left them with a bad taste in my mouth. But whenever this has happened it has been because the people running the projects simply didn’t know how best to run them. There is virtually no help or support out there telling young companies what a good and fair collaborative process would look like and how to do it.
This distinction – between deliberate exploitation, and accidental mistreatment caused by ignorance and inexperience, is one that we both agreed on. If only there was more advise, guidance and mediation available we could prevent accidental mistreatment happening in the first place – rather than waiting for it to turn into a conflict. So considering most performers and creatives in a collaborative project will be Equity members – and more closely align themselves with Equity than any other union – Equity would seem like the ideal organisation to provide that support.
But here is where it gets a bit confusing. I left our meeting convinced that Emmanuel had upheld the party line as expressed in Equities current collaborative theatre advice that states that Equity can’t represent people involved in collaborative work because:
Trade unions organise and service workers. Mostly professional artistic workers in Equity’s case, but workers none the less. Workers include employees and contractors, where the contractor is not working for a professional client, has to perform the work personally and cannot substitute him or herself for another. Trade unions regulate wages and conditions by way of collective agreements for those employees and contractors, who can properly be described as forming part of the labour force. The word labour is used in its industrial context here. Trade unions are often referred to as representing organised labour and seek to organise unorganised sections of the labour force.
Partnerships are different from the ‘labour force’. Partnerships are made up of sole traders or other forms of businesses. A sole trader is a business. A small business perhaps made up of a single individual, but an individual acting as a business, or perhaps more properly described as an entrepreneur. It may not feel like that in a profit share play with no money, but the status is different and a partner is not on the ‘labour’ side of the industrial relations fence, a sole trader is on the business side.
However having run the first draft of this blog post past Emmanuel he made it very clear that that is not what he had meant and that Equity will support their members involved in collaborative work. I’m afraid I am still very confused on this point and can’t expand on it any further – I’ve asked Emmanuel to clarify this for me – so as soon as I hear back from him I’ll let you know what he says. It may be that we’ll be seeing a policy shift once the new advice is published. So all I can say is watch this space.
NOT BAD MANAGEMENT – NO MANAGEMENT
There is another problem trying to impose a management vs worker narrative on the bottom levels of the theatre industry. And that is there is no management. Absolutely everyone I know is desperate to find a producer or general manager to take over managing their work. The problem is at the lower ends of the industry there just aren’t any – trust me I’ve spent 10 years looking. Presumably this is because there isn’t enough money. The result is that all the management functions have to be (reluctantly) taken on by the creatives out of necessity not choice. Sometimes this is by performers – but more usually – and because there is slightly more cross over in skills – by the directors in a group. The irony is that most of us got into the arts precisely because we hated the idea of business – only to find ourselves having to run a business, if we wanted to be able to carry on making art. This means, for the most part, we have no natural aptitude for management, and do the bare minimum amount possible to allow us to get back into the rehearsal room and get on with the job we actual signed up for – creating theatre. It is very hard to have good management practice without good managers. We both agreed finding a way to get people who actually wanted to be managers into the bottom end of the industry would be a big step towards creating good management practice in it.
The problem is – without any training in how to manage collaborative projects – the people who are thrust into this role all too often may cross that very fine line between being a member of a collaborative group who just happens to be managing the project, and being an actual manager – who is by extension acting like an employer. I think it’s fair to say that the Equity line on this is fairly unsympathetic. If you take on a management role and end up acting like an employer then you need to take on all the responsibilities that that entails even if you didn’t intend to ever take on that role and would dearly love someone else to do it instead. Most people don’t enjoy their jobs – so why should you? The issue that by voluntarily doing a job you don’t enjoy, usually for no money, means that several of your fellow creatives will be able to do a job they do enjoy potentially for some money – doesn’t seem to get much of a look in. Obviously while things are going well on a collaborative project no one will complain about this – but obviously things do occasionally go wrong and people fall out. If the threat of legal action and minimum wage claims hang over the head of whichever unfortunate in the group is landed with the management role – this does potentially seem a bit harsh! What would be far more useful would be training for creatives in how to manage collaboratively and mediation where difficulties do occur.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All in all it was a positive meeting – and I’m really glad to have heard Equity’s point of view – I do find myself being much more supportive of them cracking down on the unscrupulous elements of the industry which I’d never come across. I hope in return they will be more supportive and celebratory of those elements who are genuinely doing their very best to create amazing theatre at a time when there are not enough money to go round.
If you’re interested in the thoughts I took away from this moving forwards I’ll post them in a second article here,