I read The Stage’s recent low pay/no pay issue with interest, writes Stuart Piper. As managing director of Cole Kitchenn Personal Management, my job is to protect the interests of the actors we represent, while as someone who has produced in theatre, I also know the realities of working to a budget.
Should an actor ever work for free? My answer is an unequivocal no, except if it is in aid of a worthwhile charity. The producers interviewed argue it would be impossible to pay full union rates in a small studio - but when producing in small studio spaces, I have been able to pay actors £400 per week at the New Players Theatre, £200 to £250 per week at the King’s Head and £300 to £350 per week at the Trafalgar Studios. Some have been plays, some have been musicals. So, when people are asked to perform on the fringe for nothing, for not even the cost of a travel card, I struggle to see the reasoning, other than that the producer hasn’t gone out to raise the required funds.
It’s true that it’s harder to pay at all when producing a large cast in a large musical - and I would therefore question whether or not large musicals are the best thing to produce on the fringe. Off-Broadway’s financial constraints have produced many pint-sized musicals and revues - London fringe producers should perhaps look to produce new British boutique musicals with two to six roles, where the actors can be paid.
Small cast shows can still get a transfer - Rent and Love Story are both shows without big chorus lines that made it to Broadway and West End from small theatres. Even on Bells Are Ringing, which did require a large ensemble, producer Jonathan Russell did a great job making sure he was able to pay everyone travel expenses, which actors on the fringe don’t often get.
Most of the debate seems to centre around no pay on the fringe, and work underneath national minimum wage. But I’ve also seen reports of actors complaining that their pay has steadily decreased in recent years, with many saying they are paid less than ten years ago.
My own experience doesn’t reflect this. Yes, I have had individual cases of pay being lower than it should. But across the board, I have not been experiencing actors’ overall earnings decreasing. Our agency experienced a 25% increase in turnover in our last end of year figures, which was our highest turnover in the history of our company, and we are set to better that in our next year. I think that’s because in this ever-changing industry, we look at their careers globally, and find many of our leading artists additional revenue streams to complement their TV, film or theatre contracts, be it from branding, endorsements, PAs, IP rights, digital and publishing. An agent’s job is no longer just to secure them an acting contract, now it is to market and exploit that opportunity to maximum effect.
Which is why I oversaw our company merge with Jonathan Shalit’s company ROAR Global, to become part of the ROAR Group - a group of entertainment companies. Now, when an actor reaches public recognition, we have a literary department to find them an autobiography deal, a music department to find them a record deal, and even a broadcast department to find them non-scripted television work that might be outside of our acting agency’s remit.
And for actors without public recognition, it is the agent’s job to build and sustain a successful career with the client. If there is a job with a financial offer they’re not happy with - they should simply turn it down, or realise the job is nevertheless worthwhile for them and accept it gladly.
While unions set minimum rates, agents are there to negotiate. If you’re an actor, and your agent tells you there’s no negotiation when you think there could be, change agents. And if you are starting out in your career and unavoidably working on Equity minimum payments, then look at the bigger picture and know that if you believe in your talent, your career will progress to the point where you are earning far more than the average national salary, and at least you have that possibility, whereas many working in the public sector - for instance - never even have that potential.