In the first of our extracts from this week’s No pay/Low pay special issue of The Stage, Equity Young Members’ Committee member Karina Cornell voices her opinion
I’ve come to realise that low pay/no pay is the biggest issue for most young performers. It divides people across the industry and is highly emotive on both sides. But to me it is as much about respect as it is money.
Actors used to be admired, but somewhere in the last ten years it seems we have sunk to the bottom of the budget list. I have been that actor — 16-hour days on set for no money and two years later being told the show will never be finished. In fringe, juggling four-week rehearsals with a bar job, inviting professionals along, but having the show pulled after the first night because the producer and director had a falling out. Performing to a sold out 300-seater for two weeks wondering ‘where are the £20 ticket sales going?’ Feeling isolated but somehow pathetically grateful to have got the part.
It’s time to choose. Either give in and work for poor or no pay because we’re too frightened to make a fuss, or stand up, individually and together, and say this is wrong. I am worth more.
There is a group of people in Equity who are doing just that, and doing it for those who feel they can’t — the Young Members’ Committee, who work tirelessly in these areas. I was so tired of the expectation to work for nothing and be grateful, I decided to help form this groundbreaking committee and make a difference.
What shocked us when exploring this issue was realising that it is not legal. Any unpaid work, profit share, deferred payment, expenses only, are all breach of National Minimum Wage. A contract saying you will work for free might as well be written on a McDonald’s napkin.
I do think fringe theatre is important for artistic development, creative collaboration for the love of art is often where sparks of creation ignite. If artistic ventures, without profit and where everyone is appreciated, were all we had to contend with we would have no major problem. Sadly, this is not the case. The expectation that actors are desperate and the problem of supply and demand mean employers can take advantage and profit from unpaid workers. Many seem to assume it’s standard practice.
There is intense pressure to be ‘working’ especially after leaving drama school — to get a showreel, network, increase CV credits. Actors are under pressure and trapped in a world where their dreams and passions are easily exploited.
LP/NP is not just detrimental to individuals but damaging to the whole industry. If actors at the bottom of the ladder are working for free, wages at the top will diminish and the entire industry loses respect. Eventually we may end up with nothing more than an industry of amateurs and In the end it is the art that will suffer.
And it’s not just our industry that’s in trouble - unpaid internships are a huge issue across other sectors as well. The TUC described them as a ‘disease’ that started with the entertainment industry and is now spreading across other sectors. This is affecting the economy by bringing wage brackets down and diminishing the cultural landscape, as only certain people can afford to work for free.
So what do we do?
I believe this is about education and empowerment. It has not always been like this and asking for fair pay is not unreasonable. I want actors and employers to know and respect the law. Give performers the knowledge that they are not just an expendable commodity to be used and dumped, and if during a project they are exploited or mistreated they have the power to do something about it.
I want to see a time where creatives have more self respect, where performers no longer submit to those who take advantage of our dreams. I know my rights and I respect myself as an actress. Luckily, I rarely work for free now and if I do, it’s for friends or a particularly amazing script, but I do it now knowing they are lucky to have me.
As an industry we should all step up and protect those who feel they have no other choice.
- The Low pay/no pay issue of The Stage will be in shops on Thursday, July 7.