Due to a production error this blog post was initially incorrectly attributed to producer Danielle Tarento. Our apologies to both parties for the error
It should be a no-brainer. You’d expect anyone who has worked on the fringe to campaign for the National Minimum Wage, and yet talk to most people in the industry and there seems little appetite to reform the fringe. The trouble is the basic human right to fair pay and conditions seems to be in direct conflict with the basic human right to freedom of expression.
Historically, fringe theatres sprung up in under-used rooms above pubs, or in derelict warehouses — anywhere vacant. The landlords would charge a peppercorn rent, and with a modest budget for design you could pretty much ensure that profit share meant just that, and that a healthy percentage of the ticket price was going directly back to the company creating the play. The fringe was seen as empowering — a place that bypassed agents, casting directors, and literary managers, anyone who might say no.
The relationship between artist and audience was direct — the audience paid for a ticket, that payment went straight to the artist. Seen in those terms, who would want to complicate an empowering artistic enterprise with red tape and minimum wage?
As ever, when the artists move in, the rent goes up. Open a theatre and watch house prices soar. Increasingly, those peppercorn rents become commercial rents, and those artists who originally rented the space become companies acting as middlemen and sub-letting their space to emerging fringe companies. As the rent increases the exchange between artist and audience becomes devalued — suddenly profit share is simply code for no pay.
The trouble is that if you enforce minimum wage on to the fringe, the fringe will collapse. Fear stops us looking at what our industry could be, in case we destroy what we already have, but maybe there is an alternative both to the current state of play, and a fringe scene decimated by legislation?
In the late sixties, Equity campaigned successfully for actors to be paid not just for performances but also for rehearsals.
At the time most managements claimed it would put them out of business. 40 years on and we still have theatres, plays are still being produced, companies have found a way to pay for rehearsals. But more than that, by paying for rehearsals the value of rehearsing has increased. You might have expected managements to squeeze rehearsal times down to the bare minimum to cut costs, and yet the reverse is true. Now that we pay for rehearsals, we rehearse for longer — gone are our weekly reps, rehearsals now last a good month.
There is a direct correlation between paying someone and valuing their work. Imagine if the equivalent value was placed on the fringe and that by paying people we didn’t close fringe theatres, instead we valued them more, that not only the pay improved but so did the conditions.
Let’s say we started enforcing employment law on fringe theatres. Admittedly some would fold immediately, others might reclassify themselves as amateur organisations, and others would rethink their business model and would, I believe, discover a model that is as empowering to an actor in the 21st century as profit-share was in the twentieth. Fringe practitioners have one commodity — exciting, original, and creative ideas. Original ideas with no infrastructure tend not to attract the attention of many funders. Fringe theatres come with the infrastructure needed to apply for funding. I believe that the huge energy and ingenuity of our emerging practitioners when coupled with the experience of our fringe institutions would lead to the small amounts of funding needed to start to pay the minimum wage of £5.93 per hour — that’s £237.20 for a 40-hour week.
As someone who has created theatre on the fringe, and has always endeavoured to pay people, I have found that as soon as the transaction of money is made a whole host of other issues rear their heads. How can I as an individual pay an actor’s NI contributions? Should I be a sole trader or register a company? What happens if there is a dispute with an employee or I have to pay sick pay to an injured actor? It’s easy to ignore these questions when you see your relationship with your company as an extension of friendship, but the moment you pay them you are their employer. We need not only to enforce the minimum wage but also to offer support to those willing to pay.
Time and time again I have seen well-run fringe theatres such as the Southwark Playhouse and the Arcola attract funding from all sorts of local business, trusts, and individuals. Even with economic hardship, fringe theatre has one thing over bigger institutions — they can do a massive amount for very little.
If we chose to enforce basic employment laws while offering considerably more in the way of support and business training to our emerging practitioners, I believe we would not only see more actors earning the minimum wage, but we would also start to value our fringe theatre.
Now more than ever it is essential that we stop turning a blind eye to dubious business practice. The more we value our industry, the more the public and politicians will value us. If we are prepared to work for nothing we send a signal to the country that we are not worth paying.
- The special Low pay/no pay issue of The Stage goes on sale on Thursday, July 7.