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Low pay/no pay week: Thomas Hescott

As we continue our Low Pay/No Pay week, we follow yesterday’s post by Equity committee member Karina Cornell with a perspective on the impact on fringe theatres by director Thomas Hescott.

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.

8 Comments

Refreshing, and full of common sense!

If we have quality instead of quantity then everyone wins. Casting directors and agents might even be tempted to come and see fringe shows again.

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It won't happen. If you force national minimum wage and National Insurance onto acting companies then the government would be obliged to pay jobseekers allowance to 'professional actors' when searching for work in theatre, which even for the successful ones is a lot of the time.

What is made difficult is the definition of 'professional actor' ... if you take time off from your day job to do a fringe show and you're unpaid when it's not profitable, doesn't that make you technically an amateur because what you are doing is rehearsing and performing for free in your spare time?

Needs more thinking before implementation.

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Thanks for your comment Molly

Its already a legal requirement to pay actors minimum wage and NI etc. This isn't new - 90% of the industry already does this. I am suggesting we become more active on enforcing the law onto the 10% that is currently working outside of it.

By the way many actors already claim job seekers when not acting.

" if you take time off from your day job to do a fringe show and you're unpaid when it's not profitable, doesn't that make you technically an amateur?" Yes it does. Thats why I say actors should not work on profit share contracts but should be paid minimum wage.

Also - when we pay actors to do their job, they don't need day jobs.

We can think all we want or we could actually do something.

I agree here on every point. The task is now to develop the model that will allow it.

Clearly the ideal situation is a massive increase in arm's length state subsidy. I believe this is eminently achievable, but not within the myopic limitations of the political establishment.

Pending the Revolution, I think there could be some mileage in the idea of a dual business model. Actors have, by necessity as much as training, a diverse transferable skill set. Fringe companies have the potential to exploit their members' combined abilities by operating, say, marketing or education concerns on the side. Actors could split their time between the company's rehearsal room and office. It's difficult, relies on the vagaries of the market, and doesn't by any means eliminate the ongoing requirement for philanthropic support, but it's something. A kind of integration of the day job into the professional work, with each element bringing, in combination, a legitimising aspect to the other.

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Was The Stage journalist who originally subbed this article paid or unpaid?

I only ask because either way they are an amateur. (An actor 'resting between jobs' putting a real journalist out of work, perhaps?)

This article was around for several days under the byline of an author who expressed views in a separate article which were pretty much dialectically opposed to the views expressed here. Makes you look like a pretty shonky fringe outfit, The Stage!

In terms of the article itself: Get Real! As get rich quick schemes /scams go, you'd have to be pretty stupid to plump for fringe theatre and grassroots filmmaking.

Of course Southwark Playhouse and Arcola are able to offer better terms and conditions: they are fringe theatres - not fringe of the fringe theatres.

Once you "professionalise" a fringe of the fringe theatre, a new grassroots operation - normally forged from the energy and dynamism of young people trying to make their name and those of the actors who work with them - pops up.

It's what makes our theatre scene so "vibrant" and world-beating.

Removing fringe of the fringe would simply mean that actors would have more time to do their paid jobs handing out leaflets dressed up as strawberries or working in call centres...

Beware of people who hold in front of you utopian visions of a world in which the life of a jobbing actor is not a struggle and be careful what you wish for.

This is all good politics, but I'm afraid a lot of it is unrealistic. It's not a legal requirement to pay actors the minimum wage. Most actors are self-employed. Self-employed people and volunteers are expressly excluded from minimum wage laws:

http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Employment/Employees/TheNationalMinimumWage/DG_175114

I'm not saying that's a good thing. I'm saying it's a true thing. Campaign to change the law or the rules. Don't deceive people into believing they have rights they don't have. It's dangerous and irresponsible.

In any case, enforcing the minimum wage won't make fringe performers better paid. It's more likely to reduce any money paid to them because if profit share becomes illegal, no one will even try to pay it. If the law says they have to be volunteers, that's what they'll be.

I agree with Thomas' point that in the days when fringe theatres paid peppercorn rents to their landlords, "profit share" actually meant payment to performers. Nowadays, most pub landlords regard fringe theatre commercially and rents have become very high. That started in the late 80s, when Margaret Thatcher first made it OK to be greedy for money. As soon as commercial realities get involved, the first thing that goes out of the window is taking risks. It's the risks and the innovation that make the fringe what it is. Nowadays, too many fringe theatres are trying to be mini-West-End theatres - presenting trad musicals, revivals of West End hits, premieres of West End style plays that didn't make the West End - without paying West End rates.

The fringe is full of people who are "willing to pay" but can't afford to. The idea that if you have good intentions and do good theatre, the money just comes rolling in from funders will come as news to most fund-raisers. Funders have less and less money to go round and more and more people making demands on that money. How many trusts and foundations have recently stopped giving money to the arts on the grounds that more and more people need money to combat poverty and social exclusion? The Arcola and Southwark Playhouse are not representative of most fringe theatre companies. I agree completely that Fringe theatre should be better funded. The idea that better funding will automatically come with paying the minimum wage makes good politics, but it's not realistic.

"Amateur" and "professional" are states of mind, not states of bank balance. There's a difference between voluntary and amateur. Would you describe Grotowski's Poor Theatre as an amateur theatre? Of course not. Read Mike Bradwell's brilliant book The Reluctant Escapologist. Most of his early work with Hull Truck was done on profit share. Has Mike Bradwell ever been an amateur? Of course not.

Or what about the Gate, which only started paying Equity rates in 2003? Was the Gate under Lou Stein, Giles Croft, Stephen Daldry, Laurence Boswell, David Farr, Mick Gordon or Erica Whyman an amateur theatre because it only ever paid profit share for 25 years? Of course not.

Or what about the widely praised Free Fringe in Edinburgh? Should that be closed down too? Of course not.

Thomas is right that the cost of putting on fringe theatre has increased enormously since the early days. What happened when the costs went up was that fringe theatre increasingly became something that only people with rich mummies and daddies could afford to do. Making it even more expensive will simply make that situation worse. Ordinary people, and especially low-income people, will be excluded from making fringe theatre, as they already are from so many other walks of life. That's profoundly wrong and profoundly undemocratic.

This is also about peoples' freedom to choose what they do. There's a much easier way to enforce minimum wage laws on the fringe and that's for actors and stage managers to refuse to work for less. When there are no more performers willing to work for profit share, the situation will change by itself. There may not be a fringe left for them to work on if that happens, but that will be their choice.

I'm saying: don't stop people from doing fringe theatre by making rules. Make arguments to persuade them and then let them make their own choices.

Hi Robert

Thanks for you comments. Many of which I agree with.

I dont have time to address all of them at this moment, but I really have to pick you up on one very important fact -

"it's not a legal requirement to pay actors the minimum wage. Most actors are self-employed. Self-employed people and volunteers are expressly excluded from minimum wage laws"

This is NOT THE CASE. Sorry for the caps - but its really important to get this message across, as many people still believe it to be the case (including somethimes the HMRC helpline!)

As equity will confirm actors status with the HMRC is not strictly speaking self employed (although they do not pay tax at source) they are seen as 'workers' paying tax via self assesment and NI at source. Its a complex system hardly anyone seems to understand, but the important point to make it that this system means actors ARE NOT EXCLUDED FROM MINIMUM WAGE LAWS.

(sorry for caps again - its a really important point!)

I'm not beating this point home for any other reason but that its essential for both actors and companies to know this.

This doesnt mean that a profit share show is breaking the law - often they would be classed as business partnerships which are exempt from minimum wage laws.

As for your other points - yes - many I agree with (and yes I have read Mike Bradwells book... the main difference being it was at a time when profit share meant a share of profits. As it happens the article was written when I was reading the book).

I get bored of the Southwark Playhouse and Arcola are exceptions comments. Yep - that my point - they are exceptional. They are not representative! They are examples of what fringe venues can aim for. I dont understand why no one has noticed that neither venue started that way - they didnt start with funding - they started as all these things do with an idea. The difference is they followed through better than most - hence me using them as examples of best practice!

Anyway - thanks for the comments Robert - I think its an important issue and one we must all really engage with at the moment.

Tom

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