As a critic, I like giving praise where praise is due. Nothing pleases me more, in fact, than to be able to be a supporter and a champion of events like last Sunday’s Perfect Pitch celebration of something very close to my heart, namely British musicals and the talents that both write them and perform them, as I duly did here.
But it’s also my job to stir it up from time to time, too, to be a voice of conscience (or at least of my own) about things that matter, whether to consumers of theatre, reporters of it or makers of it. We’re all in this together, on both sides of the footlights - and indeed what happens on the other side of the footlights (not to mention the account books) matters very much as to whether I will ultimately have anything to write about, let alone enjoy as an audience member, both now and in the future.
Sometimes I wish I could just lie low and avoid the gunfire, but that’s unfortunately not my job: there are times when I need to lob a hand grenade myself to get things being talked about, though there are other times, of course, when it may be that I’m using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
And there sure are plenty of nuts about, particularly in the world I operate in. This is the theatre, after all, which is all about putting emotion on display, so no wonder emotions often run high. On the one hand, it is gratifying that this blog regularly becomes a talking point, and sometimes a rallying one, for people whether in the industry, or just supporters of it. I love it when readers - whether practitioners, my own journalist colleagues or the wider public — comment here, whether they agree or disagree with me, or indeed whether it is me that they actually want to comment about.
As critics, we are used to giving criticism, so we should be able to take it, too. And as a commentator, I’m painfully aware that I’m not always right; in fact, I have regularly said that there is no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to reviews, which are, after all, always an expression of opinion, so it is ultimately about how you express that opinion, and why, that matters, as well as what you actually say. The reader makes up their own mind whether to follow you and learns how to use you as a barometer to their own tastes.
On the other hand, there are times when this blog can get over-personal, sometimes by me (and yes, I’m human, too) and sometimes in the comments thread. Of course, there’s a big difference: whereas I put my name to what I write, and am therefore accountable for that, the same rules don’t apply on the other side of the fence. Comments can and are regularly posted anonymously, using fake e-mail addresses; but I’d rather the cut-and-thrust of this free-for-all than a tightly controlled, and possibly censored, comments thread.
And in the last week or so I’ve certainly opened up several hornet’s nests, igniting controversy at every turn, as the comments threads show. Sometimes, though, it’s in what you don’t see that the real drama lies; the heavy hand of lawyers has sometimes been involved. Not long ago I had one producer I know well issuing a legal letter against me, who when I subsequently spoke to about the matter asked me why I’d not simply called to clarify the issue concerned; I wondered why the same thing protocol didn’t apply on the other side. This person could, by the same token, have called me instead of issuing the legal summons.
Never mind; it’s part of the cut and thrust of journalism, even in its blogging form, and we all have different ways of responding. Another subject of a recent blog entered into a lengthy text conversation with me just as they were about to board a flight taking them abroad. There are better ways of talking, I know, but at least we were talking.
This blog, of course, starts other public conversations, and it’s fascinating to expand those elsewhere. Just yesterday, for instance, in my blog about the problems affecting one particular fringe theatre, one commentator replied about one of the major issues raised about actors not being paid properly by quoting a friend telling her that “he was horrified about the artists payments - he understands profit share but in his words, ‘this is just exploitation and I was part of it’.”
That comment underlines how we are all in this together; even the simple act of buying a ticket comes with moral responsibilities. And just last week, when I wrote another blog about the wider economics of the fringe, one person who posted there subsequently wrote to me separately with a brilliant proposal to address precisely this question of moral responsibility when supporting productions and whether or not they actually pay their actors. It is, she wrote, “not so much a campaign as it is a single measure to raise awareness and help audiences make sure the actors they see are paid.” She proceeded to outline a proposal to establish “a quality mark for independent theatre companies which pledge to pay their actors at least minimum wage: the ‘Fair Play’ quality mark.”
It is such an interesting idea that I’m going to allow her to tell it for herself here, since it goes to the root of one of the issues that this blog has recently raised. “Ticket prices for indie theatre are currently suppressed by unlawfully low wages. There is also competition with Travelex and other heavily sponsored free productions of dubious value. Competing for the lowest prices has created an unlawful practice, lowered quality, and blurred the line between amateur and professional theatre. You have blogged about the ‘broken’ fringe. And audiences have become aware, and frankly turned off, by dirty little fringe venues that don’t pay their actors. We want to give a boost to the companies that pay their actors at least minimum wage. There is a portion of the audiences out there which are looking for something akin to the ‘Fair Trade’ mark for theatres. They want to have a good night out and know they are not contributing to the exploitation of emerging actors and the decay of standards in the theatre. Audiences want ethically produced theatre to be identified, just as bananas and coffee are- so that - as consumers - they can spend money on the companies that fulfil their legal and moral responsibilities to their actor/workers.”
And in the process, this commentator hopes, “It would help lift a few companies out of sweat shop conditions by helping audiences choose at the point of sale to support the companies that pay legal wages. This will mean newspapers or ticket sellers can set themselves apart from other listing/ticketing companies. This would mean someone would be helping the arts and artists that you make a living writing about.”
There’s more on the campaign on the “Actors Minimum Wage” blog here. But there’s a flip side, too: if proper wages became an expectation on the fringe, the fringe (at least in its unsubsidised form) would become unsustainable as a business model - or the ticket prices would have to rise to a level that would make them unsupportable for audiences. And perhaps there is something to say for there being simply too much of it about anyway, so perhaps it would be no bad thing if it was forced to face up to its responsibilities and die if not.
This is certainly an interesting conversation to have, and I hope that readers will now respond as passionately as they have been to others here.