The Stage


Shenton's View

Stirring up a hornet’s nest….

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.


Great blog Mark. I think fair trade is great and a good way to regulate in a way the situation on the fringe.

However, I disagree with you that fringe theatre would die if we started paying everyone proper wages. But what do you mean by proper wages? Even national minimum wage is not enough to live on in London, especially for older actors who can't or are too old to share a flat.

It's a simple math and rules are already set-up. For a two hour acting in a production you pay an actor about £12, that's a cost of 1 single full-priced ticket. If you're a fringe producing house, surely you can afford this.

On the other hand, there are independent companies who just hire out a venue. I think there should be fair trade in place for theatres too. Theatres charge enormously high rent, even up to 40% capacity. For independent companies this is unsustainable. If there was a fair trade for receiving theatres too, then independent companies could choose as well.

With one reservation I think fair trade theatre is a great, great idea. I know my reservation has been previously and recently voiced here, but I do think we need to keep plugging away at it. Can we all please stop talking about fair wages for 'actors' and start talking about fair wages for fringe 'theatre workers'. Everyone should be paid or not paid and I for one would like to know when I am admiring (or hating) an indie show which it is.

I appreciate all the stuff about getting one's foot on the ladder and young worker's aching to be out there. But every theatre worker who isn't paid needs independent means, the capacity to build up a financial cushion to support a fringe run, the sheer stamina to work (for money), rehearse and perform simultaneously and or an unnatuaral ability to live on pot noodle. The last three surely often undermine the whole exercise (Just as working full time doesn't do much for a student's ability to develop their full potential).

I am not sure, Mark, about survive or die theatre - though it has a certain logic. It still wouldn't necessarily result in company members being properly paid (especially in times like these) or in the strongest creative work thriving finiancially. Doesn't it just take us back to the absolute need for political/artistsic dedication - and sheer personal poverty of creatives - circa the Theatre Workshop in the early days?

Well that's my tuppence worth. Not sure it moves anything much forward. Just illustrates what a vicious circle we are all stuck in.

The recent articles and blogs have certainly opened my eyes. I knew actors were often paid very little on the fringe, but I had always assumed they were getting minimum wage. This has made me re-think, and I would certainly support a "fair-trade" policy.

Thanks S for bringing this idea out on your blog. To make sure credit is given where credit is due this idea was presented to me by Alex Parsonage. I will position his letter so it is easy to find on the ActorsMinimum Wage Blog.

Great idea re the 'Fair Play' stamp for Fringe productions - but can we include stage managers as well as performers in the 'proper' pay please.
Nobody expects to get rich on the Fringe, so the National Minimum Wage (£5.93) is a useful benchmark.
Incidentally, many many years ago I ran an organisation called Fringe Theatre Network - doesn't it exist any more?

While I support a fair wage for a fair day's work, it seems clear from the furore surrounding this topic that the only way such a wage is to be paid in fringe theatre is by increasing ticket prices - the money generally comes from no-where else.

So you don't need a "Fair Trade" mark. The ticket prices alone will tell prospective audience members whether the workers are getting a fair wage!

But will increasing prices mean fewer ticket sales? I suspect so. If so, this will seriously jeopardise fringe theatre. Is this the result both audiences and theatre workers really want?

While, ideally, I would want to see everyone getting paid fairly, sometimes money isn't the only benefit of fringe theatre.

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Schuttep - I think you're right - ticket prices will need to go up, but that's exactly why a Fair Trade mark would be needed - fringe theatres are in competition price-wise with the subsidied theatres, and if we're going to ask audiences to pay more for their tickets at a fringe show than at the National (and arguably get less for their money), they have to be told why.

Sadly, while I work on and love the fringe, I'm not sure it does the industry any good - you just can't make a theatre with only 60 or so seats work financially - even when you sell out (pricing tickets to match or beat Travelex at the NT) there just isn't enough money to go around once you factor in paying everyone for rehearsal as well as performance time. Any theatre that small will end up being institutionally exploitative.

Bo - Yes, the theatres take a big cut - one I work for will typically charge £150-£200 a night plus 30% of the ticket sales - that adds up to nearly 2/3 of the gross even when you sell out, and leaves the company with very little, but the theatres aren't getting rich out of it either - they've got a lot of overheads too and a couple of hundred pounds a day won't really cover it....

It's great to see this discussion so clearly out in the open.
Let me just begin by adding clarity to the discussion of National Minimum Wage (NMW). Currently NMW is £5.93 an hour, and will rise to £6.03 on 11 Oct 2011.
This and other straightforward information is listed on the Directgov website.

One of the key points of the NMW law- it is not possible for an employer to contract out of paying Minimum Wage. If you are a worker "You are entitled to the NMW even if you sign a contract agreeing to be paid at a lower rate. This is regardless of whether you sign of your own free will or because your employer persuades or makes you. The contract will have no legal effect and you must still be paid the proper rate."
So if someone signs a contract, and then changes their mind they can claim the wage. And if I hear anyone moan that is unfair I will laugh in your face. How could this be more unfair than wheedling them out of that tiny but all important wage?

The employer failing to pay NMW will also run the risk of further consequences. See They risk fines, being named and shamed, losing subsidy and even criminal proceedings.

Another importand point is that genuinely self employed individuals do not have to be paid minimum wage. Actors are NOT considered genuinely self-employed. For employment purposes they are always classed as workers. They may be self-employed for tax reasons, but they are classed as workers in employment law because of the nature of work they do. Stage Management and technicians are generally always workers as well.

Designers, directors, choreographers, writers and producers are more likely to be condidered genuinely self employed, and therefore NMW is less likely to apply. I'm not saying they shouldn't be paid of course. Just pointing out the difference.

And the use of the term is 'volunteer' is misleading. If any sort of contract is formed, if the actors has to work to a schedule in rehearsal or performance, or recieves ANYTHING toward the performance of their duties including in-kind payments or expenses, then they are a worker, not a volunteer, and should receive at least NMW.

Employers in the entertainment industry are starting to get in trouble too. Those of you who have read the Spring 2011 Equity magazine know there has been a successful NMW tribunal (p 11) on behalf of an actor. His employer had attempted to contract him out of minimum wage. The actor won.

Equity is currently searching for more cases to support. I'm sure we would all rather these cases were not from the fringe. Equity is are aware of the importance of independant theatre for emerging members.

However, the government (bless their little coalition socks) has recently let it be known that they are looking into more meaningful enforcement of NMW in the arts (as well as banking, media and even for parlimentary interns.) The rationalle is that minimum wage makes these opportunities and professions are more widely accessable to an economically diverse cross section of the public.

NMW is here to stay. I'm not so sure if that is true about the fringe.

"Nobody expects to get rich on the Fringe..." from Barbara Eifler

Well, some producers and directors do get rich even on the fringe!

The whole system would only be fair if everyone, including the produces, worked on a profit share, not only the actors, SMs etc.

If a producer takes his salary first, and then there is nothing left for the actors, this is not profit share, and such practice should be stopped! Otherwise, the producer can get rich, taking thousands every month, while the actors are hungry.

I have often heard the argument that actors chose a overcrowded profession and should therefore work for free. This argument is invalid.

Especially during times of unemployment or when there are a glut of a type of worker- exactly what we have in acting- Minimum Wage exists to ensure that workers are protected from employers who would take advantage of the oversupply of labour. Minimum wage protects all workers, including actors.

Anyone who produces a play, however, makes themselves an employer. They have legal rights and responsibilities, including paying NMW.

It is entirely fair to hold them to their responsibilities. Minimum Wage has been in place for over a decade. It's not like they didn't see this coming.

Some companies will fold. Some venues will close. But better companies and better venues will rise out of it.

The fringe has always been about challenging the status quo. Bringing about change. This issue challenges the status quo and brings change to the fringe. What's wrong with that. The better producers will survive and more actors will be paid. Perhaps fewer people will join an overcrowded profession, and will instead participate in the great British tradition of amateur dramatics.

What's wrong with that?

The whole of issue of fringe economics becomes must easier to deal with if you see fringe as a branch of amateur rather than professional theatre. No professional actor likes to admit to doing amateur work but, if they're not getting paid, that's what they're doing. Many pro actors will do amateur work sometimes, many do fringe and at other times they get paid a proper wage (although rarely what they think they deserve).

Nobody would say that amateur actors are exploited or shouldn't be doing it. That's their choice. It's the same with fringe. Do it for the exposure, not the cash. The economics of a pub theatre just can't sustain proper wages (although actors always seem to know more about these things than producers). Don't do it if you want the income and status of a professional; do if you want to be seen. Standards in most fringe and the best amateur theatres are about the same anyway.

Theatrelover has got it wrong.

Nobody would say that amateur actors are exploited or shouldn't be doing it. That's their choice. It's the same with fringe.

I've never heard so much twaddle, its exactly that sort of thinking that allows exploitation of the type that has prompted this very article. Did you not read the posting directly above yours? A worker cannot opt out of the National Minimum Wage - the governance structure of am dram societies is completely different to that of the Limited Companies that run the pub theatre scene, that's why the National Minimum Wage is always due and that's why the use of the term professional is irrelevant. Neither is this a debate about the qualitative aspects of the work, its about workers rights and many people have fought and died for them, in every country. Ignore that and we're all marginalised to the Fringes.

Lots of amateur theatres are limited companies yet do not pay their actors or would be expected to. Amateur actors are volunteers and so are fringe actors, which is why the business model is so similar. I'm not arguing for fringe producers to exploit their workers just to recognise that the status is the same as amateurs. If people want to volunteer, they're free to do so (just don't call yourself professionals). Earning nothing = amateur, earning tuppence = amateur, earning less than the NMW = still amateur with some pin money thrown in.

You can argue til you are blue in the face about what professional v. amateur 'quality' is. It is not really part of this debate. Artistic distinctions of professionalism do not mean anything in employment law. For legal purposes you always look at a meaningful and objective definition of the individual worker, not the company.

If you are interested in a decisive and objective definition for employment purposes, I would argue that anyone in spotlight or especially equity has established a clear intent to find paid work. One would be unwise to argue they were not professional.

Using this definition, a professional engaged by any employer must be paid. Even if that employer is an amateur company. In other countries, this is known as a 'guest artist' arrangement, as the amateurs get the benefit or working with a professional. That should be researched.

The question, in law, is never whether a company is professional or amateur, but whether the individual is a worker or not.

The NMW regulations clearly establish that:
1. employers must pay at least minimum wage to employees classed as workers (this of course includes sm's and technicians as well as actors)
2. that actors are always classified as workers (though they may be self employed for taxes)
3. that no one can contract out of minimum wage as this undermines wages for an entire profession
4. a volunteer exemption has specific criteria attached and generally does not apply.

Of course working for exposure is the principal reason an actor does a fringe show.

But that does not release the employer from the obligation to pay NMW. Actors and all other workers must be paid. Although you cannot necessarily live on minimum wage, minimum wage at least means that workers would not be cheating the dole or running up debts just to be seen. Over a career this would add up to a much better standard of living for lots of theatre workers. NMW would be the tipping point for many actors to remain in the profession and continue working more often in theatre. Instead of bailing out when they realise that unwaged theatre is a drain on the bank balance and their lives.

Hopefully, minimum wage would also be enough of an investment by the employer to select actors based on their merits, as opposed to their ability to work for free. I am so tired of seeing fringe with excellent reviews and half a cast that can't even speak or move well. Minimum wage would attract better actors full stop.

Will the fringe and independent theatre live on in the back rooms of pubs? You tell me.

In this country an employer that cannot pay their employees goes to the wall. There is not legal exemption for theatre pubs and companies that cannot or do not pay their actors and other workers.

That all makes sense Annie. It also means that fringe theatre (unless it can come up with the cash) should be banned. It should be acknowledged of course that workers accepting unpaid work are conniving in their own exploitation. And don't anyone say they don't have the choice because of course they do.

And don't anyone say they don't have the choice because of course they do.

They don't have the choice to opt out of the National Minimum Wage and if they even if they accepted work knowing it was unpaid they can still make a legal claim retrospectively as this case proves.

Thinking about it, I'm not sure you can easily legislate against people doing volunteer work if they want to. Equity could have a condition of membership that any member found working unpaid will have their membership terminated but it seems a bit Stalinist. And Equity nor any other body doesn't have that kind of power any more.

Hi TheatreLover,

I'm not sure I agree with you. Blaming actors for the wage problem is like blaming a gunshot victim for a shooting accident. I agree there is some complicity, but the law indicates it is the employers responsibility.

Actors are not generally in control of how the wages are set. And because of competition law, the union can't enforce their low pay/no pay policy, except by supporting cases where the worker claims wages from the employer.

Acting job listing companies/services normalise this unpaid work culture, when they do not filter for ads offering unlawful employment. Film schools should be paying actors who take part in student films. Even Drama Schools encourage the unpaid opportunity culture by telling their graduates they may work 5 or 10 years unpaid.

So by the time entrants realise unpaid work is more often then not a dead end (providing others with a living), there is a new crop of fresh faces ready to be exploited.

At this point I take the view that educating actors will help resolve the problem, and brow-beating them will accomplish nothing. The more actors who are underpaid/underpaid and realise it, the more cases will go to court (with Equity's support) and the faster employers will change.

I do not think that Fringe was the first place anyone was hoping for change, but the successful transfer of La Boheme to the Soho Theatre with an unpaid chorus forced the issue.

Employers need to know the risks they are taking, and the hazards they face, so that they do not end up like Adam SM. It will be an interesting day at the Arts Council when his next application for funding rolls in.

@ pete

The volunteer exemption looks at first like an easy way to avoid paying NMW. But it isn't. There are very strict criteria for this exemption to apply. The employer cannot define contractual terms for the volunteer, require their attendance at any specific times, or offer them any sort of payment in kind.

"Just because you are described as a volunteer does not necessarily mean that you are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage. If the arrangements under which you ‘volunteer’ add up to an employment or worker's contract, you will be entitled to the National Minimum Wage unless a specific exemption applies."

Again Annie a reasoned and reasonable response. It could be argued that a gunshot victim who opens their mouth, puts the barrel in and says "please shoot" has some responsibility but it is ultimately down to the person pulling the trigger. Education would be a better than legislation. Actors do need to understand that it's not in their interest to work on an amateur basis but when you've been out of work for ages and are desperate to practice your craft that can be difficult to appreciate. Your suggested policy of survival of the fittest ("Some companies will fold. Some venues will close.... fewer people will join an overcrowded profession") may be the solution.

Mark's recent blog posts and the subsequent comments are, on the whole, very encouraging. Long may it continue!
Two years ago the discussions were a little different. Everyone's had time to think things through even and start coming up with solutions. BECTU and Equity are on the case and certain people in our membership will hold them to their new commitments, don't worry about that. The Fringe will always have a certain "guerilla" element and happily continue regardless, revelling in its rebellion. Outside of this, I hope we will see a clampdown on the passive disregard held by larger companies (especially in film and television), a hardening of stance by the unions and their members, and an increased diversity in the type of person pursuing a sustained career in the arts.
I also hope to see better organised, better funded fringe theatre companies putting on better theatre. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Evolution, not revolution!

Worth remembering that the large casts of Stephen Daldry's remarkable Spanish Golden Age revivals at The Gate in the early 90s were only possible because it was unfunded fringe work(which led directly to Daldry working on larger subsidised stages). The point is not that actors should be guaranteed a wage in unsubsidised production (however desirable that might be) but that they get an absolutely clear and agreed percentage cut, however small, of any profits and the whole business does not get reduced to 'commercial' two-handers (however brilliant)... also worth remembering that The Cock Tavern made a great deal of money from the bar while La Boheme was playing there - a more direct relationship between the bar-take and total revenue would do wonders for the heath of fringe venues... ideally the theatre-managers should own the pubs/licenced venues, not the other way around.

I would much much prefer to see productions where people are paid. But at the same time I wont pay want to pay much higher prices to sit on battered old cinema seats with springs coming through or hard benches.

Unfortunately most comments here are based on incomplete information, or erroneous assumptions. The concept of actors being reasonably remunerated for work on the fringe is doubtless noble, but also woefully naive.

The notion of fair pay (which incidentally I consider slightly semantically tasteless, in its explicit reference to fair trade -- a concept designed to protect a group of people who truly understand the notion of poverty) is predicated on the idea that the price point of tickets shares a nominal relationship to box office activity. Demand for theatre tickets on the fringe is highly elastic, and thus an increase in price would lead to a more or less (or potentially exponential) direct downturn in sales. Gross box office receipts may remain unaffected, but actors would be confronted with having to play to even fewer punters (negating at least some of the benefits that they may hope to accrue from the experience in terms of exposure). To guarantee wages, producers would be forced to raise larger sums of capital themselves (incredibly difficult on the fringe given its negligible margins, and high risk) and be confronted with the fact that they'd be almost guaranteed to lose the lot. Higher ticket prices may in principal, or on paper, suggest higher returns, but in the actuality, and with the facts being what they are, who should be left to carry the can? The notion that higher ticket prices are the answer to the question makes absolutely no accession to the nature of the theatrical business model on the fringe. Furthermore, what sort of model are producers supposed to work to? To pay the sums mentioned above, even with higher prices, productions would break at well over 90% in some theatres -- even at the current low prices, that doesn't happen. Who in their right mind would be happy to sit at the top of the tree with that level of risk, versus such a negligible margin? I certainly wouldn't. The problem here is exacerbated by the fact that a notable proportion of producers on the fringe are not producers at all, but are frequently actors or directors doing whatever's necessary to ease a production to the stage for their own benefit (not that there's much wrong with that).

What really riles me though, is the childish assumption, as explicitly stated above, that producers are rinsing fringe theatre for personal gain at the expense of impoverished actors: it's simply not true. I've been on both sides of the fence with this one, and I can resolutely confirm that if there are any producers making money on the fringe, firstly they are very, very much the exception, and secondly they're certainly not getting "rich." It's my personal experience as an actor, that it's possible, and necessary, to find work elsewhere that can fit around a fringe rehearsal schedule and make it practically possible to do the "job"-- it's also my experience that most directors and/or producers working in the environment, take a fairly pragmatic approach to gearing schedules around this. It's my experience as a producer, that working on the fringe is a guaranteed way of losing money.

The whole concept would need far more practical thought. The pernicious enforcement of the minimum wage on the fringe, will simply squeeze the life out of it, and leave it as the sole preserve of those strange rich individuals who use the money earned from careers elsewhere to salve the pressure of their mid life crises, in staging their own self-penned pieces -- prepared to lose everything.

Thanks for that, Bob. I myself have been in both actor and producer roles and, in the past, have been complicit in working and employing for no pay.
I sustained that for a little while by either signing on or working in soul destroying jobs, invited agents and casting directors to see me (and not once did any turn up).
Sure, it kept me working and a proportion of the work I did was very rewarding but you cannot do that forever without losing your sanity. Before you start on the very persuasive argument that maybe a cull in actor numbers is better than a cull in fringe theatre, I offer up a word of caution. Apart from the lucky few with decent agents and/or a decent break, do we just want a bottom end of this profession populated with a revolving door of actors that have, on average a two year career and then drop off the radar? Think of the increased quality of acting on the Fringe if there were fewer, but exclusively paid jobs on offer. People then would give up acting because they might not be very good, not because they couldn't work for free all their career. Surely that's a slightly less arbitary way of trimming numbers?
I'm not being "noble" or unrealistic here. The unions now are realising that the problem is spreading and simply trying to protect the Fringe isn't very helpful anymore. It has to be part of the solution.
Equity are embarking on ways of protecting everyone's rights on the Fringe, (even those who work for no pay) working on ways that keep workers and producers within the law, which is very black or white at the moment. We need shades of grey. BECTU are forging ahead with agreements that strive to protect micro budge filmmakers and those who work in film. The full force of the law is still bent on bringing to book the larger offenders, not a group of drama school graduates putting on Miss Julie to keep busy. There would simply not be time to prosecute the smaller offenders and quite right too. Equity still rely on the actors themselves to come forward with a claim. It's not a decision taken lightly, but if a company leads an actor to believe that they are being taken for a ride, then the company should be scrutinised and punished accordingly. The notion that suddenly every fringe venue will have to close overnight is, thankfully, an argument less heard now as people have thought it through.
The fair trade mark is great idea; it's not going to be compulsary. Not everyone buys fair trade or organic food, but some do. It's a good idea, and so is the notion that fringe and pub theatres should have other incomes to subsidise ticket sales. Maybe the ticket sales are a "loss leader". True, these ideas might not work but they are worth a go.
I'm so pleased that the age old arguments are starting to wear a little thin. They are being replaced by informed discussion and ideas from both sides. Education still has a long way to go, as far too many actors and producers haven't the first idea on what is legal and what is not. The Stage has played a vital role recently in reporting on the legal cases involving this issue.
Nothing is going to change overnight, but quietly, more people are questioning the status quo and talking constructively about how we can change things. Far from being niave, childish or ill informed, a great deal of people are working on our behalf to make things better.

But how, in a practical respect, with all relevant issues considered, would that actually work? None of the solutions posited thus far are anywhere near practical as far as I can see it.

Hi Bob,

From the point of view of actors the fringe generally does not work out well, and in the last ten years it has grown worse and worse. Agents and casting directors rarely attend shows, and directors of the companies that pay on a regular basis certainly seem to avoid the fringe. It is turning into a dead end even on the opportunity front. The fringe may have superficially better 'production values' but the actors are as green and ropey as ever.

And it seems that everywhere actors look their wages are dropping. Everyone seems to think that actors are somehow free to be exploited than anyone else. That people who employ actors have some sort of special license not to pay. From what I read here they have the same rights as everyone else. Aren't their rights as important as the people who work in McDonalds, or Primark?

If minimum wage was introduced in 1999, employers on the fringe have had a decade plus with apparently no enforcement of minimum wage.

And what have you done in this time? The fringe is just as dirty, miserable, uncomfortable for audiences as it ever was. It's just institutionalised and there is more of it. You have not found your way into venues that are large enough to sustain or improve the fringe itself. Move over and let a new generation deal with real market forces and real employer responsibilities. No wonder American producers think theatre managements here are a bunch of amateurs.

And the fringe has generally turned away from it's roots as well. The unique selling points of the fringe used to include cutting edge writing, experimentation that did not happen elsewhere and access to genuine experienced artists trying something new. I get all that in the subsidised theatre now. AND quality control. The fringe is a weak mini-West End or a shadow of regular commercial and subsidised theatre. It's full of revivals, classical productions, farces and the same stuff that goes on better elsewhere. Why would I risk watching 'the next Punchdrunk' when I can go see Punchdrunk?

The fringe seems to exist to set a bad example for other theatre and film employers, who are now trying to cast people for unpaid work in so many rubbish projects. Casting directors are running workshops for money from wannabe actors, instead of seeing them in general meetings. Poor wages in the fringe lead to further poor wages for actors. The fringe bloats the profession and no one seems to get any better.

Why should actors put up with this abuse? There is nothing in it for them.

So you great, visionary fringe theatre makers out there... Tell me about your big ideas that are going to improve the actors' future. What have you got? You are either in this for the short term just to you climb to the next rung, or you plan to make a career in the fringe, or maybe you just want to be able to dip in now and then when you need to scratch your artistic sensibilities on some unwaged drama school graduates.

Tell me why we shouldn't take you to tribunal when you don't pay?

SO what is you vision that is supposed to keep actors coming back for more of this? What have you got, besides unpaid opportunities to volunteer to be seen in someone else's unpaid opportunities?

Hi George

I couldn't agree more whole heartedly with most of the conclusions that you've formed re the state of the fringe. It's not something I'd bother with as a producer any more, it simply doesn't make sense, in any respect. It's just an easy way to lose money with little tangible reward. I take my hat off to anyone who does bother, because I honestly can't see what they're getting out of it -- apart from loads of grief!

I don't dispute the fact that in an ideal world performers would get paid for working on the fringe, I just question the practical way that that is actually possible. This idea of fair pay won't work in my opinion, for the reasons that I've previously stated. The bottom line is that the margins aren't good enough, and I simply don't see why it should be incumbent on producers to act as some sort of charity: this isn't about producers getting rich, it's about them having a realistic chance to actually see their production wash its face (or even, perish the thought, make a small profit). If there is anyone actually making money out of the fringe, even in its current state, I'd love to see them.

In terms of the way forward, I can't see a way that it can work without subsidy. It's just not in anyone's interests to front the capital to match the additional weight on the budgets. Bringing most of the theatres up to scratch (which would be necessary to raise the ticket price point) would entail massive expenditure, and who's going to pay that? Rentals are already relatively extremely high and there's little scope to raise these further -- and most venue managements would say that they're operating at the margins as it is. Possibly rich benefactors would be an option -- but either way it would need to be sunk capital. Given George's conclusions on what the fringe has become, that are entirely correct in my opinion, I can't really see why this money would be forthcoming. If the fringe used to fulfil a useful role in breathing life into underperformed work and giving exposure to new writing, and dynamic talent, it doesn't any more -- or if so, rarely.

The biggest misconception re the level of actor's pay on a bigger level, is that there is some sort of gross and systemic exploitation of actors at the hands of managements across the entire industry: it's simply not true. There are a handful of commercial shows that are making decent margins, but even these end up invariably propping up other shows within the same producer's stable that aren't doing as well -- most are operating very near to their break, or under it. It's a simple fact that hardly anybody's making much money out of theatre these days -- except some rights holders, and selected creatives (and of course our beloved "big name" actors, who invariably do embarrassingly better than their "colleagues). Get hold of some detailed running costs, you'd be surprised at the reality of the way things actually stack up.

Having seen a lot of these budgets I have noticed how much is spent on marketing. It looks like you are propping up a supply side driven sector and are competing for audiences. Maybe if there were fewer illegitimate theatre businesses, the legit ones would do better.

Fewer opportunities for actors, but more paid work.

" ...I simply don't see why it should be incumbent on producers to act as some sort of charity" I'm sure the irony of that statement isn't lost on you, Bob! Actors have been doing it for years!

Seriously though,
I think we're all in agreement that a "thinning out" of the productions going on in the Fringe would help enormously. Actors might then bemoan the scarcity of "work" on offer, but maybe that's a cue for them to try harder for the work that's out there. Go to workshops to brush up on skills, or even, God forbid- train! Yes, it's expensive but so is working for free for years.
I know at first hand that training doesn't guarantee you work. I haven't worked for a year. Once upon a time I might have filled my months with profit share and student films but it hardly keeps your skills fresh when the majority of unpaid work is so uninspiring. Better to concentrate my efforts on running a reasonably successful film production company. (And paying everyone!)
Practical soultions? OK, I'll have a go...
The practical things we can do now are :
1. Educate all actors on their rights.
2.Educate the employers. That includes campaigning for a wage from the universities when involved in student films. Educate them before they start employing people. The same goes for the directing courses at drama schools.
3. Lobby the government to outlaw the advertising of unpaid work unless it is genuinely volunteer work. (Acting isn't, unless turning up for performances and rehearsals is completely optional) ArtsJobs have already changed their policy, due to campaigning by individuals that are passionate about this issue.
4. look into how a collaborative model might work in profit share or micro budget films, ie making all contributors co-creators. There might be scope for an exemption in NMW for people that collaborate on an equal level.
I think that the first three will have the "thinning out" effect that we want. Those who haven't thought through their ideas might think twice, or give their project more time to develop, and possibly put a funding application together. Fear of being hauled up in front of HMRC will put off some altogether, some of the smallest will just ignore it, especially if everyone already knows and trusts eachother before they embark on a project. (still a risk, though).
All of the above are already being implemented, or are being seriously discussed within the Unions.
Eventually, with this "natural selection", if you will, there will be far fewer Fringe productions out there competing for audiences or industry professionals' time; fewer companies chasing funding, so subsidising the venues that cannot make money might be viable. Competition for work will increase the standard of actor, less competition for venues might bring their hire prices down (high time, in my opinion) and lastly, we might see dynamic new companies outside of this arena, able to experiment with unfundable ideas as some sort of collective, able to skirt NMW legislation because they are a co-operative and each one of them co-owns the company. They speak in hushed tones of the theatre that is called "The New Fringe"....!
The Fringe is dead! Long live the Fringe!

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