The Stage

Blogs

Shenton's View

Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?….

Just last Friday I wrote a blog here about my own experiences of working on the fringe last year, and no sooner was it posted than the news emerged of the offending theatre’s total shutdown, following a health and safety inspection from the local council that revealed that not only was the venue operating without a proper licence but was so ill-equipped to get one that there was no alternative but to close down immediately.

Of course, scruffy, ad hoc conditions are often de rigueur on the fringes of the fringe, as is operating on a wing and a prayer. But passion and commitment on the part of an artistic team count for nothing if the administrative nuts and bolts are not attended to, and it would seem that the most basic requirements to operate legally were ignored here.

What a pity: the Cock Tavern had done that rare and magical thing to put itself on the artistic map so quickly, even if its location on the geographical map found it on the “wrong” end of Kilburn High Road, that within a year of opening I saw fit to persuade my fellow Empty Space Award judges to grant it our up-and-coming pub theatre award. It also had a smash hit to its name with a production of La Boheme that did something so witty and improbable with it, relocating the second act to the downstairs pub where it provided an astonishing coup de theatre as a chorus mingle with the pub patrons and suddenly burst into singing life, providing a fantastic juxtaposition of live art and real life.

I loved it so much that I threw my hat into the ring with it, urging the Young Vic’s David Lan to see it and even taking Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the Cock’s artistic director and founder, and Ben Cooper, his executive producer, to meet Lan to talk about transferring it to the Young Vic. In the event, Lan couldn’t make space for it, and instead Soho Theatre, whose executive director Mark Godfrey had seen and loved the show, approached the Cock themselves and it went there instead, where it thereby became eligible for an Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production and duly won it, against stiff competition from the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.

I felt proud to play a tiny part in recognising the theatre’s achievement and helping to move it forward. But I’m considerably less proud to find out the price it has been bought at, or rather the dues that have not been paid along the way, in every sense. No sooner did La Boheme win the Olivier Award than it emerged that the chorus were extremely unhappy for being part of such a huge artistic success but receiving no payment for their efforts. OperaUpClose, the producing entity under whose auspices the production was set up and of which Spreadbury-Maher is artistic director, replied stating that the company had its “own unique structure. Whereas principal performers were seasoned professionals and paid a wage consistent with industry standards, the chorus was… a volunteer position to gain valuable industry experience.”

Last week Private Eye revealed that the ‘wage consistent with industry standards’ paid to principals per performance in a typical OUC show is £6.49. “And that’s for a big sing like the title role in Madam Butterfly,” reported Private Eye. It went on, “For minor roles the company is paying £2.16 per performance. As one performer points out, ‘This is less than my tube fare.’ To say he and his colleagues are angry would be an understatement. They are in revolt. The problem is that their engagements were not for a fixed fee but a profit share,, calculated by OUC according to complex and somewhat less than transparent accounting procedures. The singers are demanding to know where the money has gone, given that OUC shows have had massive publicity and enjoyed long, successful runs. The suggestion of a carefully worded document compiled by cast members is that too much of it has been pocketed by OUC’s management, which is effectively two people: artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and executive director Ben Cooper. Although not accused of illegality, the pair come under fire for the opaqueness of their financial arrangements. For example, a large amount of the budget for OUC’s Butterfly went on the fee for the singing translation — made by Spreadbury-Maher and Cooper themselves, who, according to the document, produced a hopeless piece of work ‘delivered to the cast in an unusable state’ which the singers then had to sort out (for no fee).”

Private Eye goes on to quote one performer who says, “We were asked to take a leap of faith in joining OUC on a profit share. But we didn’t agree to do it from a tall building, blindfolded.” Not that anyone could ever conceivably get rich from productions like this, but fair is fair and this sounds palpably unfair.

Meanwhile, however, back to the now non-existent Cock Tavern, Spreadbury-Maher wrote a Guardian blog this week both bemoaning “health and safety gone mad” that has forced its closure but also promising to resurface elsewhere: “Now the problem with our steps means that we’re on the hunt for a new home, starting over again, but with the lessons learned over the last two years at the front of our minds. We’ll find a building, turn it into a theatre, and get back on with the work. We’ve got some exciting productions up our sleeve which we were planning for The Cock - now they will be put to the test in our new venue. I think that shows what a true art form theatre is - movable, flexible, and capable of dealing with sudden change.”

I just hope that another lesson has been learnt, too: to look not just to the vaulting personal ambition that has both driven it but now also caused it to fall over, but to take care of other more basic requirements, too, like getting a proper licence first, and ensuring that actors aren’t taken for a bumpy ride or audiences an uncomfortable one.

Editor’s note: Opera UpClose’s official response is supplied in this comment below

49 Comments

So depressing. Like may I spent my formative years on profit (no-profit) share. At least then we didn't think, and I believe were not short changed. We just all wanted to make it happen.

With spceific regard to La Boheme, I know of at least two people who normally wouldn't be seen dead on the fringe who loved it. One for sure is now up for other Fringe theatre. I just chatted to him and 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'.

I took one trip to the Cock Theatre. It was a shambles at best and a deathtrap at worst. On the night I saw La Boheme the pub regulars were so aggressive I thought a fight would break out - included in their bar brawl would be us theatre goers.
The facilities shared with the pub were in a disgusting state and the theatre itself had a strong smell of stale beer.
The stairwell was narrow, the lighting was poor and I truly thought I'd meet our maker there. Until of course I got to the seating and realised that worse was to come. Although some fine performers, the experience was marred by some of the most uncomfortable seats I've ever had to sit on and a constant worry that the floor would cave in or the seating area collapse or a fire would break out.
I'm sorry I missed your production at the Cock but I vowed never to go back. If the artistic director had invested some time and money in the pub space and the theatre space it might have been a better experience. Obviously he wasn't putting money back into the host venue, namely the pub, so there was no way the overall experience could be improved.
I know fringe isn't meant to be flash, but I certainly don't expect it to be dangerous. Alas I did go back for the final act but that was for the performers and not the venue or artistic director. If that's his vision of the future of fringe god help us bid rather see a street performance than pay them good money to line their own pockets.

Mark, thank you for this post. There are too many people in theatre who can talk the talk, network and build on a single successful idea well enough to build up their profiles in the industry but can't actually do the job they're promising in its full complexity. It's brave and enlightening when someone in your position says 'I'd bought into the hype, but actually I've just noticed the emperor has no clothes on.'

There are a lot of fringe venues where people work without pay and I don't have a problem with that AS LONG AS there is complete financial transparency and there is genuinely no money being paid to anyone involved with the production because essential expenses haven't been covered and someone is out of pocket. That clearly wasn't the case here.

The issue about licensing is completely unacceptable. If you are inviting the general public into your venue, you must be up to the legal responsibilities that entails. I have to say it also makes me wonder if they were carrying all the requisite insurance (both to protect the public and their own employees and volunteers).

Mark, your attempt at trying to slam down the good work and nature of Adam Spreadbury-Maher's more than brilliant work on the London fringe is truly abysmal, to quote Private Eye in your blog is possibly scraping a bit too below the bottom of the barrel for a story. OperaUpClose and the Cock Tavern Theatre has produced excellent works and has built up a reputation that any theatre director would be jealous of. Without funding the Cock Tavern produced works by the great playwrights of the world plus their Olivier award WINNING production of La Boheme, a work which defined Spreadbury Maher and Norton Hale's careers and a production that has changed an entire art form. I don't understand also why in the past you of all arts journalists have backed this incredible venture which now you passing off with crude quotes from a cowardly source in Private Eye. Is your opinion so easily swayed?

If you want a real story to write, write their overwhelming success, felt by critics ad audience alike.

If you want to read a real piece of journalism on the blatant success of the work of Spreadbury-Maher and his amazing colleagues read this: http://www.arbuturian.com/2011/opera-upclose

The Cock Tavern Theatre and OperaUpClose are currently composing a statement to reply to the numerous incorrect statements contained in this blog.

This statement will be entered as a comment here, and will also be sent to The Stage, whom we have already contacted on seeing this blog this morning.

Ben Cooper
Executive Director
The Cock Tavern Theatre and OperaUpClose

To Ben Cooper

Don't you think you're 'statement' should be sent to Private Eye??
And perhaps the performers that feel 'duped' by OUC?
And maybe an apology to the theatregoers for the appalling conditions you had at the venue? The lack of trained staff? The box office delays as no-one was around to man the doors....
If you want people to believe in you (I feel Adam has done more damage to OUC writing his Guardian piece) you have to give something back.

No-one is questioning your talents, it's your business practice which causes consternation!

I played the Cock Tavern in Edward Bond's "The Fool" directed by the author. I worked for nothing but that was part of the deal (no complaints there) and the experience was highly rewarding. Adam Spreadbury Maher though never showed his face to say hello or thanks or well done to the cast for producing superb work under very difficult conditions in the sort of pub most of us would go out of our way to avoid.

Report this comment

Ben,

Correct what you like but it seems you didn't have a valid licence for entertainment and your stairs fell foul of the laws that govern every other public place in the UK. Now we also find you fail to adhere to National Minimum Wage laws.
I don't care how many awards you won or plaudits, if you really want a long term sustainably theatre industry (at whatever level) then these relatively straightforward business issues MUST be addressed.
Why are the Cock and ASM so hell bent on self publicity but are unable to give back more to the industry they profess to represent? Wouldn't setting up a trade association of pub theatres be a good idea - to share best practice and raise standards - or are we simply interested in winning awards here and furthering personal careers?
Unpaid performers simply means that you can charge unrealistically low ticket prices, which unfairly compete with those theatre companies who do pay their performers and stage management.
Isn't it about time this Cock demonstrated responsibility and ethical leadership rather than indignation?

I do hope The Cock doesn't a home at The Bull otherwise it'll be more of the same old story.

@Anthony Cable: I saw the show twice, sorry we didn't get to meet. I'm usually extremely accessible but admit the last 6 months of 2010 were particularly busy as I spent most of it in a rehearsal room. I try to balance the two, and I appreciate your feedback. Also, thanks for being part of The Bond Season; it was awesome.

I thought I'd reply to that one, Ben will reply to the rest.

Thanks, Adam.

@Paul Guest

If you read the article properly, Mark DID actually praise the work produced by the Cock Tavern and Opera Up Close, and himself spent time cheerleading for them and opening doors based on the potential he saw.

However, what Mark is clearly doing here is talking about another matter entirely - the questionable *business* practices being employed by their companies. Running a venue which doesn't meet basic requirements is inexcusable, and the financial arrangements for La Bohéme certainly raise a lot of questions; no amount of good work makes can help avoid these questions.

I suggest next time you read an article properly, before wading in to seemingly defend your mates and shamelessly promote your own journalistic career.

Report this comment

It's the nature of online contributions that there will be the occasional outragiously rude disagreement with what the consensus finds emminently sensible. I endorse Mark's column and can only add bafflement that the authorities took so long to wake up. When I worked in theatre each production had to be certified, no matter how thoroughly the theatre building itself had been approved.

I live 2 minute's walk from The Cock and never quite managed a theatre visit but saw La Boheme at The Soho Theatre. I had determined to see the Tennessee Williams play this week and agree that the pub itself, which I last went to over ten years ago, was not my idea of a pleasant venue. We are all indebted to performers & staff prepared to work under such conditions and await with interest the response of the ex-management.

I suggest they dispense with speeches and concentrate on answering the points covered by Mark and others.

Report this comment

What grinds me is the apparent attitude of the Cock Tavern management which seem to me to be repugnant. They appear to be refusing to accept any of the blame for the appalling catalogue of incidents that they now find themselves in -

Blaming overbearing health and safety doesn't wash - What if the building caught fire and people died - would they have blamed audience members for being too slow getting out of the building.The simple fact is that they didn't have a licence for the theatre. And not paying the actors properly in the midst of a critically and financially acclaimed success is morally wrong. The fact that they can't grasp these basic points or even accept a modicum of responsibility makes me question what other things were going on at the Cock...

This all sounds incredibly sensational and under researched to me.
Many fringe theatres operate on profit share, as the singers themselves state, they knew the situation they were getting into- although i understand they would've probably not expected less than their travel. I've seen La Boheme a few times over a few months, and the casts were similar if not identical in this time period- surely these cast members would not stay around if OUC were, as Mark suggests, 'duping' the company?
I have also attended the Cock Tavern, and yes, the venue is not the most exciting or prestigious, nor the most well maintained, but i was under the impression that it was the pub who owned, and therefore were responsible for the venue? I may be wrong- but i thought that was the conversation i'd had with their staff.
I still think we should be applauding and encouraging venues like this that contribute to the culture and life of the London Fringe despite the hand to mouth situation. In that pub, with the less than ideal conditions, they managed to win an Olivier! Which isnt a cash prize sort of a thing, remember people. Artistic success is incredibly different to comercial.
Re the Butterfly money- Obviously that kind of money is never ideal, but i sincerely doubt that thats what the company were hoping to pay their singers.

I'd be interested to hear OUC's side of the story, before assuming this heated blog is all correct.

Mark,

I have been singing for OUC since last March and there are a couple of issues in your piece that I feel needed commenting on. Firstly, with regards to La Boheme at the Soho. You have mentioned that the chorus were 'extremely unhappy'. We all knew, principles and chorus, that the chorus was a volunteered role. Of course they would have preffered to have been paid, but if they were so disgruntled, why did they come back to perform night after night? I'll wager its because they wanted to. And having had a drink with many of them after many shows, I dont remeber anyone being 'extremely unhappy'. With regards to the Butterfly that you have quoted from Private Eye, though I wasnt in that show and therefore will not comment on it in particular, I have done and am still doing 2 of the shows at the Kings Head during its first rep season. Anyone going into fringe knows there is very little money in it. Often performers do fringe for free. And everyone knows the risks with profit-share. If people dont want that risk then they shouldnt take the gig. We, the singers, are getting the the chance to play roles we might never have dreamed of. But we're not at Covent Garden! We're singing in a pub. And I love it. Would I like more money? Absolutely I would. But am I going to stop working for OUC because they dont line my wallet? Not a chance. I know the passion the company have for the work they produce, the performers are dedicated and wonderful and we get to entertain an audience every night. Sounds pretty good to me.


With regards to the Cock. It smelt for sure. It wasnt the most glamorous theatre I have ever worked at. It may not have been the healthiest or safest pub in the world, but wonderful things happened there. And I never saw anyone coming close to falling down the stairs. Falling off bar stalls perhaps...

Finally the truth is revealed about this company. Unprofessional at best. The facts are, this show made money. With no royalties to pay, no sound system required (even in the SOHO Theatre), small cast, and not paying the chorus, very few overheads required for this production (apart from the company staff being paid full time wages).

ASM, you were overheard at a theatre recently bragging about the new renovations at the Cock, where you were building dressing rooms (so the cast don't have to change in less than poor conditions), and new seating. So no money to ensure that the place is safe and legal, or that cast were paid properly?

Ben Cooper, to blame the licence issue on the venue is embarrassing. It is your responsibility to ENSURE the licence is in place, like every other fringe company in London. The cracks are beginning to show.

What I like about this article is that it contains FACTS. Not smoke and mirrors, excuses, diversions or spin.

No talk about M.Butterfly being a flop, and closing early either?

Mark, I have worked on several OUC productions in the past and my own experiences of the company do not match the picture created in your post.

I assisted on productions including Madam Butterfly, working min.12 hrs a day,5- 7 days a week, paying £12 rail fare a day.

I did this for free with no expenses, NOT because I was being scammed by the management (and as I work with the budgets and company finances I know this for a fact) but by choice. I do if for free as I am gaining great experience and despite the company's success there is still so little money, so by working for free it means that the performers I work with on a daily basis get a greater share of the profits (than they would if I took a wage or share).

As everyone knows, it is currently very difficult to make a career in the arts industry with arts cuts and over-subsciption for jobs. As a result young people like myself often need to take on unpaid/low-paying work. Many big subsidised theatres offer unpaid office internships, but I choose to work instead at an unsubsidised fringe theatre - OUC.

I have now been working there 8 months and I have learnt a massive amount and been well supported and greatly enjoyed it.

There are a couple of things I would like to correct you on:

1. Yes, the profit-share was bad for MB, but profit-share is always a risk, and I have worked on other OUC productions with this pay scheme where it has earnt some performers in excess of £50 per performance.
2. Adam and Ben gave up their share of the profits on MB for the translation, as did the company, so that all profits went straight to performers and production team.
3. There is no funny business, theatre is simply expensive.
4. There are a lot of people at OUC like myself working long hours for no or very little money (including management) because we love theatre.
5. The office and finances are always open. I reguarly sit down with performers to have a chat through their concerns as do the management.
6. On a recent production I was producing we finally secured an arts council grant. The money went entirely to the performers as fees, none to the producers or OUC.

Now, either you may think I am a complete and utter idiot who has been sitting in an office oblivious to the fact that the people I work alongside every day are corrupt squanderers. Or, perhaps maybe, this is simply a hard working company, where no one earns much money but do it for love of the theatre. But before you make a judgement I would like you to consider whether you have better firsthand experience of the company? Or are you relying on word of mouth to make quick judgements?

All Mark's post and some of the catty comments posted have done is to unjustly discourage people from working in this industry.

That old adage 'Truth Hurts' seems to bear some resonance to the team at The Cock Tavern here...

How easy it is to ride on the crest of a wave of success but try and play the victim when the s**t hits the fan. Mark mentions some quite serious points and i'm sure his intention isn't to damn anyone- far from it. From what I can recall he has always been supportive of not just The Cock Tavern but other fringe venues too.

Everyone knows of OUC's "overwhelming success" which we now know has been achieved in treating people in an inappropriate way. If a show makes a profit, which i'm sorry 'La Boheme' must have, then the performers should have been duly paid a share of that profit.

If the Artistic Team have been keeping profits and have not been giving back what they said they would then they should be charged with fraud and deception. It

Sarah your wrong. Mark will have discouraged people from being exploited and being paid for next to nothing whilst others take all the credit and money.

I work in the industry. I know the industry and I think it's absolutely disgraceful how this has come to light.

Look to the perpetrators before you make nonsense statements.

Sarah,
These posts are never going to discourage anyone from working in this industry, we all know that nothing will stop them, and that's always been the problem!
Of course actors will always take on gigs like this and who am I, or anyone else in a position to stop them? You do it for the experience, for the "love" etc and if you can afford to do that, then good for you. (even if it is undermining the ability of other fringe companies to compete on ticket price...)
Open book policies are so helpful...
http://redtabletheatre.com/open-book-theatre/

Actors, take note...
http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/newsstory.php/31651/equity-encourages-performers-to-take-action

If all the actors were happy bunnies, that's great. If not, remember you don't have to sit back and take this. Equity will back you if you feel you've been mistreated. Then we'll see if this company really are working in the actors' best interests.
The National Minimuge Wage won't break the Fringe; both have been around for a long time. Breaches in NMW will always continue with compliance from both parties. What it does do is prevent people from taking the p*** if actors know their rights and they feel that they have been taken for a ride.
My advice is: in an ideal world, always work for a wage. In this "un-indeal" one, only work for nothing if an open book policy, or Equity's Fringe Theatre agreement is in place, or if you are putting on a play with a group of friends.
The rest of time, steer well clear. And remember, if you do feel that you have been exploited, your union will back you and Equity is actively finding ways of protecting both actors and the Fringe's future too. Lastly, be careful, all of those who put on shows and do not pay your actors. Any one of you can be hauled up before Equity and HMRC. Yes, there are risks in this business but it doesn't always have to be the actor who takes them.
http://actorsminimumwage.wordpress.com/

@Sam Robertson

"With no royalties to pay, no sound system required (even in the SOHO Theatre), small cast, and not paying the chorus, very few overheads required for this production (apart from the company staff being paid full time wages)."

Yes there is a writer so there are royalties. The writer/director may be an artistic director but they are entitled to a fraction of money for a show that they created! The amount earned as artistic director is miniscule so I don't really know how you expect them to live unless they can take a royalty on a show they put their life and soul into? Or are you suggesting that writers of fringe shows should not be paid? Wouldn't that be unfair?

There are in fact a lot of costs involved in producing a show: set, costume, design, lighting, running costs, rent, marketing, press, wages for performers (principals) creative and production team (ps. this does not include company staff), admin. Then before you get to profit you have VAT (20%), credit card sales, royalties.

So actually there are a lot of overheads even in a fringe production.

You were speaking about facts? Please check you have your own right too.

You love it, so you do it for free, is a reason for doing amateur dramatics.

If all people concerned were involved on an amateur or not for profit basis, that would be a very different story, however, what we are all discussing here is the situation where some people are benefiting financially (and from the kudos!) from the hard work and talent of others, and at the same time have, either through ignorance or neglect, failed to ensure the basic safety of their paying patrons.

Whilst I feel sure that those concerned did not go out of their way to endanger either their casts, staff, or audiences, the fact remains that this is what they have in effect been doing.

If those concerned had been running a nightclub, or cinema which the proper authorities had deemed unsafe you would rightly hope that they would be closed down, no matter how good the music they were playing, or the films they were showing.

No matter what the artistic merit of the productions from OUC, I don't see why they should be treated any differently. Well done Mark for pointing this out!

@Sarah

A show the director wouldn't have been able to create without a cast.

Yes theatre IS expenisive. Don't do it if you can't afford it.

Sarah, sadly I think you reflect BECTU's recent evidence to the Low Pay Commission Report 2011

http://www.lowpay.gov.uk/lowpay/report/pdf/Revised_Report_PDF_with_April_date.PDF


“The prevailing informality, and rhetoric of experiment and creativity, obscure the reality of employment relationships carrying obligations for workers to be paid for their work.”

Singers, actors and stage management, you can still be paid for this work (and by doing this you'd be helping others to get paid also). Do contact Equity or BECTU.

More information here...

http://actorsminimumwage.wordpress.com/

STATEMENT FROM THE COCK TAVERN THEATRE AND OPERAUPCLOSE

There are a number of inaccuracies in this blog and the comments it has generated which we need to correct.

The Private Eye article, from which Mark quotes extensively, was published without giving OperaUpClose a chance to respond – and the numerous false claims in it have now been carried through to this blog on The Stage website.

It is extremely important to us to be transparent and be seen to be so, especially as, as Mark’s blog points out, we ask people to work for us for profitshare.

The members of the La Boheme chorus applied for volunteer positions. This was made clear when we advertised, and at their auditions. When a press story appeared in the lead up to the Olivier Awards, that some of them were angry at not being paid, OperaUpClose was contacted many other chorus members expressing their shock, as they said they had never expected to be paid, and understood it would not have been financially viable either at the tiny 35-seat Cock Tavern Theatre, and at the 150-seat Soho Theatre. They said they joined the chorus to be part of an exciting show and new form of theatre, and in some cases to beef up the classical music credentials on their CVs, and that they had got everything they wanted and more out of the experience. During the La Boheme run we have had over 100 singers come through the chorus. Only a couple have brought up the issue of payment.

Like all unfunded fringe companies, we operate on a profitshare basis, and we have a financial open-book policy. Any performer or member of staff is welcome to inspect our production budgets. Unfortunately, with profitshare, if we sell fewer tickets there is less money to go round, and we are limited by our seat numbers and our overheads (rent and rates). The figures quoted for the Madam Butterfly singers are from the month when we sold fewest tickets since moving into our new home at the King’s Head, and are an anomaly. In that month, the profitshare of the director and producers for Madam Butterfly was redistributed among the performers so as to increase their salaries. The translation percentage paid to Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Ben Cooper was well below industry standard, and in the month in question was not paid to them, but as with the producer and director fees was redistributed among the performers so as to increase their salaries. In that month, 100% of the profit went to the performers, and none to OperaUpClose.

The issue with the license of the Cock Tavern Theatre and its subsequent closure is also presented in a misleading light in this blog. Our responsibility was to provide public and employee liability insurance, which we have always had. The responsibility for the venue license is that of the landlord. The landlord at the Cock Tavern already had a performance license when we moved in, and told us on numerous occasions that it covered us, as his tenants. He was unaware he needed to get that license extended to cover the upstairs function room, where the theatre was located.

We were horrified when this issue came to light, particularly considering our excellent relationship with Brent Council and their partner organisations, with whom we have always worked closely. Brent Council have been extremely helpful and supportive. Their inspection of the theatre itself did not result in it being shut down - there were a few small adjustments that were required that they were satisfied we could complete within 24 hours, and then re-open. The problem was with the Victorian staircases leading up to the function room, which were too steep to comply with current legislation. These 100-year old staircases were the reason the theatre had to be closed. It had nothing to do with the theatre company trying to cut corners. Brent Council are very keen that the theatre company continues to operate in the borough, and are actively seeking another venue for us.

We did not own the pub or have any say in the running of the bar or the building, so unfortunately the state of the toilets or behaviour of the drinkers there, or indeed the staircases, were out of our control.

We are extremely proud of what we achieved at the Cock Tavern Theatre in only 26 months. We hope and believe that we have returned at least an equivalent amount of money to performers as any other successful fringe venue working on a profitshare basis during this time. Anyone working in fringe will appreciate the devoted yet rewarding work (on extremely limited resources) that can only be achieved by a dedicated ensemble of talented creatives and administrators. The Cock Tavern Theatre achieved the following artistic accolades in the short time we were open in Kilburn: “Best Pub Theatre” (Peter Brook...Empty Space Awards 2009), “Best Artistic Director” (Fringe Report Awards 2010), a record-breaking production of La Bohème which led to the 2011 Olivier Award “Best New Opera” & Whatsonstage.com Award “Best Off-West End Production”, 7 Critics' Choices, one Time Out #1 Fringe Show Of The Year 2010 (Pins & Needles), and (between its four final productions) 11 Offwestend.com “Offies” nominations. Our programme included a six-production Edward Bond retrospective, and two Tennessee Williams world premieres. None of these awards have come with a cheque, apart from £2000 for the Peter Brook... Empty Space Award. We remain an unfunded and struggling theatre company. The awards cited belong to everyone involved, and were granted due to the support of industry professionals who believed in our work. We will continue to make excellent theatre and forge an innovative path ahead for London fringe with love, risk and ambition.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Artistic Director, The Cock Tavern Theatre and OperaUpClose

Ben Cooper, Executive Director, The Cock Tavern Theatre and OperaUpClose

Robin Norton-Hale, Co-Artistic Director, OperaUpClose

Dominic Haddock, Executive Producer, The Cock Tavern Theatre and OperaUpClose

http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/view.cfm?issue=234&id=5575

Think it's worth noting that not all of the chorus are unhappy - see my story above. My source is of the opinion that one chorus member took great affront at not being paid once the show transferred to Soho and has kicked up a big fuss - which is being attributed to the whole chorus.

I personally do not think people should be asked to work for free, although recognise that it is sometimes necessary on the fringe. However, it seems disingenuous to accept an unpaid job which was advertised as unpaid and then complain about it afterwards...

Come on, why don't you tell us how much money you have all been pocketing every month since you opened at the King's Head? So we could compare it to what you gave us, huh?

I worry that there are some much bigger, wider problems underneath all of this.

Look at the fact that the Genesis Directors’ Project – the Young Vic’s website for wannabe directors – has over 800 members. There are only about 60 producing theatres or theatre companies in the UK. Every year, the 15 NDCT-accredited drama schools in the UK churn out around 20 graduating students a year, each. That’s 300 or so new actors every year, and then add to that all the graduates of post-grad acting courses, and all the thousands of people from non-accredited schools and drama degree students from universities. We’re talking at least a thousand new actors every year. It’s a similar story for musicians, singers, composers and designers. With the exception of technicians and stage managers – where demand just about balances supply, so most get work – the vast majority of people who train to enter the performing arts industry simply will not. Or rather, they won’t ever make their primary living from it (unless you count those who go on to teach and train others in this weird, heavy-bottomed ecology).

So what will they all do? Move to London, and... and what? Well, temping, teaching, sales, etc. But you want to feel like you’re doing what you’ve trained for some of the time. You’ve spent all that money – possibly yours, possibly the government’s, possibly your parents – on your training. So what do you do? You do some acting/singing/directing/designing, unpaid on the fringe. I’m not saying that the fringe is a bad thing in any way; I’m saying that it’s a necessary result of a massively overpopulated performing arts industry, and the logical consequence of a ‘follow your dreams’ aspirational mentality that means that far far more people train than will ever get ongoing paid work in this business.

I strongly doubt that Spreadbury-Maher is making money out of anyone, or taking advantage of anyone. People take part in these projects not to get paid, but to start building experience and contacts, to have something to put on their CV, to be a hopeful foot in a nearly-closed door. If Spreadbury-Maher has the energy and the courage to galvanise peoples’ talents and enthusiasm and create successful projects utilising peoples’ desire to work, regardless of pay, then I respect that. Thanks to his ubiquitous media coverage, his Boheme certainly gave lots of young singers a far more prominent showcase than any of the music colleges they’d graduated from a year or two before. I thought this badly-sung, badly-acted production was severely lacking in imagination, but clearly Mark Shenton and others disagreed with me.

La Boheme broke new ground (or at least ran with Peter Brook's intimate opera baton) and the massively subsidised London Opera scene (Private Eye-reading) was and is rattled. My royalties for Adam's up-and-down revival of The Present were paid promptly. That's a fact. Luckily Adam has The King's Head, enough, one theatre run professionally and ethically is enough, as Neil McPherson at the Finborough proves day in day out. Aplogise for the fuck-ups; false promises; financial opacity; and pick yourselves up: this is a production team that has its uses, as the Bond season; Peter Gill revivals at The Riverside; and the late and over-looked Tennessee Williams (which I didn't see) has proved. There comes a time when personal gripes (and I have quite a few with The Cock, as you know, Mark) must be put aside in the interests of bringing the best out of this team otherwise they will be crushed - and that would be a shame.

Report this comment

"One theatre run professionally and ethically is enough, as Neil McPherson at the Finborough proves day in day out"

Really? The Finborough ethical? I'm not convinced that so many unpaid internships http://bit.ly/eZgLj8 are compatible with an Equal Opps policy http://bit.ly/i9utiw. Seems to me that only that those with well off parents (white/middle class?) gain the advantage. So much for enhancing diversity.

Ethics? Yeah only if you're from certain backgrounds.

Sarah says:

"Yes there is a writer so there are royalties. The writer/director may be an artistic director but they are entitled to a fraction of money for a show that they created! The amount earned as artistic director is miniscule so I don't really know how you expect them to live unless they can take a royalty on a show they put their life and soul into? Or are you suggesting that writers of fringe shows should not be paid? Wouldn't that be unfair?"

The above shows that others are "entitled" to a wage but actors are not. How do you expect the actors to live? Isn't that unfair too?
I sincerely hope that the success and the hard work put in by this production team ensures that they can attract funding and start to pay people in the long run. I also hope that all the actors are happy with their involvement. If they are not, then Equity will back them to the hilt and pursue a case against them.
If you are asking professionals to work for you then it must be a level playing field for all. Profit share is not about paying your writers, admin staff, "creative team" first and then sharing out what's left for the actors. Treat us as collaborators and eventually there might be a way of avoiding possible prosecution. Yes, we may be brought in at a late stage in the production after all the blood sweat and tears have largely been shed, but we are not an afterthought. I'm sure that you do value your actors more than that. It's a shift in perception which is needed here, for both the production team and the actors who undervalue themselves in this manner.
http://actorsminimumwage.wordpress.com/

I know Adam and Ben well. The last thing they are is unscrupulous. They are talented producers who have made a great success with extremely limited resources.

Fringe opera is a new concept, and a very exciting one. We ought to be getting behind them. Profit share is a reality of pub theatre - let's hope they get some funding, I know that having the upfront capital to pay fees would make their lives much easier.

And I have no doubt that there will be a lot of performers who have worked with them who will give them their full support.

David Lan
Artistic Director, Young Vic Theatre

Hi sharon,

When I was talking about royalties it was in regards to a production where performers were already being paid good fees. These are paid as pre-production so that they are recieved before writers royalties and are guarenteed. So if the production goes down the pan the producers suffer, not the performers.

So the actors did get their wages first, all I was arguing was that it is fair for a writer to get a fee as well as performers. Writers are often paid in the form of royalties and the comment by Sam seemed to suggest it was unneccessary to pay the writer of Boheme as well as the performers.) That was what I was taking issue with.

In all the productions with profit-share involved, when the profit is low, the company have recinded their share to ensure that the performers get all the profits, which is very fair.

I would NEVER suggest that actors should not be paid and in fact have worked unpaid for 8 months to allow performers I work with to recieve money.

Sounds like too many cocks are spoiling this particular broth!

Is it just me or are Adam and Ben being absurdly self-important, to the point of parody? It's one thing sticking up for your playhouse, quite another to discuss it with a tone normally reserved for debating UN resolutions. Get some perspective guys.

actors don't need writers to make a great show - that's a fact

and sometimes writer/directors hire actors!

take your pick but make it good if you want the punters to pay good money for it

Ouch. My theatre company gets no funding (although we are sometimes lucky with private sponsorship). So we have little option but to produce on a profit share or at less than equity minimum wages - or not produce at all. This only works when performers are willing to agree to those conditions in advance. I know nothing about the Cock, or about La Boheme, or about the performers. I do know that transparency, consent and getting the arrangements / contracts agreed upfront and then sticking to them (on both sides) are the key to making it work. From my side, that includes telling people how much you've spent in a transparent way, e.g. providing everyone with a budget or expenditure account before you know how much you've taken in ticket sales. It also includes providing an account of how much you've taken supported with an account or print-out - much easier in these days of computerised ticket systems.

Quite possibly, my urge to direct is the product of vaulting ambition, or maybe just not knowing what else to do with my life. Producing I dislike, but it's thrust on me anyway. The Arts Council and some other funders pander to this ambition by making you present projects as the result of an "artistic vision", which is personal ambition stated in different terms. Occasionally, and embarrassingly, things go wrong, as happened to me recently when we committed to doing shows and then sponsorship, although generous, came up agonisingly short. So we found ourselves relying on box office returns that didn't match our needs. I had an awkward period finding the money to repay what we owed. The point there, I hope, is that I did.

I've also had this deeply unpleasant experience: offering a company a favoured nations contract with a substantial guaranteed payment, having one company member freely refuse it (saying they're a "gambling person") in favour of a riskier profit-share deal that could have earned them a lot more, finding after the show was finished that the gamble hadn't paid off and there was no profit, then deciding they didn't like their freely chosen contract after all and aggressively demanding money that we didn't have and they'd refused in advance when they freely chose their contract. It takes all sorts.

I don't believe producers generally set out to cheat or exploit performers. As Mark's blog demonstrates, they'd be pretty stupid to try when they're also courting the sort of publicity the Cock has received. If my experience is anything to go by, no Fringe or Off-West-End producer is in this for the money. Or if they ever were, they find out pretty quickly the error in their thinking.

There seems to be no doubt that the Cock had high artistic standards - Olivier-award-winning standards. Perhaps, most of all, this story is a powerful argument for proper arts funding.

I've recently finished a show at the Cock Tavern, and I'd like to second a few of the other performers responses here. Firstly, when you enter a profit share, that is basically code for next to nothing in most venues. However, as the show I was involved in was succesful, the money I got at the end was considerable and more than I ever expected from such a small capacity theatre.

Secondly, it is easy to shoot at the Cock Tavern precisely because they have been successful in not accepting that fringe venues have to settle for a lack of programming, shoddy productions, and relying on production companies giving them a straight hire fee in lieu of artistic talent. The price they have had to pay is to run what is essentially an established mainstream theatre's programme on the income of a 50 seat fringe venue. Yes, this means that when a show doesn't go so well, there is no money left in the pot. But it also means when it goes well everyone involved not only makes money, but earns industry recognition, and personal pride in completing a great job against considerable obstacles such as the venue downstairs! That's what we do fringe theatre for in the first place!

Lastly, the Cock was not the most comfortable of theatres. But I do not think there was any dark intent on the management's part. I think it seems more likely that there was a cock up (forgive the pun) of a pretty large scale that went completely undetected on both the management and the council's side for ages. If this means a move to a better equipped, more pleasant brand new fringe venue in London, then I'm kind of ok with that. I will only have good memories and gratitude to the Cock Tavern for being a part of a Tennessee Williams world premiere- that's what I'll be telling my grandkids about, not some flipping stairs

Whatever the good things achieved by ASM, BC and RNH, this cast member is witness to many cast members feeling that they were poorly treated - not so much over the money (although their ideas about this need a complete rethink) but over the incredible lack of communication to the very people they rely on to put their product in front of the public night after night. As others say above, they need to work hard on the perception, otherwise we end up in this sorry state, much of which was totally avoidable. Really sad not to be more positive.

"You love it, so you do it for free, is a reason for doing amateur dramatics."

That's an astonishingly patronising insult to all the amazing professional performers who choose to work on the unsubsidised Fringe. Being professional is an attitude of mind, not just about the money.

There would be one very simple way to decide what works best. Close down all venues and companies that don't pay Equity minimum wages. Then look at what's left and see if it still holds the richness and diversity and risk-taking that the UK's theatre scene is justly famous for.

One of the issues nobody seems to raise is that they didn't follow good practice.
No communication for weeks with actors on profit share. Issuing and negotiating contracts when the shows are already up and runnings. Not sharing information in advance or sending false information and hopes.

"All Mark's post and some of the catty comments posted have done is to unjustly discourage people from working in this industry"

Sarah - NOTHING discourages people from working in this industry and that means the above debate occurs time and again. This is a particularly bad case - not only were the performers unpaid (ok, they chose to do the work) but they were provided with an unsafe place to work, too - definitely not their choice. A double insult, which any other business would never get away with

Spot on BO. The more these guys try to cover up the truth about profit and funding, the more that is going to surface.

@Sarah - I was referring to the royalties typically associated with performing plays and musicals. NOT a rewrite of a centuries old opera, that is already translated into English, and simply adding a few lines about Kilbrun/SOHO or Jamie Oliver.

"Last week Private Eye revealed that the ‘wage consistent with industry standards’ paid to principals per performance in a typical OUC show is £6.49" - I think this is the most important fact here. If you are calling this a "wage" Then you must be at least paying minimum wage. Which I believe is a lot more than £6.49 for 3 hours work.

Fantastic article Mr Shenton. Clearly there are bigger issues with this company than were once thought.

Note to David Ian. I have some fantastic friends and family, but some of them, I wouldn't work with in a million years.

Robert,
I fail to see what is diverse about a form of theatre that can only employ those of us lucky to be able to work for free.

Report this comment

It's all very well all of us working for free, and having the passion and drive to do so, but it is very easy to take advantage of this. This is exactly what A S-M and co do - present a front of shared artistic integrity and then exploit those who are keen to work for free for that 'foot in the door' of a notoriously difficult industry.

Having worked for free for them for many months, I can say wholeheartedly that not only is communcation appalling, but empty promises are made and the management continuously abuse the inexperience and dedication of a young and eager team.

There is no problem with working for free when the figures are actually freely available and there is a shared atmosphere of respect, but management have made it near-impossible to view them whilst claiming that they are 'transparent'. Contracts have been given when shows are already in performance and sometimes not at all, and organisation is appalling. They leave logistical messes that other, usually inexperienced, people have to clean up. Shows have regularly had to be pulled together at the last minute usually with a huge sacrifice in quality, providing the audience with a poor experience and forcing performers to put their names to slapdash work. The reputations of dedicated team members have been slandered and sacrificed for PR and ticket sales. They ride on the back of the hard work of their dedicated teams and interns whilst reaping the publicity and artistic acclaim. On a personal level, I have found conduct unprofessional and at times downright rude.

I sincerely hope that they learn from their mistakes, but I will not be working for them anytime soon. It's a shame that one young artist feels a sense of justice when a fringe theatre is closed down, particularly in such dire times for the arts.

Sharon, No there's huge diversity is in the range of work on show in British theatre - paid, unpaid, commercial, subsidised etc. That diversity would be almost completely lost if only companies paying Equity minimum could operate. In London alone, a good 80% or more of performance companies would disappear overnight.

@Robert Shaw

It's not Equity minimum here in question.
It's national minimum wage regulations which is at current rate £5.93 per hour which means for a 2 1/2 hour opera a performer should get at least around £15. And with full houses which they had, for let say max. 10 performers it's only about 10% of what they make in one night at King's Head (which is see above in my post at least £1,800), but even if the auditorium was half-full, it would still be manageable and the company would be making profit.

And for rehearsals they could also pay at least minimum wage. Even if it was full on 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for 3 weeks (highly unlikely for operas), it is still only around £6,200 which they make with around 3-4 performances.

Either way, if they're sold out then they should be paying at least national minimum wage, if they're not then they're lying to everyone that they're are. In that case, that's an offence in itself, we call that misrepresentation.

However, I understand that other fringe theatres and companies might not be in the position to sell out, but that opens a whole other set of questions. Should we train so many actors? Can anyone be a producer? How to make theatres more commercially viable? Should public funding go only to non-commercial productions?, etc...

Well, the minimum wage is not in question either. Most performers are self-employed. Minimum wage regulations don't apply to self-employed people.

I can't comment on the specific Cock situation. I'm not involved. There seem to be very much two sides to the story.

I'm talking about the principle of working unpaid or for profit share. That's a perfectly reasonable thing to do as long as you go into it with your eyes open, do it for a good reason, expenditure is made as clear as possible, the terms are agreed to in advance and then stuck to by both sides. For example, in my company, if we do profit share we divide any profit 60 / 40. 40% goes to the company, 60% is shared equally between each participant - actors, designer, stage manager etc. That's a very straightforward way to do it, easy to explain, easy to monitor and it's fair.

There's often a misunderstanding about how fringe theatre works financially. To begin with, most fringe shows don't come close to selling out. And most fringe companies have to hire a venue. A lot of fringe venues now charge a very high rent, meaning you have to sell anything from 25% to 40% of tickets just to pay off the venue, before you even start to cover production costs. Even if you sell out a 60-seat theatre, paying a profit-share to actors becomes a lot harder when the venues hoover up so much of the ticket money. If venues charged more reasonable rents, or did box office splits as they used to do, there'd be more money to share with actors.

As for your last paragraph, who am I, who are you, who is anyone to tell a budding artist they can't train to be an actor or a producer or a director if that's what drives them? We don't live in a Stalinist centrally managed economy, nor should we. People are free to do what they want.

Most theatres could never be commercially viable. If we could only put on commercially viable work, that would reduce the amount of work available to audiences and substantially reduce its richness and diversity. And obviously public funding shouldn't help producers make a profit. I don't pay taxes to help businesspeople can get rich(er). Public money should support art.

The answer is to throw out the bathwater, not the baby with it. Don't ban profit share because some people do it badly. Establish what good profit-sharing practices are and then educate actors, directors and producers about them. Drama schools could do that very easily. Then everyone knows what they should be doing and what they should be getting and what they should expect. Then the scope for exploitation is reduced.

Report this comment

Well, the minimum wage is not in question either. Most performers are self-employed. Minimum wage regulations don't apply to self-employed people.

Robert you are oh so wrong here. Performers/actors/dancers are self employed for tax purposes only, for the purposes of the National Minimum Wage the are regarded as workers. This distinction was won in court.
Its a widely misunderstood fact, and frequently disseminated incorrectly.
More information can be obtained from Equity http://www.equity.org.uk/home/ or http://actorsminimumwage.wordpress.com/

Performers, do press your case via they union, even if you accepted a job on no pay, you can claim retrospectively as one landmark case proved in 2009 and won £2000+.
http://www.bectu.org.uk/news/548

We have had to close the comments section on this blog post. Many comments were in breach of our house rules. If you would like to continue to have your say, please email editor@thestage.co.uk. A selection of comments may be printed in a future edition of The Stage.

Recent Comments

The Stage on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
We have had to close the comments sectio...
Norm Al E. Paidforwork on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
Well, the minimum wage is not in questio...
Robert Shaw on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
Well, the minimum wage is not in questio...
bo on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
@Robert Shaw It's not Equity minimum he...
Robert Shaw on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
Sharon, No there's huge diversity is in ...
Disillusioned fellow artist on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
It's all very well all of us working for...
Sharon on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
Robert, I fail to see what is diverse ab...
Sam Robertson on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
Spot on BO. The more these guys try to c...
cmc on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
"All Mark's post and some of the catty c...
mb on Will the Cock (Up) Tavern ethos live on?....
One of the issues nobody seems to raise ...

Content is copyright © 2012 The Stage Media Company Limited unless otherwise stated.

All RSS feeds are published for personal, non-commercial use. (What’s RSS?)