One of the comments I get a lot on Twitter is “I wish I had your job”. Yes, I go to see a lot of theatre — and not just in London — for free. And no, it’s not exactly a hardship; I will freely admit I love it. (Thank God; I don’t think you could see the amount of theatre I do and not love it. As Penny Arcade, the brilliant New York performance artist tweeted about me just the the other day, “Mark Shenton a theatre critic who LOVES theatre now there’s an idea whose time has come!”)
Yes, I probably could (and should!) get a “real” job; and I’m starting to think that that time could be approaching faster than I’d like.
Just last week I blogged here about music critic Edward Seckerson’s sudden resignation from The Independent; and in a public reply about his departure on Norman Lebrecht’s blog published on Sunday, he wrote, “I have been overwhelmed with messages of goodwill since the announcement of my departure from the Independent a week ago. Many have expressed concern that this has been a significant financial loss for me. Let me put the record straight. When I was brought on to the paper over 20 years ago by the then Arts Editor Thomas Sutcliffe (and his was one of the most touching messages received this week) I was offered a ‘preferential’ rate of £150 per review to become Opera critic - no contract, no retainer, just the preferential rate. On my departure I was 40% down from that rate to £90 per review which is now what all the arts reviewers on the Independent receive.”
His fee, of course, was dependent on actually filing two reviews a week; but with the pressures of space, he pointed out, “In congested weeks that could drop to one or none without compensation for late cancellation. Expenses were grudgingly honoured in only certain circumstances and sustenance at somewhere like Glyndebourne was not covered at all. Imagine how that was eating into the £90 fee.”
I’ve recently heard of another broadsheet national paper paying a freelance theatre critic £60 a review. That means that even if this critic was to file 5 reviews a week, they’d be on £300 a week. It starts to look like being an actor even on Equity Minimum is earning a fortune. Of course, not all actors earn even that when they work in the theatre, especially the fringe. And I suppose the same argument applies to journalists as it does to them: no one’s forcing them to do it. We are paid our money (such as it is) and make our choices.
Union protection in journalism, as it is amongst many sectors of what’s called the acting “profession”, is a thing of the past. The fact that so many people want to act, just as so many people want to write about those acting, has driven the price down. Producers and publishers partly pay what they can afford, of course, but also what they can get away with.
A fringe theatre with just 45 seats can’t make a lot of money, just as a paper like The Independent with an ever-dwindling readership faces the same challenge. But fringe theatres charging a top price of up to £20 can still take around £1000 a performance. When that gets distributed back to the actors as £50 a week expenses, in many cases, there are clearly a lot of overheads, royalties or salaries being paid elsewhere.
Now I’m not saying that those theatres are exactly swimming in funds (though I’ve heard of another profit-share fringe theatre where drinks at the Groucho for the executive staff got put on expenses). And even oligarch newspaper proprietors have to watch their roubles. Alexander Lebedev may have famously paid just a £1 to buy the Independent from its former owners (less than the cover price now being charged), but even with a reported fortune of $1.1billion, paying arts journalists comes low on the priority list.
The truth is we’re an expendable breed, because of course we’re an ever-expandable one, too. There’ll always be bodies to take our place.