Actors wanted. Two weeks at a fringe theatre. Exciting, but unpaid opportunity ...
We’ve all seen these kinds of adverts posted. Some of us may have posted them, many more applied to one. But what does this mean for pub theatres and other theatres on the fringe? Are people shirking their duties by not paying artists fairly and, by extension, treating them with a lack of respect? Or is it due to the lack of funding that fringe theatres can access at any given time? Or is this missing the point entirely, overlooking broader social and economic issues, as well as fringe theatre’s vital place in the ecology of UK theatre? London Pub Theatres has decided to look into this ever controversial and complicated topic.
Why is pay and funding an issue now?
There have been rumblings about pay, or lack of it, in London fringe theatre since it emerged in the 1970s. It seems that the issue periodically comes to the fore before retreating into background, although never fully disappearing. The debate goes something like this: there is simply not the money in fringe theatre to pay fairly in each instance versus, basically, you’re not trying hard enough.
This year we have seen a succession of attacks from Mark Shenton in The Stage on various unpaid activities in the sector. He is now refusing to review any play where the creatives are not paid. In separate articles he criticised the quality of unpaid theatre critics and, back to fringe theatre again, questioned whether productions on the fringe can even be termed ‘professional’ if the creatives are not being paid properly. He estimates that in a high profile production at a well-known pub theatre the actors were paid £7 per performance, around half the price of a ticket, a sum that is pretty sobering.
This seems to raise fundamental questions about fringe theatre, such as its financial viability and, by implication, what it is for.
How fringe theatre is funded
When you start to examine how fringe theatre is funded what is striking, as well as the paucity of stable funding, is the sheer diversity of income sources. Even looking at individual theatres’ publicised accounts, it is difficult to surmise a precise ratio of income sources, and these seem to vary across the sector. They include, in no particular order, box office receipts, local authority funding, grants from trusts and foundations, individual sponsorship and donations, Arts Council funding, and, for some smaller productions, crowd funding. It speaks of the patchwork nature and beg, steal or borrow ethos of the fringe. There is no magic money tree.
But it gets contentious when you add to that income list the unpaid time of the actors and other creatives in many instances. Because if the creatives are not being paid they are in effect subsidising the productions. As with many industries, the labour costs in theatre can be one of the main expenses. Paying creatives fairly can mean productions will cost tens of thousands. Yet if you take wages out of the equation, suddenly the sums can begin to seem more achievable.
Also fringe theatre itself is so diverse, with larger, high profile and well established venues in addition to smaller, and sometimes more transitory, spaces. Fringe is a generic term for very different entities, and pub theatres themselves can vary greatly in terms of capacity. An added complication is that there may been different funding and pay arrangements for in-house and touring productions at many venues.
There are individuals and organisations actively campaigning on this issue. The Equity campaign Professionally Made Professionally Paid launched in 2014. It argues for actors and stage managers to be paid at least the minimum wage, and cites research suggesting that 80% of fringe performers receive no pay or below the national minimum wage at some point in their careers. Yet Equity minimum appears to be far from standard practice on the fringe. What are the consequences of large numbers of creatives being unpaid or barely paid?
Living with low or no pay
Fringe theatre is not alone in having a largely unpaid or severely underpaid ‘workforce’. The culture of unpaid internships is one of the many crosses the millennial generation (roughly those currently aged between 22 and 37) have to bear. Critics say, aside from issues of exploitation, it also means such opportunities are more likely to only be viable for those who can afford to, in effect, work for free. Bankrolled by the bank of mum and dad perhaps. This is applicable to fringe theatre too. An important, but by no means exclusive, part of its contribution is providing opportunities to those learning their trade.
A particularly vociferous critic of the situation is David Loumgair. Founder of COMMON, an arts organisation which supports the UK theatre industry in achieving greater socio-economic diversity and help working-class artists build sustainable careers, as well as being the new Senior Dramaturg at the Old Red Lion Theatre. He talks about how this issue with fringe funding fits into the broader social and economic climate of British theatre. With the already limited opportunities to secure funding for fringe projects shrinking, those with access to private sources of income can fund the staging of work that helps to build up their CVs, a means of funding less attainable for those from less privileged backgrounds.
‘Unsubsidised pub and fringe theatres are living through one of the toughest cultural and economic landscapes that we as an industry have faced in recent history. I think class plays a huge part in that, and whilst it isn’t being discussed, I believe class fundamentally underpins this argument. Our fringe sector is becoming a place where those with access to private financial resources are the ones who gain the opportunities to progress their careers beyond the fringe and off-west end level. Particularly when hire fees of venues are at an all-time high.’
Whilst sympathetic to some of Shenton’s critique of lack of pay in the sector, he is pretty scathing about the lack of structural perspective being taken around this debate. The sparse funding opportunities affect not just who is performing, but the types of themes being explored on stage.
‘Early-career artists are being pushed towards private models of funding, and generally to meet the interests of private funders you have to be developing work of commercial interest. So, we can already see a change in less artistically challenging, pioneering or experimental work finding the resources to be staged on the fringe.’
David’s historical perspective is also important. Living in London is no longer as simple as it was for creatives thirty or even twenty years ago. Rents have gone through the roof, as we all know. Other changes, such as an increasingly hard regime for job seekers allowance, exacerbates matters. Gone are the days where it was simple to sign on the ‘dole’ between jobs. If a drastic intervention does not happen, and soon, he believes that some fringe theatres may disappear altogether in five years’ time.
Not just about the money? The role of fringe in UK theatre
The creative team at another pub theatre were equally concerned about this issue, whilst also highlighting the opportunities fringe provides:
‘This is a problem that stretches across many industries, not just theatre. It’s a problem that is exacerbated by rising living costs in London, and a reduction of paid work opportunities and funding in the arts. But fringe is one area of theatre where it is still possible to work, for at least some money, at refining your art.’
They argue that low pay on the fringe is symptomatic of wider phenomena.
‘The situation of young people, elitism and lack of equal opportunities needs to be dealt with on a much larger scale and at a higher level. The lack of money on the fringe is a symptom of these problems, not a cause thereof.’
Despite the lack of funding, fringe theatre can provide the space for more diverse creatives. With mainstream theatre failing miserably in terms of engaging female, working-class, black and minority ethnic, and LGBTQI creatives, there is a space for some of these artists to create work on the fringe. Interestingly Shenton said he would make exceptions to his reviewing ban if productions were genuinely collaborative ventures (such as profit share). The fringe venue I spoke to emphasised this role of fringe providing a platform for marginalised voices:
‘Any voice or movement that operates underground or on the ‘fringes’ of society has always struggled to be heard… There is a lack of diverse and equal opportunities in mainstream theatre and it’s usually the same voices heard time and time again telling their stories. The fringe theatre circuit is where many people find the freedom of expression they don’t have elsewhere.’
What can be done?
There is not an easy solution to funding and the related pay gap in pub theatres and fringe theatre more generally. Should the audience pay more, or would that put them off? Should plays where creatives are unpaid, or have low pay, be clearly marketed as such in the name of transparency? It is difficult to know which of these might help or exacerbate the situation. A Shenton style boycott has limitations, because as Loumgair points out, it will just mean that mainly those from privileged backgrounds will dominate the industry even more. One thing is clear. If creatives do not start to get paid more there is a danger that a generation of talent will be lost. The situation is not caused by, or unique to, fringe, but it should remain at the forefront of people’s minds whilst those elusive funding sources are pursued.
Andrew Curtis is a playwright who regularly has plays performed in London fringe theatre. He graduated from three cohorts of the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme.
@July 2018 London Pub Theatres
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