This month Spotlight is hosting a consultation with its members, both actors and casting professionals alike, on the much discussed “low pay/no pay” debate.
In recent years a culture of internships has become the norm in a number of British industries. Having struggled their way through three years of higher education (and now paying £27,000 in tuition fees for the privilege), university graduates are commonly expected to then volunteer in their chosen sector for an indeterminate amount of time until they have sufficient experience to progress to paid work.
Such poorly paid positions are often thought to be vital exposure for a fresh face in the industry and a valid way into projects of a higher profile, but, for a lot of us, working for nothing is simply not an option. I’ve never been able to afford it. My only foray into the London fringe was in 2011 when I undertook a profit share production with a group of fellow graduates. In this instance I had to save the money from six months of hard touring to pay my way through it, and I only took it on as I felt the material and production team were of a bankable quality. The company’s accounts were clearly made available to all involved so we were assured that we would be receiving an equal share of the profits. However, many actors are not treated in this way. Taking on a fringe production is often nothing short of a gamble for a young actor: they have no creative control, the shows are often under-rehearsed, and the production is usually reviewed early in the run before the piece has had a chance to settle. There is never a guarantee of it leading to any further work and the (very poor) majority of actors end up working overtime at day jobs to fund such endeavours. Alternatively, to some, the option of performing in a profit share piece is an elitist thing, available only to actors with rich benefactors to fund it.
Above all though, it is thoroughly unfair that actors are always the last people to be paid in these arrangements. Because producers know that so many actors out there are desperate to perform, they are certain to find those who will work for free. They end up paying the director, the designer, the venue etc. and leaving only the actors to work for nothing. This is unacceptable. We are highly trained professionals in a skilled, competitive industry and we deserve to be valued just as much as anyone else. It’s bad business sense to give something away for free, and acting for free devalues us all as performers. For this reason it is especially upsetting to hear that many producers make a lot of money out of not paying their talent properly. The Menier Chocolate Factory is a venue I’ve heard accused of this, despite the fact that it sells out regularly and a lot of its shows transfer (Mark Shenton wrote a brilliant piece in the Stage about this). In these circumstances to refuse to pay a living wage is nothing less than exploitation.
Theatre is a heavily subsidised industry and cuts have hit us all hard. There is an argument that exciting new work is generated on the fringe and we would miss this if creatives weren’t prepared to offer their services free of charge, but I believe it is only by Equity and Spotlight members standing together that we can stamp out this kind of manipulation. We need the government to make a bigger investment in this country’s theatre, which is not only (let’s face it) the best theatre in the world, but pays its investment back twice over into the UK economy every year. It is also of utmost importance that we continue to campaign for Equity Minimum Wage for all performers across the board. This requires something of a leap of faith for all those that rely on low pay/no pay work to get a foot on the ladder, but one we all have to make together, a bold new commitment to stand strong and learn to value ourselves more highly.