The Big Question: Should Creatives Work For Free?

Fourthwall editor JBR (pictured below, centre) was joined at The Actors Centre in Spring 2011 by (L-R) Ryan Forde Iosco (actor and Chair of Equity Young Members Committee), James Quaife (producer and project manager for Old Vic/New Voices), Thomas Hescott (freelance Director) and  Lisa Cagnacci (Director and Artistic Associate at Southwark Playhouse). The purpose was to debate and discuss an issue of pressing importance in the industry.  The following is the complete transcript of their discussion.

JBR: Good afternoon, I’m JBR and I’m hosting THE BIG QUESTION at The Actors Centre in London. With me are; Lisa Cagnacci, Director and Artistic Director at Southwark Playhouse, Tom Hescott, Freelance Director, Ryan Forde Iosco, Actor and Chair of Equity Young Members Committee and James Quaife, Producer and Project Manager for Old Vic/New Voices. I’m just going to outline the procedure for this afternoon. We’re going to introduce the topic and I’ll get a very quick, thirty second, response from each of you.

A note on terminology. It’s going to be fine to use the word actors or creatives and we will take that as referring to all actors and all creatives. Similarly don’t get bogged down with gender, using language like him/her at all times. Him will be fine, and we’ll assume that no-one will take offence at that.

So, a quick response –

Should creatives be prepared to work for free?

LC: Yes, they should, but I think we need to make sure it’s done in a sensible way and no-one is profiteering off their work and their work is going to be helpful to them.

TH:Absolutely never should any artist, actor, or anyone work for free. Working for free suggests that the project hasn’t been thought through and no time has been put into thinking about who the project is for, and who it could benefit, so I never think it’s a good idea.

RFI: If the project is in a creative vein, yes, but again, if anyone is profiting from it and the actors walk away with nothing then, when the creative team can be, definitely not.

JQ: Yes, I think they should sort of be prepared to work for no cost or little cost really, particularly at the beginning of their career and also throughout. It depends where the project is, the venue, and whether, as we are particularly saying here, if it’s of commercial value and there’s a profit being made off the production.

JBR: OK, so we have some different opinions there. What I’d like to pick up on is the Equity official position on this, because I know from talking to people in theatres, and in the industry that there is a little bit of confusion on this. So, Ryan, perhaps you’d like to, just briefly, outline Equity’s official position on this.

LC: £5.83

RFI: £5.83.  Thank you, it’s been changed recently. However, as creatives we fall into an odd category, and can be missed out. Equity had this brought up to the last council meeting, the one before I was standing on, or sitting on should I say? And they immediately threw it out. They don’t think that people should, they believe people should have the choice to do what they feel is right for themselves and their career. They don’t think it’s right to say “you’re not allowed to do this” to someone. But there are different talks going on.

JBR: Is that what everybody else understands with Equity’s position on this?

TH: It’s what I understand the position to be, and I agree that Equity doesn’t, I don’t think you need a blanket ban on working for free, but if any young actor, director, writer, came to me just out of drama school and said “I’ve got this gig for free, what do you think?” My advice probably would be “don’t do it.” I think there’s this big myth in theatre that we have to pay our dues, we have to work for nothing, and it’s a myth that I fell into for years and years and years and what I notice is, there’s a whole group of people who came out of drama school who said “actually I don’t want to work for free,” and they got the paid work. For five years, I took lots of work, with very prestigious companies, as unpaid assistant, and jobs like that. And one day, I thought “I just can’t afford to do this.” I stopped taking that work and by actively stopping myself from taking that work, I freed myself up to then take paid work. It meant I had more time to write to people for paid work, I had more time to set up proper meetings, and it meant that I started to take myself seriously in a way that meant other people started to take me seriously. But I needed to stop taking unpaid work in order to get paid work.

JBR: Do you think young actors see unpaid work as an opportunity or as a requirement then?

TH: I think they do, but it’s a myth.

LC: I think they do. (to TH) I’d question how much paid work you would have got if you hadn’t done that five years of unpaid work. I guess that is a hypothetical question one can’t answer. I think it’s very difficult for people to jump, actually maybe it’s different for directors, to jump into paid work if they haven’t done unpaid work in order to showcase themselves. I think it’s very difficult. I think if actors aren’t lucky enough to get an agent straight out of their drama school showcase they need some kind of unpaid work, probably, to showcase themselves and get an agent.

RFI: I think, from an actors standpoint, that a lot of unpaid work is actually completely detrimental to their career.

LC: Yes, it can be pointless.

RFI: I think there are some really great venues that you can go into and you can do fringe work or Off-West End work. However, I think there is a myth surrounding people saying that any job is better than no job. However, I disagree with that.

LC: Yes

RFI: Anyone that has purely bad fringe on their CV – you wouldn’t see them.

LC: Yes, there are unpaid jobs that you shouldn’t do because there’s no point.

RFI: Yes.

LC: You should only be doing a job if it’s helping you get somewhere, if it’s work that you want to be doing with people who are doing quality work.

JBR: So, in that sense, it can be an opportunity? Tom, you took a season to Brits on Broadway, Lisa you have the name of Southwark Playhouse behind you, James you have connections with Old Vic/New Voices. I can imagine, working for you three, there’s a certain cache, a certain kudos to that. Is that an opportunity for an actor, or should we turn those down?

TH: You’d never work for me for no money. You’d work for me for very, very little money, on a project with me. And that was the same years ago when I was working as an Assistant Director at Southwark Playhouse, we always paid something. My feeling is, and I agree you can work for very, very little money on a project that you believe in, the cause of the project, or you believe it will be a good showcase. My feeling is if the project is not paying, it probably won’t be a good showcase. Because it probably means that somewhere along the line, someone hasn’t thought through the project. So someone’s gone “There’s a lot of homophobic bullying in schools, I think a play would really tackle this well, let’s put it on at the Kings Head Theatre, and I’ve got just about enough money to cover the rent of the theatre.”

By the way, when we talk about people profiting, that theatre is getting paid, their staff are getting paid, not very much, but they’re getting paid, the press rep you take out, they’re getting paid, the technical person the theatre insists you bring in is getting paid, so, just the actors and the creatives not getting paid? When we talk about who’s profiting from it? There are always people profiting from a show, somewhere along the line.

If that person who said “I really want to do this play about homophobic bullying” then started to think it through and then maybe talked to Stonewall and Stonewall went “Oh yes, we want to get involved although actually we think it would be better as a DVD, maybe you could create a short film, here’s a few thousand pounds to create that short film.” Well, that’s just about enough money to pay my people a certain amount of money. The project’s being thought through, the project is working for the audience it’s meant to be for.

The moment it’s not paid, I suspect someone along the line hasn’t thought who they’re trying to do it for, where’s the audience for that, and talked to people who might have money or more experience or just sort of, boundaries that will help that project grow. It’s always circumnavigated an important part of the business plan, which is what you have done when the actors aren’t getting paid.

JBR: Ok, yeah, there is an issue with that, but back to this idea of actors choosing to work for free, and that’s an important distinction that we make, we often choose to work for someone because of the kudos and the cache of the name attached to the project. Lisa?

LC: Well, at this point in my career, if you were working for me, you’d be doing it on an Equity fringe contract and getting National Minimum Wage only, which is what the actors on the contract are getting. Earlier in my career you would have been working for me for free. And I think, I have had people who have got agents from the showcase of working with me, and have got further paid work through that. And certainly I think, just on an artistic level, I think young actors who have worked with me, I’ve seen them develop and I think in part, the process of doing productions has helped that. You can’t sort of go, “I’m not going to exercise my art without getting paid”, because it’s like a musician saying “I’m not going to practice scales” in a way. There’s an element of sort of needing to keep in tune. I think if you can’t get paid work, unpaid work can still help you to battle with your personal concerns as an artist, help you to develop what you’re doing. I think you learn by doing and I think young artists do need to learn. None of us can sort of go, “I’m done now, I don’t need to know anything more, it’s not worth it for me to do the work.”

JBR: James, where do you stand on this?

JQ: I think there’s a knowledge that the actor needs to have, of when they are going for the job, as profit-share or no fee, or that sort of thing. I agree with what’s been said, there should be some fee for the actor, whether it’s fifty pound a week, whether it’s something for their travel. I don’t think they should work for absolutely nothing because there is indeed, tickets coming in, and as has been said, the venue is making money.
I think when there’s absolutely no money you need to go “I’m not going to do this” really. But there’s a knowledge for the actor, but also for the creatives as well, who will probably be working for free – about who they’re working with, where can this show go, and the venue and building up your CV because there are very few actors which can walk straight into the RSC and get a job or straight into the Old Vic and get a job. There’s getting those networking things going on and meeting other people.
But you’ve got to look at some fringe shows that have started off in small venues and then have gone straight into the West End. And they have worked for nothing, or a small fee, they have trusted the show, believed in it, had a passion for it and then a couple of months later it’s in the West End. You can sort of see Plague Over England that was at the Finborough, I don’t know the financial constraints with that show, but when it went into the West End it was run by a commercial producer and I hope, and would expect, that the actors would then have been on a commercial wage, which is what should happen.

JBR: Ryan, as our actor in the group, how do you view it? Is it an opportunity, or is it a requirement coming out of drama school these days?

RFI: I was very lucky when I graduated drama school, and until, well, still currently, I’m quite lucky in that I sort of bounce around the industry. I do acting and musical theatre and I’m quite lucky in that respect. I wouldn’t do fringe personally. I’ve done Off-West End once because as I said to you earlier, Josh, it was an incredible production with an incredible team and an incredible task. That is worth it for me, and I actually changed agents because of that, to an agent I’ve been wanting for a couple of years. However, I don’t do fringe now, and if something says unpaid I won’t send off for it usually, unless there’s someone attached to it who I really want to work with and I really believe in the project.

TH: Was the fringe, was the Off-West End project that you did, was there any money attached to it? Did you get anything?

RFI: We got a little bit, yeah. But not a huge amount.

TH: See, I think a little bit, but not a huge amount, I completely buy into. It’s when it’s nothing that I have an issue.

LC: But is ‘a little bit’ travel expenses? Or is it more than that?

RFI: I’d say, if a project…there are some projects I think where a name can be good, and the team can be lovely to work with, and the cast in the end can be incredible, however they’ll be offering travel expenses, and I know for a fact, and probably all the other actors do as well, that they are making profit over that. I personally refuse to send off to that as well, because I don’t agree with that.

JBR: That’s a different issue entirely…

RFI: Yeah

JBR:…and we could probably have another Big Question about that. What’s the actors responsibility in this? I mean, I heard from somebody who said categorically, actors who accept unpaid work are devaluing their profession and their training.

LC: Well…hmm. Interesting. I can see the argument, I can appreciate the argument. I think if we all thought like that there would be a fraction of the amount of theatre on in London today that there is.

TH: But the quality would be so much better.

LC: I’m not sure about that. I’ve seen some fantastic, fantastic work that people have been doing for very little money…

TH:. Very little money is different to no money.

LC: OK. Well, I don’t always know when I see a fringe show what exactly the set up is, but let’s say at least for probably not much more than travel expenses. And I’ve seen some really, you know, heavily funded shows, obtained Arts Council funding, funding around a particular issue that really have left me quite cold, and perhaps haven’t been performed with a tenth of the skill. So I really, I don’t, I think it’s dangerous to say, that something will automatically attract money to something or it isn’t worth doing. In my experience I’ve not seen that be true.

RFI: I know people who have put on incredibly creative productions, which at the end of the day is what I think a lot of the fringe is about, or should be about. Who have had no money, who have lost money from it. I know one company who had interest from Tim Burton, who actually asked to use some of their ideas in Alice in Wonderland. They made no profit from any of this, but they were doing it for love of the art.

LC: The Factory for example is a company that I love, I think they have a very intelligent set-up, in that multiple actors are playing each part so that if an actor gets a paid job and needs to go they can go, there’s ways to cover it. And, you know, but I thought their productions of The Seagull and Hamlet were exciting and thrilling and wonderful and were produced with no expenditure. You know, just, literally, people coming together on their nights to do it just out of love for it, I think there’s real value to that and it was wonderful.

JBR: James, when does it become a producer’s responsibility, moral or otherwise, to pay your actors?

JQ: I think as soon, well actually, as soon as the show starts making a profit…

LC: Absolutely.

JQ: …absolutely. Everyone, including actors and creatives should get a share of that. Which often happens on Off-West End, in the fringe, if it’s a profit share show with travel expenses. And I have done that, and the last show I did made a profit and everyone got something from that and it was great. And I think, as soon as, if the show transfers into a West End theatre that is purposefully there for a commercial value, that again everyone should be. Then it changes to Equity and you have to be on Equity minimum, everyone has to be on the correct fees because that show is then being publicised as a commercial venture and there’s more tickets coming through.
But it is so hard to make money on Off-West End or fringe because a lot of the venues will have such small seating capacity that you can only charge a certain amount for the tickets so you’re probably going to make a loss anyway on some shows that you look at. Otherwise you’re going to end up doing one-man, two hander shows which, for me, can start to get a bit boring. I like to work with big casts, big lavish sets, really put on a big production. But if I was to pay everyone Equity rates, I couldn’t do that and I couldn’t produce. I couldn’t sort of get a company going, and then I couldn’t get trust in investors to invest in bigger shows to then employ those actors on proper wages.

JBR: So in a sense, as a producer, you are providing a service to actors?

JQ: At the moment, I am, yes. I’m also providing a service to myself to get shows on my CV, build up my company, and giving the opportunity for other actors to do the same but it’s always completely down to their choice. I’ve never had to force an actor. You know, I’ve even had agents, when we do, you know, you send out the casting breakdown, agents will still send actors even though they know it’s a profit share or for no money. And you look at the fringe, there’s some big stars that are doing it, and they’re not on, well, not that I know of, they’re not on full pay as well.

JBR: Would the fringe survive if Equity ruled to pay all actors a minimum wage?

TH: No

LC: No. My venue would close immediately.

TH: Yeah.

LC: There aren’t enough companies out there who can afford to pay that wage, to come in. And we sit, (to JQ) like you were saying, we seat 140. Now I think there’s a problem, either ticket prices would become completely beyond the reach of anyone or the venue would close because you can’t, you can’t make it back on a sort of £13, 140 seater and pay Equity rates.

TH: Or, we’d start to look at a different way of running our fringe theatres. Fringe theatres used to be ‘found’ spaces, where there was, there was such low rents that you could go in and the money you were making on the box office paid for the show. And again, I go back to the fact that we’re talking about paying no money, I’m all for things where everyone comes out with something, however low that is, but where we’re talking about paying nothing, that’s where I’m disagreeing. My problem is that you get, a fringe theatre will take at least a thousand pounds a week, most of them will take a bit more than that…

LC: Yes

TH: …any good reputable theatre is probably taking, some of the big theatres I’ve worked at recently, two to two and half thousand. And then if you go to the really great ones, maybe three thousand a week. That’s why it is impossible for a fringe producer, or an Off-West End producer to make money on that show, because the landlords are taking as much money as, in the old days, the theatres were that created the fringe.

LC: I have to tell you though, that if I look at the ones, I mean, that I know the books of, those theatres aren’t making money.

TH: No they’re not making money but..

LC: They’re actually losing money, to be fair.

TH:.. they’re often covering the very small wages, and when I talk about, I mean knowing, I know that nobody in these theatres are millionaires because of it.

LC: Yeah.

TH: But there are staff there who are able to be paid, because of the, because that fringe theatre is taking in a rent.

LC: That’s true.

TH: And then that theatre is probably passing on some money to a landlord who’s getting money from it.

LC: Yes. I mean you do get some, like say The Finborough, that’s staffed almost entirely by volunteers.

TH: Very few.

RFI: But I think…

TH: And also The Finborough usually works off a box office split…

LC: Yes…

TH: …that pays their rent.

LC: …but they’re tiny! They’ve got so few seats.

JQ: They’ve got fifty seats and I’ve done four shows there and never done box office split there.

TH: Oh, really? OK.

JQ: And as far as I’m aware all the staff are completely volunteers.

TH: Yeah, they are.

JQ: Including the General Manager. No-one gets paid.

RFI: To be fair as well, out of some of these venues, these fringe venues that have good names attached, we, an actor, can get an agent to, or can get a director to, or a producer, or something like that, if you bring it in to, you know, a warehouse in East London, no-one will come,

LC: That’s the problem.

RFI: …you will not have the creative people…

TH: Shunt?

RFI: Yeah, Shunt is very different – it’s a name!

TH: Punchdrunk?

JQ: Yeah, completely different type of theatre.

RFI: Again, it’s a name. Punchdrunk is really a name.

TH: But it wasn’t when it started. Punchdrunk started straight away, started creating this work, never once went into a venue and started paying for it, always created this work. Admittedly it’s different, but there’s a very interesting mentoring thing that Improbable ran, at Christmas, about companies, and all the companies there – there was Shunt, there was Unlimited Theatre, there was a whole range, there was Blind Summit. There was a whole range of companies, all doing very interesting work, and they all said that what made them form their company was that they went to one of these big Off-West End or fringe theatres, I won’t name any of them specifically, but there was a whole range of them, and they all went and they all virtually bankrupted themselves trying to pay the rents and cover the costs and things like that, and so they all found different ways. Unlimited Theatre, as a point of principle, won’t go to a venue that requires a rent, they will only go to a venue, and this is when they very first started in the early 90’s, they would go to University theatres and Arts Centres that would give them a guaranteed box office split.

LC: Yes, and in regional touring you can do that, that is an option.

TH: And that is open, to any drama school graduate or any University graduate who says “I want to set up a company”, those spaces are desperate for work. You could easily set up, with a bit of work, easily set up a very small tour and even make enough money to come in to somewhere like the Leicester Square studio for a week. That’s what I mean, those sort of routes are available to people, and it’s a kind of…it’s the fact that people don’t think outside the box and they think “I really want to put on a play, I’ll go to that fringe theatre, that theatre above a pub, I’ll spend a thousand pounds a week renting it, I won’t pay anyone else, I’ll give myself a nervous breakdown because I’ve banked everything I’ve got on it, I’ll create bad work, and then I’ll be broke at the end of it” as opposed to going “This piece could work, I could pay the actors £50 a show, we’ll only run at the weekends. It’s not much money but it’s £50 – at eight shows a week that would be £400. So they get £50 a show, whenever we’ve got a slot in the University or something, we’ll run it, we’ll get a bit of profit from each of those shows which means we can bring it to London for a week.”

JBR: I’m wondering then if the problem is in creative producing…

LC: You need a producer, that’s the ideal.

JBR: …if we are not producing producers who know this kind of stuff and who can come up with imaginative ways of putting shows on. James? Where do you think producers come into this?

JQ: I think that is a way of looking at doing it and it’s a very amazing, different type of theatre. It’s not something for me, that I want to really do, I don’t think it’s bad, but I am very much a commercial producer that is looking to make my mark on theatre and in the West End, and have shows go in to the West End to make a profit.
So, I think, you look at the fringe venues, and it’s about getting that press down there, it’s about getting those names attached to the shows, it’s about making them popular and it’s about picking that show that you think is going to sell and it’s about picking that venue that’s had good work coming through it. If you’re clever in the show that you pick, the cast that you pick, the creative team that you pick, a show can make profit on Off-West End and on fringe. It can be done and you’ve just got to be clever about it, and look at, you know people will do things for not much money, people will build set for free, all those different things, and as a young producer, I’m always sort of saying to them, hopefully when I’m doing big shows with lots of money, I will go back to those people, people that built those sets for me, and I have done, I’ve had shows where I’ve had a big budget and have gone back to companies that have supported young producers and there are a lot of lighting companies, set companies which will support young producers.

JBR: One of the questions that’s come through on this, and which worries me slightly, and this is a question that came through on the twitter feed, is that some theatres, it is simply prohibitively expensive to put on a show there. How can we ensure that the profit from a successful show is not immediately swallowed up by the costs of putting a show on?

LC: You mean, literally, as in the venue rental cost?

JBR: I mean the whole cost of putting a show on…

LC: Yeah?

JBR: …is sometimes more than the profit that will be made from the show.

LC: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JBR: How can we allow this?

LC: I think, if I think about my venue, I mean salaries are a huge chunk of the costs. I think if you’re not paying salaries I think the venue hire is probably the biggest chunk of your cost if you’re doing a show in London. And I don’t know – I’m sorry – I started talking as if I had some great thing to impart! I really don’t, it’s difficult. I mean looking at it from the point of view of the venue, of the Health & Safety stuff you need to have in place, of the insurance, of the Front of House staffing, of the Box Office provision etc., etc., etc. I don’t know how you bring that cost down, apart from using a found space and as we know, there’s issues about, you know, press and people not going.

TH: But also not necessarily just using a found space, but, as I say, the Arts Centre/Regional Touring is open to all…

LC: Yes. Outside London, yes.

TH: …and it means that you can do the sort of plays that James, you’re saying, you know you can do sort of more traditional plays that have a commercial life as opposed to the Shunt experience, you know something like that, and you can, by building up a tour like that be able to afford…

LC: Yes

TH: …bringing it in to a London space where you can get the press, the kudos…

LC: Exactly

TH:…and the people in.

LC: Well…

TH: My thing is that you do need to start, we are now in the age of the producer, and the difficulty is that there’s a whole load of directors out there going “I’ve thought of a show, I’ve pretty much cast it, I’ve got a great designer on board, ooh! I need to find a producer now!” And what we need to start doing is building up the relationships with young producers like yourself (to JQ) before we think of the show we want to do…

LC: (agreeing) Mmmm.

TH:…because what producers tend to, you have your own ideas…

JQ: Yeah.

TH: …you don’t want to be our fundraiser. We need to start building up those relationships with young producers like we do with young actors, like we do with young designers, and also thinking of what that role of a producer is, because it doesn’t always need to be ‘a producer’, you can find different ways of producing a show without having somebody in that role, depending on what the project is.

JBR: I want to take this back to the actor now, because we’ve got three incredibly creative people here who have these wonderful ideas about putting on shows in found spaces, but we have an actor here who has said earlier that he wouldn’t do Off-West End, so where are you going to find these actors if this is the mindset that we have. I do understand it completely.

RFI: It’s not even so much that, I mean, all three of you I’d be very happy to work with, and it’s quite obvious that you’re all legit and not…I think the majority of the fringe, I think there’s so many dodgy people…

LC: There are. Make no mistake.

TH: Absolutely.

JQ: Yes

RFI: …that are trying to take the mick out of actors, mainly, and who are walking in as director/producers that have never done anything. And I think that’s actually the problem with the fringe, I don’t think it’s the people who are bringing this whole creative element and that once they proceed and move further in their career that they will then help the people that they originally used. I don’t think that’s the problem. I think these, kind of dodgy people, who are just there to take advantage and to kind of be a bit egotistical. I think those are the people that are in the wrong.

LC: Actors need to be very, very careful. Personally, I wouldn’t counsel an actor never to take an unpaid job but I would say, “only think about it if you’re absolutely confident that you’re going to gain from working with this person, that they really know what they’re doing” And I mean, I think, if you go in for an audition for a job as an unpaid actor, you should be sussing out that director every bit as much as they are looking at you, and you should be really checking you know, how they speak to you, what kind of notes or direction they give to you during the audition, which they should do, and that should give you a sense of how that person works, whether they know their stuff, you know you need to be really careful. You’ve got to look at the script, see if the script is worth doing, you’ve got to be really sure that the whole job is worth doing.

JBR: I’m sorry, I’m going to bounce this back to Ryan again…

LC: Do.

JBR: …and ask you to put on your other hat and say how are Equity protecting us from these charlatans and people out there who are exploiting actors, and we all know them.

RFI: This is something that Equity is trying to do. Unfortunately, unless someone comes up and says “This person is taking advantage”, Equity can’t do anything. So actually what people need to do is stand up and say “Actually, I’ve been treated badly” which everyone goes “I’m far too scared to, what if this guy who actually, you know, runs this supermarket, becomes the new RSC director?” It’s not going to happen. People need to have less fear to move forward, and that’s actually the problem, there’s too much fear in this industry now.

TH: We also don’t need to accept the status quo. Once upon a time actors were expected to work for no money during rehearsals, and they had to provide two suits, one dinner…one black tie and one informal suit and that was part of your deal. Now you know, it was so all actors, so wardrobe would just go “Oh, would you wear your dinner jacket in this scene.”

JBR: (laughing) That’s an extraordinary kind of theatre!

general laughter

LC: That’s what it was!

TH: That’s what it was, that’s completely post war Britain, that is how it was. We had to provide, actors had to provide, certain costumes themselves, and they didn’t get paid in rehearsals. Opera singers often still don’t get paid in rehearsals, it’s a different way of paying, it’s a different pay structure.
At the time when actors fought to get paid in rehearsals, all producers, all theatrical management went “We will not be able to survive.” And yet theatre thrives still. And it continues to thrive. We fought that, and we won. Just as now, we say, you know, if we started bringing in a minimum wage for the fringe, we’d kill the fringe.
We’d kill the fringe in the current form, we’d create a different fringe, that gives a different set of opportunities and works in a different way. It would be, you know, kill a whole lot of venues now, and a whole load of different venues with a different business structure would spring up in its place, because they always do.

JBR: James, are you convinced by this argument?

JQ: I don’t know if I could carry, if there was this minimum wage brought in, I don’t know if I could carry on, possibly, but then as I’m saying it, I’m thinking “I’m sure there’s a creative way to do actually that” and it comes down to the show you pick, can you get sponsorship for that; there are ways to get money. I’ve done shows with investors before on the fringe, and I’ve done shows where you can spot an advertisement opportunity and there are ways of getting money in. (to TH) I just, I do kind of agree with you that it will start up a new thing, but we are, it’s so hard to put stuff on at the moment, there are lots of cuts happening, venues are struggling.

TH: This is the best time for the fringe because, you know, this is the best point for this to happen. Major subsidised theatres and even smaller subsidised theatres have this massive problem that they’re reliant on a subsidy which is, which is very uncertain all of a sudden. But we’re in a position where more and more people are going to the theatre than ever before, because that always happens around a recession. This is a very good time for small start up businesses, effectively, that have very few overheads, that aren’t you know a very established company that has an office space, that has a rehearsal space, that has all those things they need to pay are really going to struggle because they don’t have that flexibility in the budgets. It’s a very good time for young producers and young actors to actually circumnavigate some of that bureaucracy and get some really good work on.

JBR: Ryan you’ve been trying to get in for a second?

TH: Sorry.

RFI: I think what we’re forgetting as well though is the collaborative element. There are, I know people, a friend of mine who has done a lot of TV and left Waterloo Road not that long ago who did Old Vic/New Voices. They all got together, they just put a production on at Theatre Souk. I think we can’t forget that as well, we can’t forget actors being creative. And for us then to go “Oh, actually, you must be on Equity minimum as well” – can’t happen. So I don’t think we can enforce that, I don’t think we can do that to the fringe.

LC: A lot of work comes from actors. I’ve been hired by actors to direct them in a fringe show before…

RFI: Yeah I think that’s really important.

LC: …because a group of actors got together and budget and produced it. Actors do generate some of our work.

RFI: I think, definitely.

LC: (agreeing) Mmmm.

RFI: I think to put out a blanket “You must pay Equity minimum on the fringe” Would kill that element and that is so important.

TH: You talk about actors working, the reason that I mentioned the sort of small scale touring around arts centres is because there was a very good version of this, I think it was a production of Bouncers. I particularly have no interest in the idea of Bouncers, but it was a show, but a group of actors wanted to do Bouncers, they could, and they had a little bit of money that they got together.
They could have taken that production and done it at Hen & Chickens or something like that. What they did was they toured it around and then they brought it into town, they did it for a week in town, they all got the agents along to see it, they all got the agent that they wanted from it, because it was a good showcase for them, and they all got paid, because they’d taken it to venues with the £400 guarantee, or whatever the guarantee was. It was exactly the same as a group of actors going “We really want to do this show, let’s go to the Hen & Chickens,” but they just did it in a different way. They didn’t need a producer to do it.

JBR: OK, I’m going to, we’re moving into the last few minutes of this now. If actors do have to work without pay, and I think we’ve all agreed that there are always going to be actors who work without pay, or feel that they want to or choose to, how do we arrange the conditions of the work so as to lessen the burden on them? Lisa?

LC: I would love to see a situation where if someone is working without pay, the work is structured in such a way that they can support themselves. I think we’ve all had the experience if you’ve worked with actors who are working on the fringe for no money, with people who are actually temping during the day and going in to perform at night, you know, which is very hard-working of them, I’m really in admiration of it.
But I think the danger of this no pay culture is cutting off economically the opportunity for some people to act, and to be creative. It’s sort of saying “if you haven’t got financial resource behind you, you can’t do it.” I think that’s a huge problem, I think we need to make a way for people to support themselves while they do this, and I think, maybe, should we be thinking about rehearsing at night so people can work during the day? Should we maybe be thinking about longer rehearsal periods so people can do various bits and bobs to fit around? I think people need to be able to do other paid work if they’re taking unpaid creative work. I think that’s really important.

TH: Wouldn’t it just be easier not to do the unpaid work?

LC: It would, it would. But I’m not…you’re very persuasive but I’m not sure that what you’re saying is viable.

JBR: The question was “how do we lessen the burden?”

LC: So, if it’s not viable, what do we do?

TH: This is the trouble. You can’t lessen the burden if someone has to earn a living. What we’d create, if we continued to support unpaid work, what we’d create is a world where rich kids get to act. That’s absolutely what we’d create. Because no-one else can afford to.

LC: But…

RFI: I don’t agree with that. I know lots of actors that do fringe work, that work for a period of time, solely to do something. I think what we need to do is not actually look at the funding aspect so much, I think it’s about killing these dodgy people that are putting productions on. It’s about safeguarding…

JBR: Killing? Actually killing them?

RFI: (laughing) Not actually killing them.

LC: Bloodshed!

RFI: Not actually killing them, not taking a machete.

JBR: Is that an official Equity line?

(general laughter)

RFI: No.

LC: Well I think we should think about things like you know, paying people what you can afford to pay them. Because there’s a huge amount of difference between paying someone £50 a week, and not, when that person’s working on a low budget. I think we should think about, as I’ve said, unusual rehearsal times, weekends, evenings, around peoples work schedule. I think we should think about really simple things like, you know, bringing in lunch for people. I mean honestly, you get some actors who are on a really, really low budget. It all helps.

RFI: But I think this is only going to affect a certain number of actors, there are people lower down, that might be incredibly talented, that can’t get there. And I think, again, it’s about quashing this fear that the industry seems to ‘withhold’ at the minute.

TH: I also think we need to go right the way back to training. I’ve worked in a number of drama schools now, and I think there’s, partly because so many people are going to drama school and want to go to drama school, they don’t have to do any grass roots work of recruitment. And so, they’re taking on people who maybe aren’t castable. There are an awful lot of minority actors who aren’t going to drama school because no-one’s gone and said “There is a viable career for you” and also no-one is, at the end of drams school, going “what are our actors doing?” Because there’s an awful lot of talent, and skills that actors and directors and writers are getting that we’re not putting to use and so you can make a huge amount of, you can make a very good living, from teaching, from working with community groups, and using those skills, so that ‘actor’ doesn’t just mean turning up and doing a quick advert and a fringe show every now and again. ‘Actor’ is something, and ‘Director’ is something where we work with community groups to do drama sessions – it means that we direct our own work and things like that so it becomes much more entrepreneurial with how we use our skills

JBR: I’m going to ask if there’s a way of combining the talent in this room and saying we could come up with a “Fair Production Agreement” that we get companies to sign up to, that they will publish breakdowns of profit and loss, so we can stop these people who are exploiting actors. James, what do you think on that?

JQ: I think that’s true. The shows that I do, all the actors, whether they are paid or unpaid or on profit-share or on a contract – the contract outlines what I expect from them and exactly what I’m going to provide for them. So that side as well, and it’s full – when we have it as a profit share, all the details of everything that was spent on that show went out to the actors and they saw how much it cost, how much box office came in. They could even ask us, the box office, and say “How much did the show take that day?” It’s very open, I think you have to be – if it’s on a profit share.

LC: Must be.

RFI: (agreeing) Mmm.

JQ: You can’t hide, because then alarm bells start ringing, thinking there’s something dodgy going on here.
But going back, and sort of, what we were saying about how you – it’s about looking after the actor, if they are working for not much money. It’s about working round their schedule, making sure they’re rehearsing somewhere nice. I’ve worked at the Jerwood and other places, and it’s making sure that there’s travel which is close to them. That we’re not asking them to work over hours, that there’s support there, that we look after them. And they’ll come back. And I think it’s about the actor being clever. If they are going in, if it’s going to be a big paid show for a couple of months, they can afford to do that show, if they get that job. It’s about balancing.

TH: There’s a very good Equity agreement, which is currently voluntary, but which a lot of very reputable people use. Beyond the minimum wage aspect of it, everything that’s set down in that contract could possibly be obligatory for a fringe theatre.

LC: Yes.

TH: I mean, there’s no reason, the only thing in there is the levels of pay..

LC: Yes.

TH: That you might, things that you might, things know.

LC: But I think it’s a great contract. ‘Half the budget on pay’ is a good guideline there.

JBR: I’m going to wrap it up now. I’m going to give you each one minute to just give your closing argument for this discussion, your closing thoughts, and we’ll start with Lisa.

LC: I’ve actually come out more than I thought in favour of people working without pay, which is strange, because it’s not something I think is ideal in any way. And I want to make that really clear, I’ve just been sparking off what we’ve been hearing. I think people should be paid every penny you can afford to pay them, and if that’s not much I think you need to think about what you’re asking them to do, and how you’re going to arrange that to not get in the way of the fact that they do need to survive and you can’t expect them to have sort of magic funding appear from somewhere. Not everybody is, as we’ve been saying, someone with parental support that way.

JBR: Tom?

TH: I’m, I’m still very adamant that people should always work for something. I completely agree that ‘something’ might be very low pay, it might even fall, strictly speaking, below the minimum wage per hour. I think an awful lot of directors on very big shows, if they wrote down their hours, would be working for less than minimum pay! So I accept that fees don’t always represent the minimum pay, but there should be something. For the basic reason, I think that any show that hasn’t though about paying something to the actors, probably hasn’t thought through major aspects of the production, and therefore it won’t be of a good quality, and it won’t be a good experience, and it won’t be a good showcase for that actor.

JBR: Ryan?

RFI: I think that, my advice to young actors when I visit drama schools, and drama colleges, is to make sure that the people you’re working with are sound. That’s the biggest thing that I can say, and that’s what I think applies most to the fringe. Contact Equity, ask if the company is already known to them. If they’re on the list of people to avoid, avoid them! There are skills, going of off what Tom said, Equity do courses on marketing yourself, things like that. Use them, use the union for that reason, that’s what it’s for. But also, use your common sense, as a person.

JBR: And, James?

JQ: I think it really just comes down to a choice for the actor, about the time in their life, about whether they can afford to do it, about whether they feel the piece is going to forward them in their career. (to RFI) I think you’re right, I think you need to research the venue, research the director, look at their background, look at their success and what they’ve done. It just comes down to that choice. As soon as the show starts becoming more of a commercial venture, and there’s more money coming in, don’t be afraid to ask that director or that producer to see the receipts, because you are entitled to any profit share that that show makes, as much as everyone else working on it.

JBR: So, I’d like to thank you all for coming. It’s a massive issue, it’s a very Big Question and a very interesting debate for me, as an actor, and also as somebody who, you know, produces and directs myself. I don’t think we’re going to come down to an answer today and I don’t think we’re ever going to come down to an answer. That’s not the point of The Big Question. The Big Question is to get these things talked about. I want to thank Lisa Cagnacci, Tom Hescott, Ryan Forde Iosco and James Quaife for joining me here at The Actors Centre this afternoon for The Big Question.

Note: At the time of this feature, Lisa Cagnacci was Artistic Associate at Southwark Playhouse.  She is currently Programming Director at Theatre503

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