An old theatrical story tells of the impecunious actor who announces in his local pub one night that he’s got a job. ‘No lines, no wages, and I have to provide my own costume’ he explains. ‘So why on earth do it?’ asks one of his fellow barflies.
‘Well’ he concludes gleefully, ‘There’s a practical cake in Act Two.’
Such tales may hearken back to a previous time when actors lived on little more than their wits and a promise of a free meal on stage every night: but on recent evidence, we may be returning to them.
The point was illustrated to me some months ago when I was offered the lead role in a play being staged in a fashionable fringe venue above a pub in central London. The role was the lead, the play itself well worth reviving, and the director an eminent man of the theatre who would be likely to know his way around an unfairly neglected classic.
So far, so solvent. But then my agent explained to me the deal. There would be no fee for the eleven-week contract – not even expenses. Instead, the producer was offering each of the cast a free Oyster card, ensuring that we could get to rehearsals and performance, even if we died of malnutrition in the process.
Talking to fellow thesps, it seems that this is a dilemma we all increasingly face. The recently published Theatre Workforce Review highlights the no pay/low pay problem and identifies this as one of the primary reasons that people leave the sector.
Nobody expects to become a millionaire working above a pub of course, but several well-known and highly fashionable venues in and around London, ones with decent production budgets and hefty seat prices, are still offering actors a lot less than the going rate, as well as expecting them to work in backstage conditions that would have the Department of Health & Safety reaching for the smelling salts. Such situations won’t dissuade star turns from signing up, for they can afford to subsidise themselves for a few months if the project is worth it: but what of younger actors, many of whom are struggling to get a foothold in this notoriously overcrowded profession? The show on offer may be their conduit to more lucrative work and greater exposure. Consequently the productions often seem an uneasy combination of actors who can afford to work for nothing, alongside those who can’t afford not to.
In fairness some venues are acutely aware of the anomaly, and are doing their best to offer to both a living wage and a bar of soap in the washbasins. All UK Theatre Organisation Members abide by collective agreements negotiated with unions. Equity, too, lobbies tirelessly in this regard, but with so few jobs and so many actors it’s a long road. Meanwhile it does seem something of a bitter irony that many fashionable venues charge west end prices for their seats, while those in the cast can hardly afford the price of a drink at the bar after curtain down.
But as producers are only too aware, most actors would rather cut off their right arm than bid farewell to their dreams, whatever the personal cost.
If you enjoyed this blog post you might like to read ‘The Ethics of Budgeting’ by Poppy Burton-Morgan, a provocation to anyone with budgetary decision making power.
For more about SOLT and UK Theatre’s Theatre Workforce Review read our report here.