Last year I did nine shows, none of which paid an Equity wage. It was my aim to come to London and do as much as I could in my first full year here, and I did. Here’s what I learned.
Optimistically, The Fringe offers actors a training ground. Not just in developing their skills, but also in developing their tastes.
To put it bluntly, there is more bad fringe theatre than good. Immediately then, one has to begin placing a value on the work from an artistic perspective.
In many ways, I felt it was my way of paying dues: to prostrate myself before ‘the industry’. This was perhaps bound up in the kind of inadequacy complex many non-drama-schooled actors will likely experience.
Through doing fringe I have discovered a lot about what I like and don’t like, what I want to do and what I don’t.
In doing this, I nevertheless neglected to put a financial value on what I was doing. I thought of any cost as investment: this was an apprenticeship, a trial by fire.
Late last year, in what would prove a fateful decision, I undertook to discover how much I was actually investing while developing my skills and CV through the fringe.
As the fringe now stands, talking about the fact we should get paid is often viewed as somehow uncouth; to do unpaid work is the norm and we should accept it. Blitz spirit until we work our way to the big time.
Calculating the expense quickly made nonsense of that notion.
Doing The Sums
When one receives low or no pay, every expense reasonably counts as a loss, or phrased more favourably, an investment.
A travelcard from my location is £45 pounds a week.
In a show where we rehearse two days a week (what I’d consider a reasonable amount of time to ask), half of that travel is spent on rehearsals and I’ll spend an additional ~£6 a day on teas and lunches (that I would otherwise make at home for a comparatively negligible cost).
In a show where I rehearsed six days a week (which can become rather more unreasonable when unpaid), the figures are increased to more like £10 as the days are longer.
That means the cost varies between ~£40 and £100 a week.
This results in a month costing between ~£180 and £400.
Fringe theatre is an expensive habit.
Yes, I could have done more to cut down those costs, bringing lunches in from home and the like. But that costs me in time and energy, and what I have left of that after rehearsals is spent working, because I’m not being paid by the production.
Looking annually, I did two 400p/m shows that took two, then three months respectively, and seven 180p/m shows that took one month each, bringing the total to ~£3,260 in a year.
With returns from Low Pay subtracted, it still cost me £1,910 to work nine shows- more than half my investment. This, one can safely assume, is why I’m not a broker.
Because this cost builds up in a piecemeal fashion, it’s all the easier to ignore.
To do so however is to ignore your own contributions, and more broadly, speaks to something in myself that I think needed to change, and that I see in plenty of the people around me, too.
Changing My Perspective On Money
The shows I have been involved in have been well attended and, mercifully, usually well reviewed.
I have chosen my investments well from an artistic and apprenticing point of view. I believed in all the shows I’ve been a part of. I’m happy I did them.
When you think about things in financial instead of emotional terms, it very quickly means you must take your decision to be involved in a show much more seriously. Not simply because you owe it to yourself as an artist, but because you owe it to yourself as an investor in the arts.
The fringe provides opportunities to perform and be seen, but being in these shows is truly no less expensive than training courses in skills which can deepen your repertoire, producing a frugal short film which will last forever, or even taking a holiday which will improve your peace of mind and attitude to the next project. The last can’t be put on your CV of course, but that’s up to you.
Last year I was guilty of pushing my nose into the grindstone, and throwing myself into every project that wanted me, investing in them all, and trying to wring every drop of professional development I could out of them.
I ended up overworked, and pushing myself to the point where I was not enjoying it, and as a result I am sure my performances will have suffered.
I was working hard, but not necessarily working smart. I got an agent out of it, so that’s something. Equally, many of these investments may pay off in a similarly indirect way.
Alternatively, they may pay off in the longer term – some are already beginning to show promise. But this kind of thinking is the kind that is all too often abused by those who would exploit. Ultimately that comes down to trust.
This need to be constantly working is not unique to me. It is a common consensus I witness among those I work with.
I think we need to challenge where that comes from, how it’s reinforced, and what it costs us.
By reframing my thinking to view financial investment as a significant factor, I have however found a level of detachment that now allows me to treat myself as a business.
I can see the value I am bringing with me, not simply the value I can take from a project.
And that is a critical shift more actors need to make.
This thought has allowed me to build my confidence entering an audition space. I am there not only as an actor who wants to perform, but as a potential investor who wants a good project.
The projects I involve myself in this year must have scope to return my investment. If that return is purely artistic, it had better be bloody good.
When it comes to paid work, I find myself no longer so eager to please, because I no longer see being paid as a treat. It is simply how things should be.
Having been through what I have, I deserve that as a refund on the investments I’ve made to get myself into that room. So do you.
Ultimately, your work is energy, your time is energy, and your money is energy too.
Low Pay No Pay requires all your energy. Paid theatre simply gives you one form, so you can give more of the others. And the latter is how it will work best for everyone.
What Can The Industry Do?
The only places where apprenticeships and internships are unpaid are industries where demand far exceeds supply. Sadly ours is one of those. But that doesn’t make it right.
Unsupported, unconnected actors are most of those in the fringe. Unsupported, unconnected actors can’t endure its conditions without great cost to themselves monetarily, energetically, and psychologically. They endure that because they love it.
Equity have launched their Professionally Made, Professionally Paid campaign, which they say is trying to eradicate producers who prey on willingness like this in order to exploit it. Great. Of the companies I worked with, some qualify for this and some don’t.
That’s one thing. But can more theatres, specifically those like the National and the RSC, be called upon to have formalised, paid apprenticeship programmes for actors, in the absence of a functioning rep? Or do we simply need a functioning rep?
There needs to be another way. Does that mean less opportunities, but of a better quality? Tell me what you think in the comments.
This year, I hope to eradicate any unpaid work in my life, and eschew as much low pay work as I can, meanwhile wondering how better to spend my investment this time around.