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An Expensive Habit: The True Cost Of Working In Fringe Theatre

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.


The Future


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.

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  1. Nice one Rob – I agree and read a lot of this whilst nodding along. I think the difficulty with the efforts of Equity at the moment is it seems to me they are failing to treat individual cases individually. When there is a mathematical impossibility to pay actors full Equity rate for a particular show, because of number of actors/size of venue ratio – even if the producer or company is trying their darn’dest to pay each actor as much as possible (and would love to be able to pay Equity minimum under other circumstances/ratios) – they seem to be lumped in with actual asshole producers looking to exploit young performers because “that’s how the industry is”.

    What do you think? There are certainly venues all over London that simply wouldn’t be able to produce shows with more than a few actors in them and pay full Equity, even at the helm of the most well intention-ed producer on the planet.

  2. Sam- This is an interesting point.

    For one, I think even if the work is good, if a producer fails to secure sufficient funding then they let down every other element of the production, not just the actors. The second is on how what budget there is gets spent- actors are so often not the priority where ‘production value’ is, simply because you can’t get lighting for free, but you can get a person. Morgan Freeman famously said the reason we need agents is because we’ll do it for free.

    One way I’ve heard it said of producers not paying actors is, ‘I’ve been bad at my job, so you have to do yours for free’. The question then is if the producer is really trying. That more often than not, in the fringe, comes down to trust. Equally, in ‘profit share’ circumstances, there’s no independent adjudicator to say this is how much the show cost, and made. Again, it’s trust, which is all too easy to be abused. That’s not to say it is being abused, but it can be.

    To address that, though, the notion of ‘full Equity’ has been changing. The Made and Paid campaign is introducing NMW (which it should be noted, is not even a living wage in London) contracts meant to be a stepping stone for companies that are serious about paying their actors but can’t afford ‘full Equity’. There are caveats- if you have Arts Council support you need to pay full Equity, and it’s not a permanent solution.

    I think ultimately the Made and Paid campaign is trying to make the very distinction you’re talking about- companies who are serious about getting to the right level will commit to these development contracts. Companies that have been trundling on for years making money and not paying actors will not. So you get a litmus test.

  3. You chose to work for free, you sound intelligent, it wasn’t forced upon you and learnt a lot from your experiences, the world doesn’t owe you any protection or any justice so what’s the problem? If you felt the need to work for nothing a year then that’s entirely your choice but just just because it took you a year to define your personal work ethics and learn how to make good decisions regarding your career choices doesn’t mean the world should shift to look after you in particular, the problem may not be with everyone else around you but your own decision making process.

  4. I’m going to break down your comments to address them specifically, as I appreciate the challenge but not necessarily the sentiment behind it.

    You chose to work for free, you sound intelligent, it wasn’t forced upon you and learnt a lot from your experiences, the world doesn’t owe you any protection or any justice so what’s the problem?

    I agree. The world doesn’t owe anyone anything. No one is owed a successful career in the arts. That, however, is not the same as there being no problem.

    ‘The problem’ is that my behaviour is typical of the vast majority of people starting out in the arts, and can go on for years and years.

    Because there’s no guarantee of progression, and even a step forward can be short lived, this is increasingly the default way of living. And that is due to many problems, or contributing factors, that could see change. Equity is looking at one of them already.

    In terms of the problem I was aiming to address, it was simply this: have we fully considered what it costs to partake in ‘the done thing’, and what can we learn from doing so?

    If you felt the need to work for nothing a year then that’s entirely your choice but just just because it took you a year to define your personal work ethics and learn how to make good decisions regarding your career choices doesn’t mean the world should shift to look after you in particular, the problem may not be with everyone else around you but your own decision making process.

    Again, I agree. I’m responsible for looking after me. What I can also do however, and what I aimed to do here, is help prevent others from having the same problem with their decision making process.

    If people can read about my experience, they can go through it in a fraction of the time it took me, arrive at the same conclusion, and save themselves two grand by doing so. That, I hope, would be a good thing. Sharing lessons learned certainly can’t be bad?

    Is what you’re aiming toward the idea that ‘the problem’ is not the industry’s? My response in that case would be, does it matter? A crap situation doesn’t have to be your fault in order for you to have a hand in making it better. Indeed, most crap situations have been changed by those who had no responsibility stepping in, stepping up and taking some. My calling on the industry to do the same may not have practical value in the specific means proposed, but I still think it’s a concept worth exploring.

    Moving away from your specific comments and onto broader discussion I’ve had with people in person, it’s absolutely revealed really relevant points coming from different sources.

    For instance:

    – Venues not taking on any responsibility or risk – companies in the fringe must pay for the venues, rather than the venues purchasing a show like a receiving house. This means all the risk is on the company, which makes it harder for them to fund their shows and pay their actors.

    – Massive companies that receive support in the tens of millions do not appear to apportion any of that to supporting new and up-and-coming companies, leaving the next generation of theatre makers in this situation when it needn’t be the case. The National Theatre received £17.4 million in public funding and made £100 million. Does anyone know if any of that has gone to supporting companies not already well established?

    I think it’s perhaps beneficial to state that I write from a naïve position on the industry because I believe that’s how innovation works best. One friend said ‘the easiest way to find the right answer on the internet is to post the wrong one’, and she’s not far off. So much more good comes from discussion than from proclaiming to have all the answers.

  5. Well said. I agree with everything you say. Though I’d like to add one observation from my own experience:

    The issue i’ve seen at the bottom end of the industry is there just aren’t any producers (in the sense you’re using it here). Pretty much every small to mid scale theatre company I know was set up by creatives, rather than a producer, and they are desperate to find someone to produce their work. However being creatives, and therefore having a burning desire to actually be creative and see their collective work realised, they accept that they’ll have to share the production between them in the mean time. The result is that producing isn’t anyone’s first priority so the bare minimum is done in order to get some thing on stage. Which isn’t right – but I’m not sure it’s as simply as saying it was anyone individual doing their job properly.

    As you rightly say there’s a lot structurally wrong with the fringe – all the risk is taken by the productions, there’s absolutely no core funding available, and pitifully low levels of project funding. Considering how hostile it is for productions, and how many odds are stacked against them being a success for a producer (even if they are an artistic success for the creative team) – I think it’s little wonder this issue isn’t necessarily bad producers, but rather no producers at all.

  6. if producers and playwrights and directors are being paid and actors aren’t, clearly that is wrong. However most producers and playwrights lose their savings in putting on fringe theatre as they have to accept the losses. there is no money in fringe to pay people properly. The people making money are the publicans who charge for the venue and then get the drinks money. That is what is outrageous. You correctly say that most fringe is bad, this is why my non artsy friends won’t take a risk on a fringe play but will happily spend fifty quid on a west end hit. if theatre venues took more responsibility- assessed the quality of script and actors and did fairer box office shares and had proper marketing we’d all be in better shape. Dont get me started on the arts council!

  7. Should You Work For Free? No Pay / Low Pay - Is It Ethical?
  8. I am trying to return to presenting my plays (I’ve had seven produced and was shortlisted for Verity Bargate Award) after being out of the game for 20 years (as a therapist). I paid for a rehearsed reading of a new play and the actors split the gate (£45 each). It cost me £440. I have now taken a small fringe theatre and done the budget for a 4 week production at over £13,000. The size of the theatre means I expect to lose about £10,000. And this is with all the work involved including of course writing the play. I have read lots of comments and I liked the comment above this because there seems to be the idea that ‘producers’ are making a lot of money. But the comment above notes that in the fringe it’s the creatives who are producing. And they expect to lose money. There is also the idea that ‘producers fail by not raising enough money’ – from exactly where? Mummy and Daddy? A wealthy relative? Who else springs to mind, I would be interested in knowing.

    And why do the creatives have to produce on the fringe? Because the theatres who produce are clogged. There are literally thousands of plays wanting to be presented. Waiting for one of them is waiting for Godot so one has to take personal action.

    So I will be paying my actors as much as I can and paying for the theatre and everything else. Why? Because I really love my new play and I want to give it a proper outing. Perhaps you can see if it’s going to be work the effort and money involved – it’s called One Last Mad Love and it will be at The Etcetera during May. (Once I’ve signed the contract, only just started negotiations). Thank you for this discussion platform