There has been a lot of debate about actors not getting paid on London’s fringe scene. This week Mark Shenton, of The Stage has said he will no longer review plays where the actors and crew aren’t paid. This is meant to punish the producers, and I appreciate his attempt to back actors, but in my opinion this actually punishes the already unpaid actors.
To work unpaid or not to work unpaid. The choice as an actor is yours. You’re an adult. So why is there so much talk of exploitation. Of course, if others are being paid, this does look like abuse of the actors’ position. But, during all the unpaid work I did, no one was getting paid. We all worked for profit-share. I only got profit once, I admit, but I knew the score. Removing the reviews would reduce audiences and shrink potential profit even further.
Shenton argues that the theatre companies who can’t or won’t pay can become amateur. This demeans the value of all those professional actors working in those productions. Yes, they are still professional even if they aren’t paid. If you are a trained actor you are a professional. If a trained doctor volunteers in a Red Cross shelter is s/he no longer a professional? Of course not. Nor is it their hobby.
It’s tough as an actor on the fringe, rarely being taken seriously by friends and family who think, like Shenton, that if you’re not paid you are not a professional. As if there isn’t enough industry rejection to make you feel inadequate. Now we get this. The payslip argument is reductive. Professionalism is also about attitude and ability. By Shenton’s definition all untrained celebrities getting work due to their profile are professional actors even when they can’t act.
Shelton says he feels he is “endorsing a system that advantages some at the expense of others.” This presumes that the Equity work or paid jobs are running on some kind of meritocracy. When we know that looks, status, connections, level of agent (to mention just a few) all contribute to how far an actor can get in the ‘system’. There isn’t a meritocracy in the paid work either. In fact, there’s usually been far more meritocracy in the casting of the fringe show where these factors are less of a priority.
To suggest that if friends work together for free it is ok, but as soon as there is an audition open to all it is not. The former could be seen as nepotism in action and the latter as meritocracy. The intention is good, but the result is the opposite of the intended objective. i.e. unconnected actors struggle further.
So for those disadvantaged actors trying to find an agent and gain exposure, this hurts them. For those trying to collect reviews to help their US visa process, this hurts them. For those trying to get good at their craft – which takes 10,000 hours – I believe this would also hurt them because they would be less likely to do amateur work that could not go on their resume. Like extra work, listing the experience on their resume will set them firmly into the lower echelons of the upstairs/downstairs class system that goes on in acting.
I appreciate the attempt to protect actors, but I don’t think actors need protecting from doing day jobs to be able to afford to do the fringe, that is a choice. To choose night buses over cabs, to follow our dreams rather than take holidays or buy stuff. It might not pay us back financially, but it isn’t all about money, even for the professionals.
Lastly, when I worked as an understudy on the West End, I was hugely glad of the hours of experience I had got in my eight agent-less years on the fringe. These meant I could go on, at short notice, in a lead role, and hold my own. The first time I got paid about £40 to go on each show. The next time I understudied, (so therefore had more experience) the Equity terms had changed. I had to do two consecutive shows before any amount would be paid, and by then it was less than £40 per show. Obviously I still got my weekly cheque, and I was delighted to perform, but my point is, that being in Equity doesn’t mean you are protected. But, yes I did get my tea breaks!
 Malcolm Gladwell’s statics from Outliers