Thursday, 30 August 2012


I learnt a few things yesterday but one of the main lessons that was bestowed upon me was how to spell the bastard word ‘supernumerary.’ It’s a word that sits in the same waiting room of my vocabulary as ‘mortgage’ and ‘dental floss.’ And, to the best of my knowledge, yesterday was the first time I found myself typing it. But why did I spend much of yesterday afternoon painstakingly slowing down my typing and furiously checking my spelling? Well, because yesterday West Yorkshire Playhouse announced that they were looking for two actors to be part of their upcoming production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Oh, sorry. They were looking for two unpaid actors. Of course, I instantly got my high horse out of its stable and climbed aboard. Twitter got the full brunt of my anger and disbelief spread quicker than an STD through a university on Fresher’s Week. West Yorkshire Playhouse were wonderfully quick to respond and explain that the request for actors was a mistake and they had meant to say ‘supernumeraries.’

But what’s a supernumerary? It’s not, as first thought, a superhero maths teacher. A few people asked me on Twitter what it was and I have to admit that had a friend not been one a few years back, I probably wouldn’t have known either. A supernumerary, in simple terms, is an extra on stage.  They’re the ones that hand out drinks and hold doors and don’t speak. And I learnt this the hard way. A friend of mine got a part in an opera and, being wonderfully supportive, a gang of us got the cheapest tickets we could find so we could go along and watch. Big mistake. Our friend was cast alongside maybe 49 others, all who looked exactly like him. And that probably would’ve been fine if our ludicrously cheap seats hadn't meant that we were basically sat on the roof. All we could see were the top of people’s heads meaning that most of the time we were just watching a series of dark-haired blobs swaying around on the stage. After about 10 minutes of desperately trying to convince ourselves that we’d spotted our friend, we eventually gave in and tried to enjoy the show (this resulted in one of our gang going to the pub next door and another sleeping in the toilets.)

But, more importantly, I remember being mightily impressed at the money my friend was getting paid for such a small role. I can’t remember the exact figures as my insane jealousy filtered out the figures but I know he was doing alright from being a voiceless and almost faceless member in the crowd. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think he should’ve been paid. The exact opposite, in fact. Just because he looked almost identical to everyone else on stage, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be being recognised for his efforts. The show had quite a long run so he was giving up a lot of his time for very little reward (apart from cash.) Also, although he said nothing, they had been directed and without them, the show probably wouldn’t have worked. So, you can imagine how surprised I was yesterday when I found out that some supernumeraries (sorry, it had been a while since I typed it) don’t get paid. Unpaid work is never a shock anymore. However, when it’s being mentioned in the same sentence as a very successful theatre and a show that’s being put on in a 750 seater venue with tickets of up to £27 then your brain starts asking questions. Especially when they’re not even asking for a big ol’ crowd of people. They’re just asking for two people who will alternate the role of a servant. A servant will, at some point, probably have the eyes of most of the audience on them. So why the heck aren’t they getting their own share of the money?

I’m not saying West Yorkshire Playhouse are doing anything illegal. I understand it’s all being looked at by Equity as I type and that what they’re doing is correct in accordance with the contract that they have. So, because I don’t have all the facts, I’m not going to comment any further on this particular case. HOWEVER, I personally find it worrying that having unpaid performers in high profile theatres is still a thing. (We’ll ignore my stance on unpaid work in general for now otherwise we’ll be here all day going over very old ground…) But, if the director has decided that everyone on stage needs to be there then they should all be recognised for the work they’re doing. No, standing on stage with a tray of drinks in your hand shouldn’t mean you get paid the same as the lead performer who has spent weeks learning zillions of lines and has worked hard to create a believable character. However, if the lead actor is being paid then so should everyone else who is a part of that performance (be they on stage or working bloody hard backstage.) Just because their list of responsibilities is a bit shorter, that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have their work recognised in the form of a bit of cash. And if you’re not even being paid expenses then I honestly don’t know why anyone would do it. You’re clearly not being respected by those who have employed you so why should they benefit from your free labour? But, as usual, we get the problem that while people still willing to take on this sort of work then this sort of work will continue to exist.

Maybe the world needs this Supernumerary superhero to help rid the world of unpaid acting work? Shield your eyes, world. You’re about to see Miss L in some very ill-fitting lycra…


  1. I enjoy reading your essay on supernumerary. Getting paid is the only proof that someone values our work. Unfortunately, many people lack courage to say no. Many hope against hope that they may gain "exposure" by being on stage even if they are unpaid supernumeraries. Many die of exposure. James Chan, Philadelphia, USA

  2. I, too, enjoyed the article. I've been a "super" for a number of years--never with the hope or assumption of exposure or being "discovered", but simply to be a part of something as grand as an opera. So it was with a heavy heart I had to turn down a "super" job recently. Our meager pay was being sliced in half! Half! Wouldn't even cover gasoline to and from rehearsals. And they act like I should be glad I'm getting paid at all. I am so sad. --Margie Eisenberg, Miami

  3. I love this article! Great writing and YES you ARE right.
    I found your article when doing a search on SUPERNUMERARIES. I spelled it! ha
    Because I was cast in that role ( even though I have an arm length long resume--) I thought it would be 'fun' to do some local work at the big performing arts center while waiting for my daughter to return from college for the holidays--
    When they saw my resume they were SO happy with my experience level of working under the direction of Academy Award directors with co-starring and some starring roles--( yes you don't know me but I have worked!)...When they sent the letter saying I was cast, I immediately wrote back asking for how much pay? I haven't heard back, yet...I had NO idea it wouldn't be paid. oh no!