Sunday, 2 June 2013

National Minimum Rage

As sure as night follows day, unpaid work will always hang around actors. It's part of the job. At drama school you're always taught to have a monologue ready and have a headshot that supposedly resembles you at any given moment despite the fact that you spent 3 weeks barely eating and 8 hours on hair and make up. However, what they don't teach you is how to not tear your soul on the walls after seeing yet another casting call that offers sandwiches, tea but no money.

So, seeing the news this week that five actors had won an employment tribunal to be paid national minimum wage should've had me dancing around in my practice skirt. But it didn't. I mean, for maybe one minute, I cheered quietly. Hearing that actors are being paid is always good news. The world likes to think that we live off thin air and slices of pizza so cheap and doughy, you could use them to plug the gaping holes in your tragic CV but we need money too. It may seem a tad unfair but the world works the same for actors as it does for everyone else and we have bills to pay and food to eat.

I want actors to be paid properly. I want to think that I can do a job I can actually make a living from rather than feeling that I'm trying to make a career out of a hobby. Saying you're an actor should make you feel as awesome as the kid who says they want to be a dinosaur when they grow up. But, most of the time, it makes you feel as ridiculous as the kid who says they're going to be a dinosaur when they grow up. But, because there's actually very little legislation in the world of acting (yes, there's some but it's sadly not as a far-reaching as I'd like it to be) anyone with a camera phone and a vague idea can cast a film and, because there are more actors than there are half used jars of oregano in my cupboard, there will always be actors happy to work for free.

I could waffle on for hours about whether actors should work for nothing but hey, we've all got damp-ridden homes to go to. But, what is important is to look at the implications of this ruling. Yes, it means that more actors might get paid in the future and that's a great thing but it could also mean that theatre companies will have to charge insane amounts for tickets to make sure they can pay everyone. Maybe productions shouldn't be put on if there isn't money to pay people but, if actors have a problem with working for free then they shouldn't apply for profit-share work. I've done profit-share before in the past and there's always the chance that you'll come away with nothing. Or, you put your heart and soul into a show for three months and come away with £30. It hurts but if you've agreed to it already then it's really up to you to deal with it.

If companies decide not to put on productions because they don't have the money then there will be even less work for actors than there is now. So, if they do put on shows they'll have to charge so much for tickets that audience figures will drop and actors, although finally able to pay their rent, will be playing to half-filled rooms that only contain the cast's parents. Every theatre company will then be forced to seek assistance from bigger companies a la Spacey and American Airlines and you won't be able to see anything without a corporate logo beaming down at you and you're director appearing in yet another TV advert.

But, on the other hand, maybe we'll live in a world where actors are guaranteed national minimum wage and we can have a shred of dignity back. It might make the few unscrupulous companies out there who think actors and crew don't need paying that maybe some of the money should be shared around a bit. And that'd be nice, wouldn't it?


  1. Thank you, succinctly and eloquently put as ever. There is a further problem I think, which we can all help with. So long as there is a market for something, there will be people willing to make that something and pay properly for it. This is obvious with the lack of good work in film roles for unestablished actors. We simply do not champion UK drama like we should be doing, especially not on television where recent graduates from all accredited courses should be regularly making their bread and butter. How many of us, unwinding after the day, automatically flick through the channels to E4 or an equivalent to watch an American sitcom or the latest Walking Dead? Or else it's Britain's Got Talent or The Voice. Nothing against these shows per se but we watch them disproportionally and that in itself makes it financially unviable to create large amounts of UK drama because nobody's going to watch it. This then has a trickle down effect on theatre - pulling in punters with names they recognise or faces they half remember from that thing on the telly last night is impossible and we get back into the situation of casting directors using the same stables of thirty or so actors for every show. The whole Dr Who thing is a good example. Everyone is clamouring for Idris Elba or John Hurt or Billie Piper or whoever. To my knowledge, nobody has said: "I want to fall in love with an unknown."

    We need to create a better relationship with our audience. Get local people excited about local actors. Work in the community, get to know people, prevent people from pedestalising the profession in their minds because that creates a disconnect. Stand-up is a good model - people want to see local stand-up and they should want to see local theatre.

  2. Like you said at the end, it's not just actors either. Admittedly now I get paid for my stage management work, but it's taken three years of working for practically bugger all to get to this point - and a lot of those 'ASM' jobs were actually full-time scapegoat/tea-maker/litter-picker. As for my design work, it's still rare to be paid anything more than expenses, and probably always will be. It isn't right, but then on the other hand, if I hadn't have gotten that experience I never would have got the paid work that followed! And I feel the same way - I want new theatre to be made, and if the cuts carry on then the only way to get anything new is to make it for free! Vicious, vicious circle. Great article though, I love your blog - keep it up!

    1. And I feel the same way - I want new theatre to be made, and if the cuts carry on then the only way to get anything new is to make it for free!

      So what are you going to do about it? By doing nothing you are leaving it for others to solve, perpetuating this mess and ignoring the problem. It wont go away simply by ignoring it.

  3. I can see where you are coming from and I'm sure you're right in many cases but I think you're missing the wider picture here.

    As with most things if you want to start in the acting world as with most things in life you have to accept to start at the bottom, and if it means working for nothing to add onto your experience CV then fine. Drama school can only teach you so much but surely you didn't expect to leave it thinking the paid jobs would be lining up for you, did you? Maybe you're right, they definitely should teach that at drama school. There's more to networking than answering casting calls...

    And it's easy to quickly assume that the production companies and film producers are taking advantage of the actors but don't forget, they are in this too and I'm sure you know there are plenty of them that pour their heart as just as much as the actors.

  4. I have, like many actors, worked for free. I have done this to gain credits on my CV and build a showreel - what use is a blank CV? The reality is the first few years out of drama school are going to be the real test of dedication and stamina. There is nothing worse than going for a paid job and getting the dreaded question - 'so, what have you been doing lately?' and having absolutely nothing to talk about because you won't do fringe work/student films etc. It can eventually pay dividends.

  5. I love your blog. But I'm a bit disappointed at your reaction to this news. I think there is a lot to celebrate in it. There has been the (anticipated) howl of anguish about the "death of fringe" - but that's nonsense. A properly produced, open-book, well-thought-out profit-share that respects the contribution of everyone involved would not fall foul of HMRC. Actors who were treated with respect would not feel compelled to take their case to a tribunal. Equity has guidelines for fringe theatre - there are many ways for Fringe to flourish that don't involve taking the mickey out of actors or crew.

    I really hope that this case will make people think about how they set up their companies. Amateur companies have to have a constitution, aims and objectives etc - they have to consider their legal responsibilities - why not profit-share companies? There is no reason for actors and producers to be somehow outside the law. They can continue with the "art", but they need to give thought to their responsibilities too.

    There is also the fact that unpaid groups claiming to be professional skew the market place for those fledgling companies that are trying to pay their actors. It's hardly a level playing field. The protests I have read seem to be about the stifling of artistry and concern that there will be no more artistic risk-takers etc - but most actors don't do fringe for the love of the artistic endeavour, they do it because they hope they will be spotted and can move on to being paid. If they were doing it for the "passion" - they would carry on doing it, try to develop the company - they wouldn't be trying to move on from it. Most of the time, being "spotted" is a forlorn hope and the desperation for any kind of "platform" makes actors ripe for exploitation.

    Genuine artistic collaboration will continue. Hopefully, this ruling will make people think about whether what they are doing is legal.

  6. "What have you been doing lately?" isn't asked because the CD wants to know "what you have been doing lately". They have your CV for that. It's just a conversation starter. They want to hear you talking - in your own voice - about something that interests you. The question could be "what did you have for breakfast?". Admittedly, if you had nothing at all interesting to say in answer to the "What have you been doing?" that might not be particularly impressive, but the answer doesn't have to be: "a student film and then a profit-share and then another profit-share." It could be "earning money so that I can produce this piece I love and go to these classes with a director I admire" or "working at my local theatre - I get to watch so much fantastic stuff for nothing" - these are equally good answers.

  7. I love your blog and would like you to be paid for it. Having gone back as a mature student to do a one year course at an accredited drama school and gotten no where after there years - 3 fringe plays which led nowhere, no money at all, not one audition from Spotlight or other casting databases, no agent, getting harassed constantly by the dole office, I am throwing in the towel. Personally I think fringe work is a disaster - it just makes people think you are happy to work for nothing.

    I look sometimes at the obituaries of actors like John le Mesurier and Beryl Reid who came up through rep and realise being an actor and actually making a living was more viable 30 years ago. I don't think fringe existed then. Even when Michael Caine was starting off in rep. he got paid. Now rep theatre is more or less gone and drama schools are letting around 1,000 new acting hopefuls out every year, it seems impossible. I don't know exactly how fringe started but now it's seen as the norm for all but the privileged few who actually get paid. That's just wrong. It wouldn't be accepted in any other profession. I was getting my yearly hair cut (all I can afford now) a few weeks ago and the hairdresser was asking me what I was doing now and I told him a new screenplay rehearsed reading with a backdrop (they can't afford to rehearse the actors so we're just going to read the script) and he asked me was I being paid and again I had to tell him no and he said 'I'd never work for nothing' and I finally realised what a mug I am.

    Unless you are someone like Miranda Hart or Sharon Horgan and can write something that will sell commercially, unless you come from an acting dynasty, unless you come from one of the top 5 schools and get snatched up at your showcase and unless you start as a child actor like Keira Knightley or Daniel Radcliffe, I think you can forget about making a living from it. One or two others might get through the net each year but that's increasingly it. You'd have better luck playing the Lotto to get enough to live on.

    Actors operate on the 'what if' scenario and believe in dreams but it's just a crap shoot at the end of the day where the dice is loaded against you. I really wish someone who had left the industry would come out and write a book about what it's like after graduation to give caution to dreamy eyed young or not so young in my case idealists. The statistics are that within 8 months after graduation 80% of graduates will give up or so I heard in a lecture by the head of drama at one of the 5 top schools.

    At least in a profession like law the demand for legal places at college will go down if it is publicly seen that the industry is in recession but the demand for places at acting schools never seems to go down and my school, wonderful as it was, did not prepare me for the reality of life after graduation. If it were clear just how impossible it is to make at living at acting, fewer people might decide to do it.

    Sure this ruling may mean that fewer theatre companies will decide to go ahead with stuff but is that a bad thing?

  8. Hi there,
    I must confess, I am one of those people taking unpaid roles for the simple fact I need experience and need to build a CV. I have just started out, although I am not a complete novice I have had some training. It is like any other industry out there at the moment, times are tough. The old scenario of employers will only pay for experienced people, but how do you gain experience if no-one will employ you? Like all jobs, you start right at the bottom, however this industry seems a little different as it appears you can gain experience relatively quickly. I know this really doesn't help professional actors who have to pay the bills etc. But I think there is a bigger problem going on here. you mention that if production companies were forced to pay everyone then ticket prices would go up, there would be less bums on seats thus less productions. Quite true, however I have noticed a big issue within the Theatre/ TV/ film industry as a whole. I am a sales/ marketing/ promotion professional who is fed up of working for the big man and has decided to go it alone self employed. With my skills, love of the theatre (and some stage experience and a qualification) you would think that I would be desirable to promote productions, fund raise, market etc, but no, nearly all of the jobs posted state sales experience not necessary but must have extensive industry knowledge. I had been wondering why theatres, productions, UK films & dramas (I say UK because the Americans do it well) are so poor at marketing themselves, I now have my answer. They are employing the wrong people to do this very important job! This results in poor audience numbers and woeful sales, this in turn results in less money circulating in the industry, therefore less money to pay cast and get the picture. The same principal applies to teaching, just because you are good at something doesn't mean you can teach, teaching is a completely different skill.
    The amount of people in my local area who don't know what is happening at their 4 local theatres is astounding! No other industry does this.
    Until the industry changes this peculiar mindset, actors and crew alike are going to struggle to find decent paid work.
    But, I do agree with you that it needs to be regulated more. There are too many companies out there who are taking advantage.
    Love your blog btw, only just found it.