Actors As Dickensian Urchins


Echoing yesterday's chatter about the unpaid American actor, The Stage's Mark Shenton—A British person!—complains that to not pay actors a living wage, even in Fringe productions, is terribly unfair. Setting aside the fact that there are many actors on this side of the Atlantic who would be happy to get any wage at all, no matter how deadly, there is something about his argument that seems too simple. Let's take a look, shall we?

But another actor friend has also suggested to me that, as long as there are theatres that don’t pay actors a living wage, she won’t be going to see shows at them. She’s going to withdraw her support as an audience member. And maybe that will force those theatres to examine their business models again.
They are sustained by actors who surrender their rights to be paid at the first audition, and audiences who subsidise the theatres by still buying tickets for them. It will only change if both the actors and the audiences behave differently.

Dust off your red flags! Stencil out a placard! Have your set designer draw up plans for a barricade! We're going on strike, dammit. Or, alternatively, we could gather up all of our magical American money, flit over to England, and take advantage of the British actor's apparent willingness to debase himself in exchange for a pat on the head and a bit of porridge. Want to cast Newsies or Oliver? Just hang out a sign advertising free red wine, and you'll have dozens of adorable little mongrel thespians at your door, dressed in super-classy English rags.

What Shenton doesn't point out is addressed beautifully in the comments, by a couple of fringe-level producers who chime in to remind him that, on productions where the actors are paid badly, the producer is usually paid worse. Says Free Will:

When you consider that the hire of a fringe theat can cost up to 500 a night (the unscrupulous venue I used actually charged us 400 just so we could get into the theatre to have a dress run 3 hours before we opened) the sad fact of the matter is that only a rare few shows that go onto the fringe will take enough money to cover production costs never mind raise enough to then pay everyone involved a good wage and leave the producers with enough to break even.

That's £500, or eleventy-million dollars. As much as I hate seeing actors let themselves be taken advantage of, I feel for the small producer. Everyone here is losing money and time—as long as they lose it in equal portions, it's hard to complain about unfairness. The real lesson here is that anyone who wants to make money off the stage should start by owning a theater. A more artistic ambition consigns one to life shoveling coal beneath the Barbican, or however it is British actors spend their time. (I could write a How-To Investment manual called Whatever You Do, Don't Be An Actor. It's going to be very short.) 

The last nifty bit comes from the second commentator. I didn't read any farther than that, because mine is a go-go lifestyle, and I have quite a bit of sitting about planned for the rest of the morning. "The alternative is the US model where Equity actors are forbidden from working in non-Equity shows on pain of expulsion from the union," says Robert Shaw. "The US Equity model is sterile and oppressive; to art, to innovation, to risk-taking and to its members. It's definitive proof that this is not the way to go."

English commentators are much more intelligent and articulate than the American variety. And, wait—Robert Shaw? That guy knows what's up.

Mmm. Acting.