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Working On The Fringe


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#1 RussH

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 11:24 AM

Disclaimer: I am not in any way associated with Into the Woods at the Gatehouse.

The "Into the Woods" thread made me want to say something.

I don't know if some of the posts on that topic stem from a lack of understanding or a conscious attempt to mislead, but it might be time for a frank discussion about the fringe.

It's too easy to say that fringe work "should be paid" and it's misleading to suggest that producers are making piles of cash exploiting unpaid casts.

Ideally, everyone would be guaranteed a wage for their long hours and dedication, but that money has to come from somewhere. A lot of the time, the goal is merely to break even. If the show goes up and is well received, that's a positive result. MDs and directors are as frequently unpaid as actors. These shows go on for love of the work and for exposure.  The only people who regularly command a fee are pit musicians, and that's not 100% either.

If theatre only happened when the full team is guaranteed an Equity wage, we wouldn't have 80% of the off-West End theatre that we do. It's swings and roundabouts: an actor might spend one season touring a musical and the next touring a TIE piece. A director might spend the day as a paid assistant and the evening workshopping new writing for nothing. It's the nature of the business.



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Posted 02 December 2008 - 12:25 PM

Why does it work in other countries then? Why do actors/directors/MDs etc in Germany, the Scandinavian countries, the US, Canada, etc - usually get paid somehow, even if it's fringe work or workshops for new material? Why is it that specifically the UK that is not able to create funding for new theatre works?  

I am genuinely interested, this is not meant as an attack. I really understand where you are coming from but I think the point is that while it used to be a one off "workshopping new material on a profit-share basis" deal, it is now almost a given that you will spend half your time as an actor/director/MD etc working for free on some project or other. And that is not right, it means there is something fundamentally wrong with the system, don't you think? If this is now the "nature of the business" (which it did not used to be) - shouldn't there be an effort to change it? Also, there are examples I know of and have experienced where actors have not been paid at all and producers have indeed made a profit from a show and not renumerated certain performers in anyway. Hence - my apprehension.  

As for TIE in most cases (some exceptions) the companies really do exploit the actors with up top 6 shows a day, driving to venues 3 hours there, 3 hours back in one day, cramming 4 actors into a room with 2 beds as "accomodation", ridiculously low pay, etc. I am all for the concept of TIE however, most drama schools for example recommend you don't engage in this type of work once you graduate, as most of it is now - very sadly - exploitation. As stated before - there are some exceptions.

#3 RussH

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 01:10 PM

QUOTE(Guest @ Dec 2 2008, 12:25 PM) View Post
Why does it work in other countries then?... Why is it that specifically the UK that is not able to create funding for new theatre works?


To be honest, I don't know how it works in other countries.  I've only worked in the UK.

QUOTE(Guest @ Dec 2 2008, 12:25 PM) View Post
I think the point is that... it is now almost a given that you will spend half your time as an actor/director/MD etc working for free on some project or other. And that is not right, it means there is something fundamentally wrong with the system, don't you think?


It's not ideal.  In fact, it's a very tough way to live: it's stressful and often it's thankless but the fact is that outside the development process of a subsidised theatre (i.e. a new play developed at the Royal Court, Soho or NT Studio where public money will fund the work), there is no-one to foot the bill.  Producers can only calculate a budget balancing venue hire and rights costs against potential ticket receipts.  The Arts Council won't fund a revival of a West End musical and the fringe isn't big enough for a corporate sponsor to see any logos they pay for spread widely enough to make a mark.  So once you've off-set the overheads against the ticket money, you're pretty much back to zero.

QUOTE(Guest @ Dec 2 2008, 12:25 PM) View Post
If this is now the "nature of the business" (which it did not used to be) - shouldn't there be an effort to change it?


I absolutely agree.  I think theatre in this country is terribly funded but producers can't just magic up money to start paying people.  It goes to the very core of how the arts are regarded in the UK and the funding structures established by government to enable the creation of work.

QUOTE(Guest @ Dec 2 2008, 12:25 PM) View Post
As for TIE in most cases (some exceptions) the companies really do exploit the actors with up top 6 shows a day, driving to venues 3 hours there, 3 hours back in one day, cramming 4 actors into a room with 2 beds as "accomodation", ridiculously low pay, etc... As stated before - there are some exceptions.


I'm with you on that - TIE can be a nightmare!  I think a lot of actors do it for the training: once you've trucked around the country performing a punishing schedule to unforgiving audiences in make-shift venues and doing your own get-ins, you can handle anything.  It strips away any sense of presciousness and that can only be a good thing.  Personally, whenever I see TIE on an actor's CV, it makes me more inclined to hire them!  But that's not to excuse exploitative TIE companies and if there are companies making a healthy living off poorly paid actors, it'll be due to graduates wanting any kind of work that roughly fits the definition of 'acting' and putting up with it for the CV credit.  And that's terrible.  That said, there are TIE companies that pay their actors well above Equity rates and treat them very well.

I wish I had easier answers.  I've been involved with productions on the scale of "Into the Woods" and its tough.  When I've been in charge, I haven't been paid either and you do your best to accommodate any paying work or even shifts in the actors day.  You give them long lunches and try to be a bit more relaxed in your approach and make sure that if you're touring you can at least foot the bill for decent accommodation (i.e. no-one ever shares a bed), drinks after rehearsals and meals out whenever the budget allows.  You do what you can.



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Posted 02 December 2008 - 02:04 PM

Russ, it's very interesting hearing from you, thanks for the insight!

#5 Guest_ems_*

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 06:17 PM

Hi - as someone who's posted a lot on the 'Into the Woods' thread, I thought I should come on here and support Russ's sensitive and well-argued views.  

Interestingly, it now seems that you get more 'star' names in the fringe than on many tours for subsidized companies (eg Headlong).  I know that these touring companies pay good wages of 500 or so a week but just can't attract many leading actors wanting to be on tour; many would prefer to do one big West End play then a few off West End / fringe things so they can stay in London but still do interesting work.  I only mention this because I think it's worth remembering that at the top end, fringe work can be very exciting and attractive to actors.  Of course it would be better if it were paid, and I think there should be a serious Arts Council investigation into what fringe is funded and how young companies get a start, but there are lots of positive reasons for why people choose to do profit-share work too.

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Posted 03 December 2008 - 10:53 AM

Some very good points Ems and indeed, it's great to hear from Russ. Reiterating on from my points in the Into the Woods threads (there are now two it seems!) I think "names" doing the odd fringe production in between their paid jobs is a very good and understandable (if it's ain interesting show/part) way of working and I would applaud this to boost that particular show's profile, etc. If conditions are not right - these actors are always in a position to turn the job down. My concern however here though is mainly those young actors starting out, taking on fringe work to gather experience and prop up their CV - and then getting exploited because they either don't know any better or think they have no choice. It's a fine line between a positive fringe experience benefiting the creative team - and a producers "using" people or things getting out of hand because they simply don't know what they are doing. This is why I whole-heartedly support your statement re conduction an arts council investigation. What should be of uttermost importance always is protecting the industry and its members and we should learn from our Equity counterpart in the States who are very good at it.

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Posted 03 December 2008 - 01:37 PM

QUOTE(Guest @ Dec 3 2008, 10:53 AM) View Post
Some very good points Ems and indeed, it's great to hear from Russ. Reiterating on from my points in the Into the Woods threads (there are now two it seems!) I think "names" doing the odd fringe production in between their paid jobs is a very good and understandable (if it's ain interesting show/part) way of working and I would applaud this to boost that particular show's profile, etc. If conditions are not right - these actors are always in a position to turn the job down. My concern however here though is mainly those young actors starting out, taking on fringe work to gather experience and prop up their CV - and then getting exploited because they either don't know any better or think they have no choice. It's a fine line between a positive fringe experience benefiting the creative team - and a producers "using" people or things getting out of hand because they simply don't know what they are doing. This is why I whole-heartedly support your statement re conduction an arts council investigation. What should be of uttermost importance always is protecting the industry and its members and we should learn from our Equity counterpart in the States who are very good at it.


I agree.  Perhaps this could partly be addressed through the theatres themselves?  I don't know - perhaps a 'fringe' equity agreement that certain theatres of under 100 seats could sign up to in order to prove that actors in their productions (and those of their visiting companies) are not being exploited?  It could allow for profit share but make this conditional on actors being allowed to see copies of the accounts, and ensure that these theatres provide for enough breaks for performers, etc?

I can't see equity liking this because it won't grab headlines and is in some ways controversial because it acknowledges that not all actors are being paid for every job.  But in terms of making a real difference to fringe conditions, it could be a very good thing indeed!




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