Phil Willmott is wrong – fringe theatres must pay

July 24, 2015

 

In 1998, the National Minimum Wage Act was introduced, meaning all employers must pay employees £6.50 an hour. In most other industries, this has been accepted as fair – but in theatre, it’s only just coming within our grasp thanks to a campaign by Equity that began in the 1970s to address fringe theatre wages. I was shocked and saddened to read Phil Wilmott’s opinion piece in The Stage, as it appears that this isn’t what everybody wants – that we’re not an industry that can support and pay workers within it. And I couldn’t disagree more.

 

I cut my teeth working at the White Bear Theatre in 2008, directing three plays back-to-back on the profit share model. I was still working full time in an office job. It was from the relative success of these fringe shows that I was able to co-found the Cock Tavern Theatre. Everybody was on profit share – we didn’t know any better, it’s what everyone else did. I made some mistakes, which turned into useful lessons.

We believe the focus on wages has positively affected the quality of the work.

 

The National Minimum Wage Act 1998 says that it doesn’t matter if you say something is voluntary, or agree to do something for nothing – if you employ people (ie. tell them where to stand, what to wear and when to turn up), you have responsibilities to them, and the most basic of this is to pay them £6.50 an hour. It doesn’t matter if you call yourself the producer or not, you’re still the legal employer. The legal language can be initially complicated, but that’s the bottom line – and the one around which the recent trial involving the 2012 production of Pentecost is predicated.

 

We approached Equity and asked if we could talk about implementing some kind of agreement at the King’s Head. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to pay, we just didn’t know how, so we decided to figure it out. We started off paying the National Minimum Wage. Year on year we have increased it, and I’m really proud to say that this has risen to the London Living Wage in rehearsals (£27.45 per three-hour call) and £33 per show. The typical wage for a 7pm main show at the King’s Head is between £200 and £250 per week. This is not enough, and we don’t intend to stop here, but it’s a process, and by the end of the year we will have moved from zero-hours to fixed salaries for all actors and stage managers. For all other performances that aren’t the main show, such as late night and one-off work, we ensure that everyone is paid the National Minimum Wage.

 

We started on National Minimum Wage as a place to begin. It’s not where you stay, the point is to grow from here.

 

Since introducing the agreement, there has been a marked change in the way we produce work. All of our staff and the companies who come through leave with an understanding of the law, and we believe this focus on wages has positively affected the quality of the work – although that’s something the audience decides, not us. All I know is that our box office, press coverage and number of transfers and tours has gone up year on year, and get this: our rents we charge visiting companies have gone down year on year. The model works.

 

And yet articles like Willmott's seem to counter that. He makes out that Equity is scaring young directors and trying to sue producers. And I know he’s not alone – the voices on social media sharing his fears and concerns and agreeing with him have probably disappointed me the most – not that they have an opinion, but that they’re swallowing his: hook, line and sinker.

 

Let me be clear – this agreement has been in the pipeline since the 1970s – Mike Bradwell (who recently directed with us) was on one of the first committees to talk about this problem. It has been 40 years in the making, and it’s been driven by Equity, whose members have constantly pushed for it. Now that we have it, huge numbers of directors and producers are signing up to produce work under this, finally usable, fringe agreement. Is this the “new generation of directors” that Willmott is speaking for?

Of course, if you’re used to working for free, the idea of signing up to pay everyone seems a draconian diktat. It’s even more draconian if that’s how you’ve made your career – and it’s been my mantra for the past few years that finger-pointing at specific venues and producers is useless. We can avoid this altogether if we work together and don't fall into the trap of dividing our awesome industry. This has gone on far enough.

 

It aggravates me that Willmott’s piece makes Equity out to be acting independently of what members want, which it can’t do, and slags them (and their representatives) off for doing so – in an industry paper, no less, and by someone who perpetuates the profit share model, despite the fact that his company (which runs the Finborough Theatre) has £130,000 cash in the bank, according to Companies House. Where has that money come from, Phil? And where is it going? That’s more than we fundraise in a year to stay open.

 

And it’s not as if you’re alone – the Society of Independent Theatres seems to be trying to find a way to circumnavigate National Minimum Wage and lobby for that change. This became quickly apparent to me after attending several of their meetings, and since then other reputable unfunded fringe theatre venues have left the group.

 

Imagine a group of fringe theatre operators banding together to find a way not to pay actors £6.50 an hour. That is what I call ugly.

 

Shame on any mature, experienced theatre maker who perpetuates the cycle of profit share culture

And I say shame. Shame, shame, shame. Shame on any mature, experienced theatre maker who perpetuates the cycle of profit share culture when they know full well that is avoidable. Shame on someone who creates their career, decade after decade, trading on free labour to hop from paid job to paid job. Shame on someone who hides behind artistic collaboration – which is deservedly, correctly exempt, unless anyone is telling you where to stand and what to do. If they are – it’s not a collaboration, and they should be paying you.

 

I am angry. I am angry theatre makers have to endure outdated, feared-up, free labour mongering diatribe. You know where the biggest resistance to change comes from? From the people who stand to lose most from it – the men who didn’t want to give women the vote, the plantation owners who couldn’t image a workforce that wasn’t slaves…

 

A cultural sea change will always throw up some old barnacles, hanging off the side, desperate to keep their profitable ship afloat – it is our job to build a better ship and burn the others down to the ground.

I intend this to be a clarion call – opinions like Willmott’s are antiquated, out of touch, and predicated on not treating actors fairly. And the myth that making profitable work is impossible is just that – a myth. We have a trainee director scheme at the King’s Head that exposes them to the model of everyone being paid, and we want to give more theatre makers the opportunity to see that paying everyone is the way forward. We’re planning to arrange quarterly open days to allow more people in to see what we’re doing, and encourage anyone who doesn’t think what we do is possible to get it touch – email, call, whatever, and I’ll happily run you through what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and why you should be doing it too.

I reckon that’s our responsibility. We have a brief moment in history to make a change, and treating theatre professionals better isn’t such a bad change to make.

 

This article was written in response to Phil Willmott: Here's why a new generation of directors is too scared to make theatre

 

Reproduced from The Stage, the original article can be found here

 

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