aka : is it ok to be paid nothing?
Or perhaps those aren’t the same questions, and it’s thinking that they are the same questions that causes the difficulty.
I’m prompted by this discussion to consider my own response to the question – and to consider the question.
This week we begin our 6-day Chaosbaby R&D. Everyone coming to the R&D (25 performers, writers, directors, designers, makers, musicians) is being paid. There are some other people coming along for the first time because they’re interested in how we work and they want to know more. They’re coming as guests (not paid). The reason we can afford to pay ourselves as the Chaosbaby makers is that 11 of us, earlier this year, spent a full day (and some of us spent quite a lot of time afterwards) – for free – working on an Arts Council funding application. And, beyond that, many of us, most of us, have spent a weekend 4 or 5 times a year, for the past two and a half years, working – for free – on the Chaosbaby Project. Getting it to a stage where we had enough of an idea what the thing might be, where we had a strong enough (and very loose) company pf people, and where we were in a position to apply for funding so we could pay ourselves to take the next step.
BUT we, the 25 who are now the core company, had also agreed, among ourselves, that we wanted to do this work anyway. That we wanted to work on this idea anyway. And that we would do so with or without funding. It’s great we’ve got funding. Amazing. We’re hugely grateful to ACE for taking a chance on something so very untraditional. AND we had been working without money, and had committed to continue to do this R&D unpaid if necessary.
Not one of those 25 people is independently wealthy. Not one of those people has a partner who can afford to support them while they go off and make nice creative stuff. None of them have ‘proper’ jobs they can take paid holiday from to make a theatre piece. Six of those 25 are parents, two of them sole parents with small children (it does help that we are happy to welcome children in the rehearsal room, it means that the vast sum needed for childcare stops being quite such a barrier to making work). All of those people want to make work, want to make this work, and have agreed, among ourselves, to do so.
So … while I am completely in agreement with Equity that performers ‘should’ be paid (so ‘should’ writers, directors, designers, stage crew etc etc), the truth is, that’s an ideal. And a problematic one, at that.
Because the very real question this begs, is what happens to the fringe, to non-traditional work, to work that doesn’t fit into an easily-funded/easily-subsidised box if our union thinks we should only work when we’re fully paid?
(I am immensely proud that, having done plenty of ‘profit-share’ in my time, where I never even earned as much as my travel expenses, in Shaky Isles we have always paid everyone working on our shows a share. Not huge shares, of course, they are always a share of ticket sales income, but not totally negligible either. And that on no funding/subsidy at all.)
The problem is, it’s far too simplistic to divide it into pay/play or no pay/no play. Most performers I know work far harder than the hours they’re in the rehearsal room or on stage. They go home and work on the script, they drive their family and friends crazy with the extra work they put in, it is never a 40-hour week. Very many performers use the bonus ‘good’ money they earn from ads or voiceovers or occasional TV jobs to support their far less lucrative theatre work. Most writers (stage/screen/books) are ALWAYS working on an uncommissioned/spec idea – or eight. We wouldn’t have any ideas to offer when the requests come in if we didn’t. In many cases we have to write at least a first draft before someone will trust us enough to put money into the next draft. I know visual artists who work all the hours there are on making work, developing their work, rarely on commission, almost always towards this show or another, in the hope they’ll THEN sell the work.
It is normal to do the work and then try to sell it.
It is also normal that what we see in our big buildings and our subsidised theatres leans towards the slightly safer, the less wild, the more likely to get bums on seats. It has to. Fair enough.
And an old leftie like me is hardly going to say I think artists should be prepared to work for no money.
BUT if the choice is no work for no pay, or no pay and making work anyway?
I’m a maker. It’s what I do. It’s at the core of who I am. I am always going to want to make work, and I’ll do it in my ‘spare’ time, around my paid work*, if I have to.
There are two things that might make this discussion easier –
I think transparency helps. Be honest with the whole company – say “This is how much money we have as a company, how much shall we put into the production costs, the publicity, the venue, how much shall we pay ourselves?” (that’s what we’ve done with the Chaosbaby R&D funding and yes, it’s time consuming and not everyone is that interested in the discussion, but it’s certainly honest and open.)
I think equality helps enormously. We’re all making the same show, with different roles, sure, but if we’re putting in the same hours, we should be getting the same money. (Be that some, all or none.)
Let’s have this discussion, but let’s not risk losing the extraordinary/absurd/wild work just because no-one is ever going to be able to fully fund a show with 60 people, touring the country and performing half in and half out of venues**. Let’s not risk saying that work is not of value unless it’s paid. I think all artists know better than that.
*Yes, I know, it IS alright for me, I do earn enough from my book writing to not need to earn a full income from my theatre making. But that’s now. I have been making theatre (as well as writing) all my adult life, paid and unpaid, subsidised and unsubsidised. I’d rather make work than not.
** Of course, if you do fancy that, the Chaosbaby may be just what you want!
All artists surely know better than that indeed. No pay does not mean invalidity. That’s why my son, in the 4 years since leaving Brighton Uni (Theatre & Visual Arts – First) worked for free with, amongst other things, You Me Bum Bum Train and internments at various theatres. He now does marketing for a well-known theatrical college. However, bills must be paid, food must be eaten and these things need paying for. Now me. Left job (which discriminated against me and made things “awkward” when I told them I’d been diagnosed bipolar) because I left area. Now, seeking work, I am constantly told it would be “good for me” to do voluntary work. I have 12 years experience of voluntary work (both on top of or without paid jobs) and I can tell you that thorough research shows it actually does not pay the bills. Q’uel surprise! So, all well and good for the young who may still have a home with the folks. Not so great for those with shopping, bills and nothing else to find. We have become people who used to enjoy theatre, musicals, art of any sort and trips out anywhere – and have become people for whom the main entertainment (when the bills are paid/shopping bought) is t.v.
Tomorrow, I’m off to Fairlop Waters to see an art installation and to write about it. Yep. Because it’s free. But we all have to live and I don’t see why anyone performing entertainment should be any less entitled to pay than anyone else.
I completely agree. But that only works if there IS money to make the work. If there isn’t, then my choice has always been to make the work anyway (and, in fact, my making work anyway, has very often led to the work being paid for eventually, just after the fact not before or during – often the case when writing books for eg.) And one of the things that excites me so much about the Chaosbaby project is the 40-year age range across participants, so it’s certainly not that we’re all 20-somethings just starting off and willing to work for nothing. We all have bills to pay – AND we want to make work as well.
I always worry about the question of asking actors to work for free, because the arts don’t have enough subsidy, and the tragedy is we lose great actors and workshop leaders to other jobs because they just cant afford to stay making theatre, and surviving financially in the arts world that is so underfunded. As artistic director of a company who will only do shows when we have the funding to do this, in the 10 years of our existence we have only done four shows, or equivalent of one every two years. So not having the money does completely stop us from doing that strand of the work. Also we used to charge schools £450 for these shows as part of the box office contribution, but now for a days we are finding that schools will only pay in the region of £150 – £200. But I totally agree with you Stella, when we are not having to rely on subsidy we can take bigger risks, my latest company has three actors, i would love to have employed five but my budget would not have allowed it. In Chaosbaby we have a company of 25, and suddenly the ensemble potential is greater, and the range and diversity of the company is vast. Chaosbaby is set up to be non exclusive, with children welcome at rehearsals, as a single parent myself when my son was younger, I could only carry on working in the arts because of the relaxed attitude of the people around me to my own childcare issues. I strive to pay people but actually payment doesn’t always come in the shape of money. I do the chaos baby for free because it pays me in so many other ways. I get to work and meet so many other amazing people, I get to try things that scare me (like doing the tango), and I come away from each session feeling challenged and enriched. The truth is the arts needs more subsidy or investment, but there will never be enough money to pay for all the innovation that is out there, and in the arts we need to have the flexibility to ask the what’s in it for me question, and know that even on the days when we don’t get paid that somehow what we are doing is feeding our souls.
“Let’s not risk saying that work is not of value unless it’s paid.”
I don’t think anyone is saying that or anything like it. But I think there is a big difference between creating something that you have some kind of ownership stake in, and working for someone else for free for ‘the experience’ or ‘to get exposure’. There are plenty of people out there who have a motive to convince actors that they’re not worth payment so they can get their skills for free. I think the question you have to ask is – who benefits from my free work?
Yes, that’s a great question. My experience of theatre makers in the past 30 years is that they are generally more generous and more open than trying to “convince actors that they’re not worth payment so they can get their skills for free”. After all, if people are really only in it for the money, they’re not likely to see theatre-making as the way to get there!
Making money isn’t the only motive. Often it’s about fulfilling their artistic vision for as little money as possible. You may identify benefits for you from participating in their show, but you have to know where you’re going to draw the line. The other problem I wonder about is that if there is all this unfunded or part-funded work going on, what’s the incentive to keep funding work properly?
There has always been unfunded and part funded work, that’s nothing new at all. (See the West End for eg!) It hasn’t stopped public or private subsidy of arts in the past, it’s not going to stop it now.