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!