Features Published 6 March 2018

Boycotting Work by Unpaid Creatives Isn’t the Answer

Some thoughts on work and exploitation, following Mark Shenton's statement that he'll no longer go to shows made by unpaid creatives.
Alice Saville

Theatre critic Mark Shenton recently announced that he’ll only review theatre shows by companies that pay their actors. That seems good, ostensibly. (Although for a critic that doesn’t primarily review fringe work, this statement doesn’t have the far-reaching consequences it would if made by, say, The Stage as a whole). He’s used the Equity hashtag #ProfessionallyMadeProfessionallyPaid to show that he’s only reviewing shows who subscribe to the union’s rules, with an exemption for work that’s made collectively.

On the face of it, this principle is hard to argue with. At its worst, unpaid labour shuts out creatives from working class backgrounds, puts people into debt, and sets an insidious precedent that creative work isn’t work that’s worth paying for. It’s good that Equity is leading the charge towards paying people fairly. And this is a debate I have agonised about stepping into, because I badly don’t want to be one of those people who muddies the essential work of ‘making sure more people get paid’ with awkward ‘what ifs’.

But I believe that thinking critically about work and exploitation is vital, because this stuff is complicated. The Equity campaign is a case in point. Superficially, yes, it looks positive. But even its name is a bit of a fudge. ‘Professionally made, professionally paid’ implies that actors will be paid as skilled workers, who’ve undergone training. Instead, they can expect £33 per performance (as per 2015 figures, the most recent I can find) and around £55 per day of rehearsals. It’s a pay rate that’s barely above minimum wage for the actual hours worked. And it also undermines lots of the hard-won principles of pay that unions like Equity have won for workers in creative industries. It doesn’t take into account the fact that acting is skilled, unstable labour, it doesn’t compensate actors for the other hours of the week (actors might have a second job, but good luck finding one flexible and accommodating enough), and it doesn’t offer the premiums that are ideally factored into freelance employees’ pay: money in lieu of pensions, money to be put by for workless periods.

Equity’s fringe rates are better than nothing – but paying a rate that’s ‘better than nothing’ isn’t a state of affairs that allows you to claim the moral high ground. And arguably, a union endorsing low pay deals sends a strong signal that these rates are acceptable  – how many of the thousands of shows who’ve paid these rates would otherwise have paid more, not less?

Refusing to review work by unpaid performers suggests that there’s a binary distinction between unpaid, exploited actors, and paid, well-treated ones. Some Equity-paid jobs can be exploitative, and some unpaid ones can be fair. There are also an awful lot of jobs that fall somewhere in between, and creatives that are getting compensated less-than-ideally for their labour. And I’m not sure where you’d draw the line. Working out who’s being exploited and who isn’t is something that’s more suited to an investigative journalist than an individual reviewer (is Hawks in the Wings looking for a new mission?). It means probing into actual hours worked, whether pay was actually received in a timely fashion, and asking whether producers are prioritising paying professionals or profit margins. And why stop there? What about fringe venues that flout safety rules? Underpayment of other creatives, such as writers and designers? Unrepresentative casting practices? Working in conditions without full policies against harassment and discrimination? The pressures on actors to lose weight or look a certain way?

If I pre-evaluated every show in London according to my ethical scruples I’m not sure I’d review a single show all year.

Mark Shenton’s article in The Stage explains his argument in more detail: he makes an exception for “collaborative, non-hierarchical ventures. An individual or group of friends who collaborate on a show together make their own decision to do so; the moment they hold auditions, they’re holding a job interview.” This requirement is even harder to police: in a sense, all theatre is collaborative, and I’m not sure that the ethics break the second you call someone a director, or bring in someone new who’s fully aware you’re in it as equals.

The recent closure of the Kevin Spacey Foundation is a minor scandal that shows how seemingly principled decisions made by higher-ups end up hurting younger artists the most. The Old Vic haven’t taken the pain, post-Spacey – they’ve shifted it down the ladder, to the early career creatives who are losing out on funding and support.

Similarly, ignoring theatre’s unpaid or underpaid ‘long tail’ is something that’ll hurt the actors and other creatives who work there the most. Sure, a few producers might choose to shift to Equity fringe rates (let’s just reiterate – £33 per show) over profit-share or flat fees. But much of the narrative against unpaid labour relies on the misleading assumption that there are a lot of evil producers, getting rich off the back of the hard labour of honest actors. If there are, let’s bring them down. But generally, if companies don’t pay actors, it’s because they can’t, not because they’re profiteering theatre masterminds. Paying actors is the only way to secure reliably good performers, and to make sure they’re committed to the production.

Instead, boycotting work by unpaid and underpaid performers will give us a two-tier system, where it becomes even harder for early-career creatives of all kinds to progress. This two-tier system is already something that’s happening pretty fast. As newspapers cut their reviewing budgets, they’re generally pulling out of covering fringe work. Theatre is big business – at the top end. There’s already little financial incentive for publications to cover the long tail, to commission reviews which will attract only a few hundred readers – and if this can be styled out as an ethical decision, so much the better.

Fundamentally, reviewing is a strange, arty, twisted form of reporting. It’s sharing what happens in a small room with the outside world. And like all other forms of writing that do this (courtroom reporting, local news) it’s one that’s coming under huge financial pressures. You need an awful lot of this kind of reporting and writing to dredge up the huge stories, to see the bigger trends.

Back to the evil-rich-fringe-mega-producer thing. I don’t really think those guys exist. I do think there are a lot of people who try, against huge obstacles, to scrabble together enough cash to make their creative dreams and schemes a reality. Getting full funding to put on your show means having rich friends and family to draw on, and/or making work that appeals to the tastes of a narrow selection of gatekeepers, the Arts Council included. Early career writers and directors mounting their own work is often the only way to get it seen. Sometimes, these productions are exploitative – not through pure unbridled evil, just because someone’s desperate need to mount a show makes them willing to fudge things, to compromise, to tell themselves that everyone’s in it together. And sometimes they’re not, and sometimes everyone supports each other to find a way to make something they believe in.

Fringe work relies on broken, impossible economics. That doesn’t make it right. But surely the best way to engage with fringe-level work is to report on it, to recognise the shades of grey, and to call out examples of exploitation when they happen in a contextualised way (this is something we do a lot on Exeunt: see recent examples here and here and here). Unpaid and underpaid labour happens at every level of the industry: whether that’s unpaid actors in tiny venues, or a larger fringe theatre company relying on under-compensated actors when it could afford to pay more, or a big subsidised venue running a ‘community chorus’ scheme that primarily works with aspiring actors, or administrative staff expected to work overtime because they’re ‘doing what they love’.

By writing this article, I’m opening myself up to completely reasonable ‘glass houses, stones’ type criticisms. Exeunt started as a completely volunteer-run organisation, created by unpaid writers and editors with day jobs. We’re still a not-for-profit site, in the process of applying to become a charity. After launching our Friends Scheme, we’re currently midway through a transition towards paying all our writers (our goal is to pay for all reviews and articles by the end of 2018).

Given this grey area, I’m not sure if Mark Shenton will be able to read this article. Because another part of Mark Shenton’s argument was that he won’t read work by unpaid writers. It’s unclear where that leaves the bloggers involved in MyTheatreMates, a project he co-runs with Terri Paddock. He’s made an exemption for writers working under their own steam, and presumably classes the MyTheatreMates bloggers in that category. But their work is hosted by an umbrella organisation, and they’re obliged to undertake commercial activity by advertising shows for the site for no payment, which looks awfully like unpaid labour to me.

Exeunt wouldn’t exist if we had had to pay ourselves from the start. Nor would the King’s Head Theatre. Nor would Forest Fringe. Nor would any number of organisations that define theatre’s alternative to the West End mainstream. At the route of much creative endeavour is the process of seeing that something doesn’t exist in the world, and wanting it to make it happen. The worth of an idea isn’t defined by how willing people are to put money into it. Chasing down the stuff you care about has to be balanced with paid work, which leads to compromises (for me – I would love to have reviewed more work at Vault Festival, but it’s been beyond hectic at my day job). And how you transition from voluntary, passion-led beginnings into stable, safe working conditions for everybody is a huge, and very difficult conversation. But that doesn’t mean we should prevent people from trying.

Nor should we applaud critics for not going to see theatre. The really hard thing is to go, and to engage with all the ethical questions it throws up. If you’re not there, I’m not sure you get a say.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B