Features Published 25 February 2019

Are community choruses exploitative?

J N Benjamin explores the ethical issues around casting unpaid 'community' performers alongside professional actors.
J N Benjamin
The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

The concept of community theatre is evolving. A new wave of productions are casting local people in commercial shows, alongside a principal cast of professional actors. In the past few years, top London theatres including Almeida Theatre, Bush Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Young Vic Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and National Theatre have all made use of this casting method. But it isn’t exclusively a London thing; the Actors’ Touring Company production of The Suppliant Women cast a new group of women in each city of its UK tour. More recently, Royal and Derngate’s Our Lady of Kibeho and Eclipse’s Princess & The Hustler join the list of productions that feature a community cast.

Productions that give ‘ordinary people’ the chance to take centre stage are widely regarded as the last bastion of unadulterated goodness in an industry that reveals new levels of fuckeries on a regular basis. And, on the surface, it seems like these ordinary people are being given a wonderful opportunity; to perform in a full-scale, main stage show. But gentle interrogation of the process reveals a set of murky truths.

First of all, these wonderful opportunities that audiences are paying to see rarely – if ever – remunerate their community contingent. Members of the community chorus in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s sold-out 2018 production of Twelfth Night were not paid a single penny for their involvement. The show rehearsed from July until September and then ran eight performances a week, for eight weeks, which means the community chorus dedicated almost five months of free labour to the project.

In her book Fair Play – Art, Performance and Neoliberalism, Jen Harvie argues that free labour mocks the principle that acting should be paid, and risks making [it] the privileged domain of the independently wealthy. When you consider that a number of performers in any community chorus will be unable to work a paid job on evenings and weekends during the rehearsal and performance period, plus on some weekday afternoons where a matinee is scheduled during a run, that makes sense. Only people whose living arrangements can withstand this level of fluctuation in earning ability can comfortably take advantage of such opportunities.

Lack of pay can be justified if participation is cost neutral, but the reality is that basic expenses are not a given either. Members of the community chorus in Lyndsey Turner’s 2017 production of The Treatment at The Almeida Theatre were expected to cover their own travel costs; those with ‘exceptional circumstances’ could ask for help, but it was not guaranteed. Meanwhile, those in the aforementioned Twelfth Night community chorus were offered a travel stipend of £3 for every rehearsal and performance they attended. For context; assuming everybody lives or works in zone 1-2, the cost of a return tube journey costs a minimum of £5.80. All this adds up to members of the community chorus – who are not being paid for their involvement – effectively subsidising the cost of a commercial production. In other words, paying to perform.

But even if appearing in a community production is cost neutral for participants, downgrading the sorts of roles that might otherwise be paid presents a further moral conundrum.  Sometimes community choruses are there to populate a scene for effect, or to deliver an essential prop – as would otherwise be done by supernumeraries and stage hands. Often, the requirement is to perform a featured part, ones that not just anyone can do; those that demand not only stage proficiency but also discernible singing, acting or dancing talent. Is the proliferation of unpaid community chorus projects within a commercial setting contributing to an overall lack of opportunity for working class people to build an acting career? Alan Lane, Artistic Director of Slung Low, says that “community theatre should be about allowing people to be something more than a customer – it’s a political act. Community theatre productions are experiments in citizenship; they are experiments in cultural democracy; they are experiments in making culture immediately accessible by virtue of letting the people own it. Too many theatres are using the badge of community theatre to disguise a lazy recruitment process which means a bunch of actors who haven’t been given an opportunity to demonstrate their talent are using these projects as an opportunity to do so. But that’s not what community theatre is or should be about”.

There is deep irony in the reality that – in its current format – the community chorus model that was created to make theatre more open and accessible inadvertently perpetuates the very systematic barriers to access it means to break down.

Of course there is an argument that those who join a community chorus know what they are signing themselves up for from the outset. And there is some truth in that. But here is where we must examine the balance of benefit. A glance at reviews for this sort of production tells us that that theatres generally stand to gain a lot from community chorus involvement in a show. When ATC’s touring production of The Suppliant Women stopped at the Young Vic Theatre for a two-week run in November 2017, it was lauded with five and four star reviews across the board. The theatre lapped up the praise. Meanwhile, the 27 women who featured in the community chorus and made the production what it was did not even receive an acknowledgement in their own programme.

Another thing Jen Harvie argues is that people are easily persuaded to undersell themselves by taking unpaid or underpaid work in the hope that it’ll lead to future paid work. This is certainly true of many who join community choruses, which often – especially in London – attract trained early career actors who are keen to seize the opportunity to perform on a prestigious stage and get some decent exposure while they’re at it. Theatres have a duty to navigate this knowledge responsibly, but instead many of them do not.

I once spoke with a prominent theatre director who was planning a large scale commercial project with a community chorus. During the conversation, we spoke about community chorus pay. If they had to pay everybody, they told me, they wouldn’t be able to do the project. The response made me wonder if this director cared more about the production and their reputation than they did for their community. In the same conversation this director spoke about the importance of showing local communities that they are valuable and valued, and advocated for theatre buildings to be less exclusive. There’s more irony here; to pay a principal cast, but not the community chorus for doing the same thing is the very definition of declaring value in some people, but not others.

The most contentious elements of the use of community choruses concern money, but the most sinister concerns the use of the actual word community. It is sinister because of what the language sells to participants; what it sells to audiences. You cannot put a group of people in a room and expect community to just happen. An investment must be made. It takes time, effort and consideration to build the kind of trust and bonds that make a community in this context. When this investment is not made, a breeding ground for the ugliest elements of the human condition prevails. Competition infects the lifeblood of the process. Community, in any true sense of the word, is about what a group of people bring to a group. More than that, community is about what you leave with after being part of the group. There must be an exchange; a contract, if you will. If you leave with little to nothing after you have given everything, then it must be considered that a form of exploitation is at play.

There is no doubt that community productions can provide meaningful experiences for those who choose to engage with them. We absolutely know that who says things, changes those things. If you have a group of citizens of a place, talking about or performing a show about that place in that place you get something else; you get more than a piece of theatre – you get a ceremony. Watching the community chorus in the Eclipse and Bristol Old Vic co-production of Princess and The Hustler earlier this month, it was manifestly clear that considerable thought had gone into not only why they should be there, but also what would make it a meaningful experience for them. Their primary function in the show was to represent their Bristolian heritage, and be celebrated while they did it. Another fine example is Complicité’s everything that rises must dance. The movement piece, an anthropological exercise curated by Sasha Milavic Davies and Lucy Railton, was performed by 200 women from across London, in public spaces in the city.

The Young Vic Theatre has also produced an impressive portfolio of parallel productions via their Taking Part department since it was established. These productions usually take the prevalent themes from a main house show and invite people from the local community – who have some connection to the issue – to create a performance with said issue at its heart. They are usually performed free-of-charge for small and specially invited audiences. Other examples of similarly notable and exciting activity in the field include Emily Lim’s work at the National Theatre as part of their Public Acts initiative, Ned Glasier’s work with Company Three and Naomi Alexander’s work with Brighton People’s Theatre.

These kinds of community productions rely on a collaborative process that promotes learning and growth. They encourage intra-cultural, cross generational dialogue among people of different races, different gender identities, different sexualities and different social classes. They help form friendships and bonds and support networks between people who may never have met in their usual walks of life, that continue way beyond the duration of the project. This kind of community production offers tangible benefit to both participants and host theatres alike.

But when it comes to working with the community, who’s holding theatres to account? The world of community choruses occupies a woefully under-regulated hinterland, and those in them are vulnerable to mistreatment and malpractice. My conversations with several people who have previously taken part in commercial community productions highlighted a myriad of serious complaints, that included being pressured to take time off paid work to appear in unpaid performances, rehearsing without breaks, being shouted and sworn at by directors, and gaslighting – one even mentioned physical assault. Some of those expressing the complaints were afraid to raise them during the course of the production, for fear of being negatively labelled. Those who did raise complaints felt at the time that they were not dealt with appropriately, or at all, by their host theatre.

Generally speaking, Equity does not get involved in community production business. Community productions are defined as non-professional work, so fall outside of their remit. Maybe they should, though. Maybe every commercial production that features a community chorus should be subject to Equity approval, and a related code of conduct that includes a statement of commitment and intent from the director and a memorandum of understanding for each performer. But Equity can only ever be part of the solution. If we are really going to shift the culture of exploitation that plagues our industry, theatre buildings, directors, and theatre practitioners need to rethink fundamental questions about intent when it comes to community work within (and without) a commercial setting. And at the heart of this should be honest consideration about what they have the capacity and resources to give to their community, weighed against what they have to gain from them.

For more writing on community and participatory theatre on Exeunt, read Nathan Lucky Wood’s piece on The Trouble With Outreach.

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J N Benjamin

J.N. Benjamin often has opinions about theatre, and sometimes writes about them. Talk to her @reviewsandtings on twitter.