Features Dialogues Published 11 April 2018

Roundtable: Working Conditions and Pay in Theatre Design

Ahead of an open meeting on 'The Value of Design', eight designers at all career levels discuss the struggle for fair working conditions.
Francesca Peschier
The Scenic Paint Studio at the National Theatre, which hosts 'The Value of Design' on 17th April

The Scenic Paint Studio at the National Theatre, Photo: Philip Vile. The NT will host ‘The Value of Design’ on 17th April.

The recent debate on no pay, low pay, and the merits of boycotting work by unpaid creatives has largely revolved around actors. However, discussions on how other theatre creatives are undervalued are gathering speed. From Tom Scutt on Twitter demanding credit for designers in press photos, to the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) consistently reporting below minimum wage Arts Jobs listings to Arts Council England, designers are speaking out. Ahead of open meeting ‘The Value of Design’ (more info below), we spoke to eight SBTD member designers to get a snapshot of the industry and some of the issues they face at all levels of the profession.

The designers who agreed to be interviewed for the following discussion have been anonymised to protect those who feel their future employment may be jeopardised by their comments, and so that those who are well known don’t become the sole focus of the discussion.

  • A has worked as a professional freelance theatre designer for 5 years, including 14 months on the assisting trainee programme at the RSC. They also teach design and model making.
  • B has worked professionally as a designer for 10 years, mostly for devised work and new writing. They also run their own company, and are experienced in getting a project funded and off the ground.
  • C won the Linbury Prize for Stage Design and has since worked in the industry for 17 years, the last 5 solely as theatre designer. They are a parent and based in London.
  • D is an established, international award-winning set & costume designer who specialises in opera.
  • E, F & G are graduate designers in their first year in the industry. They studied at BA level on a non-conservatoire course.
  • H is a designer and scenic artist who has worked professionally in theatre and performance for 10 years.

What unique challenges are faced by designers in negotiating fair pay? 

C: Not knowing what anyone else gets paid! This gives producers a distinct advantage when setting rates of pay, it allows them to play designers off each other and subsequently fees remain notoriously low.

H: It’s the wild wild west, each theatre and company appears to make it up as they are going along. They might offer the same fee for a two-hander set within one location that doesn’t move, as they would for a pantomime that travels to 10 locations and has a 30-piece cast.

B: The question of how long it takes to produce a design is similar to how long is a piece of string, it’s impossible to quantify the creative process. We might be paid for 5 weeks at minimum wage, but factor in rehearsals and tech and you’re only left with one week to create the design. When it comes to the visual side, time is not valued and set aside.

H: Perpetually underpaying artists in beginning to mid careers lessens the wealth of people from all walks of life who can pursue a career within our industry. Creative teams should be reflective of society over all, not just pockets of it.  

How do you manage?

G:  I’ve been looking for creative work for 10 months, I had to get a part-time job at Sainsburys. Although it helps, it’s still a challenge to cover costs.  

C: The problem of fair pay still remains at the highest levels and can arguably be worse due to the increased scale of the production’s requirements. Whilst I now have an agent, broadly speaking, any increases in fees are still minimal as you also have to pay them commission.

B: I’m lucky in that I have a supportive spouse and a benevolent landlord. I think most designers have some sort of extra support as it just couldn’t work on the current fees. When I first started out I had a couple of months where I couldn’t pay the rent and those were quite scary times, but I don’t know how I would manage as a new graduate now.

Have there been jobs that you have turned down related to pay?

H: Yes, due to pay, unrealistic timeframes and/or calculations of workforce. Most producers and production managers are not monsters and when the facts are laid out to them, revisit their initial calculations. However, the consistent presentation of these initial offers does show a genuine lack of understanding of what we actually do and the time it takes.

E: I’m not at a stage in my career where I feel able to turn down work. You have to value your own work but not having a developed enough portfolio can be equally self-sabotaging.

B: I am gradually raising the minimum I’ll work for! Of course, if a director comes to me with a really exciting project then I’ll sometimes do it regardless, but there comes a point where it just isn’t financially feasible. Generally, the lower paid the job the less well-resourced the production is as a whole, so designers find themselves doing everything and all for a smaller fee than they should be getting just for the design – it can be exhausting and demoralising.

How do assistant designers fit into the mix?

D: If I haven’t used an assistant for a while I will ask them what they have received for similar work and/or ask other designers what they pay. I pay a daily rate, then hourly overtime. I pay slightly different rates for different levels of experience but I have never used someone for no pay, even if they are inexperienced.

E: I have yet to meet any designers who would advertise for an assistant they didn’t think they could pay at least £10/hour, and all I have worked with so far have been conscious of providing good working conditions and offering mentoring.

How can we better prepare graduate designers?  

H: I feel that courses are getting better in preparing students for the sector’s freelance profession, but more can be done to embed this earlier. Simple things like knowing you have the right to negotiate your contract (even without an agent), not just your fees but your credit in program, copyright, access to production of photos, press night tickets and so on.

How helpful have unions such as Bectu and Equity been in protecting you?

C: Mostly I’ve not been able to afford regular membership to any of these throughout what has been a very financially difficult career. To my knowledge BECTU and Equity have offered very little protection catered specifically for designers.

A: Equity has always held up the minimums of what a professional designer should be paid. The SBTD are researching and evidencing where we can bring our pay and work standards up to those parts of the industry that have much more clearly defined rules. This is where a link with BECTU, ALD, EQUITY, and SBTD, could be very rewarding in establishing a better place to work for creatives of every type in theatre.

Let’s talk about designers’ copyright…

D: For opera, the original company own the production and can reproduce in perpetuity without the designer getting paid. This should change, designers of a successful production should get a royalty fee each time it is reproduced.

C: My stance is that the copyright in my work legally remains mine, always, other than for the specified period of time a producer has licensed and payed for it. Where the problem lies however is in the value of this Copyright. There is no financial formula or tangible indication within the industry of the Copyright’s worth as a proportion of the overall design fee.

D: The new thing to watch out for are rights with regard to filming; it’s usually in the contract, but often required to be signed away. We really don’t fully understand the potential commercial value this has and how a designer’s rights need to be protected regarding digital broadcast.

The SBTD is building a recommended fees database for members, how do you feel about such transparency?  

D: Information is power in negotiating.

C: The current system of arbitrary fee allocation leaves us all in the dark. The combination of this ignorance and freelance isolation allows us as a profession to have our work and time exploited.

The Equity minimums aren’t fit for purpose, in fact they are so low as to be damaging if abused by under regulated producers. They need urgently reforming to better reflect the time investment of a highly qualified and increasingly professionalised freelance creative workforce.

What would you like to see change?

B: We really need to start understanding the processes of theatre making better- the time it takes outside of rehearsals to create a piece of work.  We also need to start recognising the need to take care of ourselves. We have to budget enough time for there to be space to breathe.

H: I would like to see attitudes to family life and parenthood change, to see the industry making better commitments to initiatives around co-parenting which would allow women to better sustain a career in the industry.  

E: I’m struck by the fact that if my personal situation was different I would have to leave the industry. It’s not that other young graduates are less talented, qualified or ‘passionate’, they simply need to have stable incomes and housing. Asking people to work for free doesn’t weed out the less devoted designers it simply gets rid of people from more vulnerable and lower income backgrounds.

For a company looking to employ a designer, what one thing would you like them to know or think about? 

A: I like to think of the fringe theatre ‘fire triangle’ as time, money and people. Ideally, you’ll have all three, but without one of those items, you’ll need much more of the other two – and spending a bit more on a designer will always pay dividends. Designers can do great things with smaller budgets – it’s worth investing in someone.

D: Know that a great design can only be created by a good team and they all need to be valued.

B: Employ a production manager!

C: Understand what we do better. Learn our process. Respect our time and artistic investment. Know that we are highly skilled professionals and creative leaders, not hobbyists. Pay us accordingly.

valueofdesign

The Value of Design

On the 17th April  SBTD, ALD (Association of Lighting Designers), BECTU and Equity are holding ‘The Value of Design’, an open meeting for all designers at the National Theatre to address the issues concerning them. This will be the first meeting of this kind for designers in nearly 40 years, and will launch an ongoing campaign of the same title in the lead up to the renegotiations of the UK Theatre and SOLT collective agreements.

Fiona Watt, Honorary Secretary of the SBTD says:

“Through detailed surveying of our members we are becoming more and more aware of the extent to which designers are absorbing considerable expenses over and above the basics that are being covered in their contracts before we have even considered that the current fees matrix is not fit for purpose. It is clear to see that once this is combined with commission paid to agents, covering studio costs etc. there is very little left that covers the extensive design and attendance phases of the role.

As the expectation of companies to be able to distribute UK based designers’ work around the world as digital content with little or no additional remuneration rises, we simultaneously face an urgent need to build a more diverse design community in the future, something which can’t happen without radical shifts in the current fee structure and the exploitation of designers’ copyright.”

Though there is now a waiting list for next week’s discussion, you can follow the conversation on Twitter using the #TheValueofDesign hashtag and through a follow-up report that will be circulated after the event.

The Society of British Theatre Designers provide ‘Looking for a Designer’ and ‘Becoming An Assistant Designer’ guides on their website. They also now offer Public Liability Insurance Cover as an inclusive part of Professional and Graduate membership

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Francesca Peschier

Francesca is a freelance lecturer, reviewer, and AHRC funded PhD student at University of Arts London. where her research examines the relationship between scenography and identity in Liverpool. A former model maker and set painter, she still manages to keep her place on the Society of British Theatre Designers committee. She is the founding editor of JAWS, the Journal of Arts Writing by Students published by Intellect. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with running a croquet society and back-combing her hair to desired Dolly Parton heights.

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