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A Frank Talk About Cash

Theatre: the Talk in England

Freelance Director Life , Theatre , February 3, 2020
Theatre: the Talk in England by Freelance Director Life Trade papers run into their hundreds. The services and products are hugely different but their papers are alike. They are a mix of news, interviews, industry events, opportunities, bolstered by press releases and advertising. The normal trade paper reports the triumphs, the launches, the barnstorming innovations, the commercial coups, the buccaneering CEO's doing great things.

The theatre press is different, less braggadocio and more self-enquiry. The critiques of itself have an element of frustration in the reading. Conclusions are paraded from data without the sources and the range being given. A 5% change, for instance, in the number of artistic directorships held by women may well be significant. But without the range, the time-span and other relational information it does not say a great deal in itself. It would help if more journalists had done a first lesson in data validity. But never mind.

The equation of work and reward is tricky, perennial and comes in a myriad forms. Tech start-ups in Europe fly development teams to islands in the Mediterranean. Offshore, they are freed from tight labour regulations. The techies can do their 14 or 15 hour days and the employers can pay them far more money.

Admittedly employers finding the means to give their staff more reward is not the norm. In most areas of work the matching of income and effort is an uneasy issue. In the professions the point at which consultation ends and billing starts is always a matter of fine calibration.

Money is not often given a public airing. The reticence about it as a topic has a cultural heritage in being seen as unseemly; there is something to be said for it. A director, Sophie Ivatts, broke with convention in an opinion piece for “the Stage” of 23rd January.

She is not quite alone. One of the best services to the culture of Wales, although ironically never seen in Wales, was the revival of Emlyn Williams' “Accolade”. The career of the director, Blanche Macyntire, was revealed in a newspaper profile. Her forgoing of income was quite shocking to a lay reader. Sophie Ivatts goes further and names some sums. The article reveals that she has been beneficiary of a research project for the Clore Foundation.

The piece is of medium length, so reduced to its essentials. It starts with saying that 2019 has been a personal good year. (Not stated, but it was with the RSC and Arcola.) But then the path to get there: “the fruit of 10 years of labour: unpaid assisting, working on the fringe, jobbing as a waitress, a nanny, a tutor, lodging with various cousins, aunts, siblings and staying in dingy digs on tour.”

The first issue is the pay rate itself. The Equity minimum fee is £3,500 and presumably the offers usually drift to the minimum. An outsider might think “nice”, except it is for 35 working days. That has to cover an overhead of days not working, meetings, emails, invoicing, accounting, finding and negotiating work. The most likely annual result: “near enough £16,600 per year before tax, national insurance and student loan repayments. This falls far below most entry-level salaries, and most full-time salaries in other theatre roles, to say nothing of the skill and leadership required of a director.”

“Then apply the costs of the buy-out fee.” This is described as “the standard structure of pay for directors and designers and it means that the fee is not linked to time worked.” The consequence: “So the better I do the work, the poorer I am financially. If I do 10 days of preparation for the job at £3,500, the day-rate reduces to about £78.”

The word used in self-description is revealing. “I, like almost all other creatives in theatre, am freelance.” The term “freelance” has particular connotations. The on-cost of employment is around 30% after salary. The pay-off for an organisation in a freelancer is a higher pro rata cost. But that balances out with the advantage of the relationship not being employment. But here the cost is below employment. A more accurate term would be “contractor.”

The writer touches lightly on some of the costs beyond cash. Some are not warranted. For instance in this paragraph: “Theatre demands utmost flexibility from its freelances. [sic]. You must be available to answer emails and attend meetings...take a job at short notice, and to be able to support yourself immediately when the job ends. Theatre doesn’t have to concern itself with how its workers support themselves when they’re not employed on a show.”

“Theatre” could be replaced in this paragraph with “government departments”, “banks” and a host of others, even “charities.” As for getting the next gig: “Work that allows you the flexibility that theatre demands and that pays enough in the periods I between shows is… well, I’ve never met anyone who has found it.” Although it has to be said that I have.

A portfolio life has a price. “Look at the well-being costs. All freelances [sic] know that strange feeling the first day after a job has ended, having nowhere to go, no one to see and no money coming in. Your security pass is void. You are shut out, while the company moves on to the next thing. And the cognitive dissonance of the status, respect and friendship you enjoy on a job, versus the nagging knowledge that you are being quietly ripped off, is unbearable.”

This sounds horrible. Freelancers in other sectors leave with a sense of a job well done and with a client's thanks. A CV is enriched. On occasion a celebratory farewell dinner is held.

There is no specific call to action. The appeal is to made to a wider sense of goodness, theatre's sense of being virtuous in its collective motivations. The nub of the article is in the line: “I am a director, and directors’ fees are acknowledged to be untenably low.” There are three factors behind this. One of them is inner. A status quo is tenable because individuals are available to conserve a status quo. The line follows “we are refusing to see the true costs of this”, although the article itself is refutation of this.

The other factors are a tale to be told at another time. As a viewer of theatre I am ignorant of what occurs behind the lights and before the show. I am theatre's beneficiary. The article is a window that reveals just how greatly I am that beneficiary.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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