The risks of collaborative risk-taking

Earlier this week the Guardian published this article about the rising trend in fringe theatre to pay its actors in nothing but sandwiches and Oyster fares, in exchange for work and exposure. Interestingly (and pertinently) for us, it does little to address the threat that stricter enforcement of employment law in its current form would pose to genuine and responsible companies in the early stages of their careers. Companies like Thrust.

Many fringe productions have, historically, been put on by groups of artists who come together to make new work, or work in new ways, that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. They are often informal collaborations, or cooperatives, in which everyone shares the risks. However, over the last decade there has been a growing sense that this fringe is being supplanted by a new fringe, in which producers put on productions that make money but for which no one gets paid.

For the record, there is nothing historical about that. We were at a fringe festival last month working in exactly that way: collaborating, taking creative (and financial) risks as a group of young artists. And we weren’t alone. So were many of the other companies in our venue, and also I suspect in the festival at large.

Of course, the business model of the start-up theatre company at a fringe festival is, to anyone outside our industry, absurd. Not only did we lose money, but we expected to lose money and still judge our festival season to be a success. After all, we came home with four star reviews, a relationship with an award-winning venue who admired the ambition of our work, and  (and let’s not play down the significance of this) we were all alive! First fringe, nearly 20 artists, six performances of two shows with two flying sets and tiny turnarounds, and no-one had died of nervous collapse or, indeed, killed someone else. Score.

But yes: we lost money. And really, companies shouldn’t hide or be ashamed of that, because it’s the nature of the beast. All told we made a loss of about £3,000, the majority of which was soaked up by outside funding but there is still a substantial impact on the personal finances of certain members of the company. And I’ll come back to that in bit.

The Guardian article, for the most part, speaks of the exploiting of the actor by the producer – matching the general industry-wide rhetoric. Sadly, it neglects to acknowledge that most young companies (and I use “young” to refer, in the most part, to early-career companies and artists, however it is not unimportant to note that the majority of these artists are, indeed, young, and thus less financially stable) are not facilitated by the kind of producer that Swain is writing about.

Our company producer, the titanium-armoured Rosanna Grimes, does not “produce” with a vision and a chequebook, but with her bare hands and gritted teeth. In companies like ours shows tend to be “produced” (ie, financed) en-masse as a collective or (as in our case) by the lead creatives: the artistic directors. None of us draw a salary, or even a fee. The exploitation of these creatives: the directors, the designers, the stage managers; is portrayed as second to that of the actors and yet, in reality, that loss I mentioned earlier was burdened by three people, not twenty.

Thrust HQ after a long day on the Fringe: unpaid, but not unhappy! (Photo: Ryan Funnell)

I am proudly in love with our artists. Without them, most of my proudest achievements – not with the company, but in my whole life – would have remained ideas in my head. Not being able to pay them for the work they did in Brighton this year was gutting. We live in an age where young people are devalued on a daily basis. Instead of trading in our degrees for a lifetime of career security, the advent of the unpaid post-grad internship instead tries to persuade us that our skills are literally worth nothing but, indeed, a sandwich and an Oyster card. I vehemently reject this in principle, but in practice we are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Actors are the obvious face of this dilemma, but they do not shoulder the burden alone. I didn’t get paid either. Neither did the designers or the stage managers. But the blame for this does not always lie with the producers, as seems to be the dangerous assumption. The producers, in our context, would be the business’ three managing partners (me, Will and Rosanna): and not only did those three people not get paid, but they actually paid for the work to happen. If we hadn’t done that, and if we had been forced to pay the rest of the artists, the work would not have happened at all, and we would not be in a position now where we can look at a future where we are able keep making work with those same but, crucially, paid, artists. It is as if the finger-pointers have already crossed the bridge from starting-out to relative creative freedom, and burned it behind them.

Producers who take advantage of actors should, quite rightly, be sued and weeded out of the industry. Young creatives are worth more than a line on their CV: they are worth a cheque. But when young creatives (like Thrust) work together; impoverished, yes but equally impoverished; it is a shame and a crime that those taking the biggest risks should then also risk being tarred with that same brush.

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