Fringe-onomics: Assessing the National Minimum Wage ruling
The recent ruling regarding actors being entitled to the National Minimum Wage when working on Fringe productions has created a bit of a stir – with some people proclaiming that it will lead to “the death of the Fringe”. Whilst the ruling is important in ensuring actors aren’t taken advantage of, reports of the Fringe’s death are greatly exaggerated.
I’ve made my feelings clear on this issue in the past when looking at the example of You Me Bum Bum Train; taking advantage of actors/performers by asking them to perform for free is something I don’t agree with when evidence suggests others are getting paid and making money from their work. In situations such as that of YMBBT, I’m a strong advocate of open-book accounting – allowing everyone involved to see where the money is going, in order to ensure transparency and reassure everyone that there are no parties being treated as ‘favoured nations’ within the company. As theatre and the performing arts can often operate on an uneven playing field – where opportunities can only afford to be taken up by those who can afford to work for no pay, be it in a performance or as an internship – we run the risk of primarily supporting those who can afford to participate, rather than those who most deserve to.
However, we shouldn’t over-simplify the debate. There are benefits to being involved in work far beyond the financial ones – collaborating with others, developing one’s craft/skills, expanding networks and building a portfolio of work can make a huge difference with regards to the future opportunities available to someone, and we shouldn’t deprive people of these advantages by merely focusing on a sole issue. The ruling reached last week does not simply state that every performer should be paid the National Minimum Wage – there is a differentiation made between being simply treated as an employee and being a collaborator. If performers are contributing to the process of developing a piece of work, the relationship is different; they are invested in the piece as a whole, and have a level of ownership a simple ‘employee’ does not.
Equity, whilst campaigning against no-pay agreements, acknowledge this difference; they respect that many of their members may choose to engage in low-pay/no-pay projects for various reasons, and that many members support the work of the Fringe in this way. Their interest is in ensuring members are not exploited, which is absolutely correct and wholly admirable – many of us who work in the arts will know of situations where people have felt exploited, and will undoubtedly stand with Equity against this. Improbable recently hosted a Devoted and Disgruntled event looking at bullying within the arts, and the turnout and feedback suggests that as an industry we are keen to stand against bullying, exploitation and inequality.
The terminology used regarding a performer’s role in a piece seems to make a huge difference in the eyes of the legal system regarding their employment status and, subsequently, what they are entitled to; whilst YMBBT engages performers as volunteers (allowing them flexible commitment with no penalties), the production recently ruled upon advertised as a profit-share whilst – in the eyes of the judge, at least – offering an insufficient degree of collaboration, effectively leading to performers being treated as employees. Should this ruling have the type of impact many suspect it will, clarity over terminology in agreements may well be the biggest area of change – with such a precedent seemingly being set, producers and companies may well ensure the terms under which an actor is employed are clearer in order to protect themselves from future grievances and to allow themselves to continue to work without being forced to pay NMW to all performers.
Ultimately the financial realities are that, if all Fringe productions were require to pay actors the National Minimum Wage, the quantity of work being produced would be greatly reduced. This would then lead to a Catch 22 situation; whilst more work would pay this wage, there would be fewer opportunities to work. The costs of producing work on the Fringe seem to be ever-increasing, with hire fees and rents going up and ticket prices subsequently increasing to try and help companies and venues recoup the cost of staging a production; to factor in increased wages would raise costs even further, to an unsustainable level for the Fringe. And what of musical theatre on the Fringe? This scene in itself is already much smaller than, say, the new writing scene; if a show with a large cast suddenly is required to pay everyone the NMW, then how will companies like the Union Theatre and Upstairs at the Gatehouse be able to produce high-quality work at a sustainable level? Where will actors wishing to work in this field be able to find opportunities to do so?
Pippa Bailey’s recent blog on Fringe economics (largely related to Edinburgh, but appropriate across the industry) paints a bleak picture regarding the near-unsustainable financial level at which the scene already operates; whilst this can be partly attributed to a scene reaching saturation point, it is also reflective of a degree of exploitation on behalf of numerous parties wishing to profit from the hard work of companies and individuals wishing to create work. It’s sad to say that a large number of people working on the Fringe are losing out financially, beyond just actors – and I myself have worked on projects where I have not been paid and even have lost my own personal investments, all the while ensuring actors are paid and treated fairly. To me, this is the most important thing to work towards; whilst the NMW model is economically unsustainable, working towards a fairer system is an important responsibility of those producing on the Fringe – and by producing quality work, the non-financial benefits I mentioned previously can be more widely recouped.
It is in no-one’s interests within the industry to ‘kill off’ the fringe, which to me is the biggest indicator that the scene will survive; however, in order to do so efficiently we need to all work together to make a more collaborative, supportive scene. Transparency, honesty and respect will go a long way towards achieving this.