Commentary: If theater can't continue without free/low-paid workers, should it?

Mark Shenton, [UK], 10/4/12

There's an ongoing debate around free (or poorly paid) labour models in the theatre, whether it be armies of unpaid interns working behind-the-scenes, amongst actors working for so-called profit-share on the fringe which basically invariably means working for nothing at all, or indeed amongst theatre journalists, filing reviews and other copy to myriad theatre websites, for 'experience' or just the bonus of getting free tickets for shows while holding down regular day jobs as accountants and the like. Of course it may well be that all this activity would be simply unsustainable if the theatres and publishers were paying real, living wages. But if it's not sustainable without it, should it be given sustenance at all? One of the biggest attractions of the fringe is that, with no money to make or to spend, it can provide [a] taste for adventure unsullied by commercial considerations. But it comes at a price, literally, for actors, directors, designers and stagehands who are doing it entirely for the love of it instead. Of course, it's not entirely altruistic - it's also a career opportunity, in the sense of getting noticed (national critics invariably turn out in force for shows at the Finborough), and who wouldn't rather be doing the craft they've trained to do than sit at home twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the phone to ring or the e-mail to ping? But [an] actor friend has also suggested to me that, as long as there are theatres that don't pay actors a living wage, she won't be going to see shows at them. She's going to withdraw her support as an audience member. And maybe that will force those theatres to examine their business models again. They are sustained by actors who surrender their rights to be paid at the first audition, and audiences who subsidise the theatres by still buying tickets for them. It will only change if both the actors and the audiences behave differently.


Reply: Fringe theatres will close down if Equity minimums are imposed

Comment by Robert Shaw, 10/4/12, posted in response to the blog post above

The alternative is the US model where Equity actors are forbidden from working in non-Equity shows on pain of expulsion from the union. It's no accident that New York writer Katori Hall's Olivier Award-winning play Mountaintop premiered in London. For all the brilliant new writing development organisations in New York, no US producer would take the financial risk of producing an unknown writer. The US Equity model is sterile and oppressive; to art, to innovation, to risk-taking and to its members. It's definitive proof that this is not the way to go. There's certainly a debate about whether the London Fringe should continue in its present form. In the end, actors will make that decision by voting with their feet. The fringe can only sustain itself with actors. While actors see other benefits in doing fringe that compensate for the lack of pay, it will continue. If it becomes obligatory to pay Equity minimum rates, the Fringe will close down. Or it will become the playground of the rich (those rich enough to pay) even more than it already is. I believe the Fringe has lost its way. Too much of it now belongs to that very establishment it started life trying to get away from. I would suggest that much of what now passes for Fringe, but is in reality the theatre establishment trying out its musicals and its star-driven projects on a Fringe budget, could quite easily be dispensed with.


Commentary: The larger implications of asking musicians to play for free

Joshua Clover, The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog, 10/2/12

Amanda Palmer, the singer who raised a spectacular sum on Kickstarter to fund her new solo album and then asked for volunteers to play with her for no pay when she went on tour a few months later, is the Internet's villain of the month. A brief primer on what happened: Palmer [hoped to raise $100,000 on to pay for her new album; she raised $1.2 million]. Album in hand, Palmer prepared to tour. She advertised for local horn and string players to help out at each stop along the way: "Join us for a couple tunes," as her Web site had it. Even better, "basically, you get to BE the opening ACT!" Just one thing, local musicians. There would be none of this million-plus dollars available for you. Supposedly, Palmer had spent it all on producing her album, airfare, mailing costs, and personal debt. She promised instead to "feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily." Cue furor, via the usual music, snark, and music-and-snark Web sites. Palmer has since renounced her scheme and will pay the pickup players, but the outrage remains. The outrage over this incident is, however, more complicated than it might at first appear. It's entangled with the current debate about wealth inequality that has animated both the Occupy movement and the Presidential campaigns: the sense that even newly minted haves, like Amanda Palmer, really need to treat have-nots, such as local musicians, a whole lot better. It only adds piquancy that Palmer adopted the posture of the moustache-twirling boss. As she told the New York Times, "If my fans are happy and my audience is happy and the musicians on stage are happy, where's the problem?"


Related: Palmer's bandmate discusses the volunteer musician controversy

Jherek Bischoff on his blog, 9/27/12 

I am currently on tour with Amanda Palmer as her bass player, and ad hoc musical director, organizing and rehearsing string quartets in cities where we can find them. I have been a *struggling* musician my whole life. This was a choice, and one I will never regret. Maybe for that reason, it warms my heart to see people standing up for musicians' rights. [But] you might imagine how difficult it would be to tour and bring an orchestral record to life. So Amanda presented the idea of reaching out to her fanbase, something she has done in various ways in the past to great success, in order to source local volunteer players for each night of her tour. For her, it really *was* all about engaging her fanbase. It wasn't until the tour actually started, some weeks after the open call was made, that the comments against the call began to mushroom on the internet. When the feedback started rolling in, you can bet everyone involved began reassessing the entire situation. Both Amanda and I definitely have some regrets. And for what it's worth, I was glad to forgo profits from the nightly sales of my own merch in order to compensate the volunteers. And of course, Amanda announced later that all of the volunteer musicians would be paid, retroactively as well, which I am very happy about. Having spent a lot of time now with AP, I am continually inspired by her passion, innovation, and genuine support and love for her fanbase and everyone that works for and with her. She is a pioneer, navigating through an evolving music industry in which paradigms are shifting. There is definitely some trial-and-error along the way, but I absolutely know that her heart is in the right place. 

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