My interest was recently sparked by the Facebook status of a fellow ranter/rambler and great friend Dr Ria Keen. I am quite sure that she was not referring to the specifics of my own train of thought, but her comment seemed to provoke an emotive response. The gist was this: “Why do people expect those of us who work in the arts to work for free?”
It’s a contentious topic and one that maybe considered a little hefty for a first time blogger, but it is close to my heart. It is also one which regularly raises its ugly head in dressing rooms and band rooms up and down the country. Suffice to say, it always forces even the most timid into a forthright opinion. As I find myself regularly crossing the divide (and boy is it a long way) between pit, stage and creative team, the subject rarely dims in its treatment.
Why do we do it?
Well, quite! Why? There is generally little thanks, quite often we are taken advantage of and then, of course there is the sordid topic of coin, or lack thereof. Not only are we engaged in an activity which will not contribute to our mortgage paying, bill heavy, over bank charged current account, but we seem to be prevented from earning via any other means due to the drain on time. I refer the honourable gentlemen to my first question – “Why?” The answers are detailed, complex and personal to each case, but here is my story….
Too long ago to count on opposable thumb related digits I left school and entered the big wide world. I always knew that the arts was my true home, but an academia driven eduction left me ill equipped to know where to begin. I entered the Civil Service. A rookie mistake, but one which eventually was rectified. In my innocence/ignorance I decided that I would attempt to bridge the gap between my amateur roots and professional fancies and formed what we would know today as a show choir. I arranged the music, organised a small tour and rehearsed the 20 strong company in my living room. Was anyone paid? No. Unbelievable it worked as I was spotted and began a long and illustrious career with a great mentor and friend (yes, that would be Dr Keen). Long term it also worked out for the choir too as they are still going today and are quite often paid into the bargain.
Five years further graft, countless cabarets, sessions, touring and production shows and a fair few countries under my belt I luckily landed a West End agent who got me seen and consequently into Chicago the Musical. You’d think that would be the end of the happy tale and also of my need to perform at the drop of a hat at any given function, charity do or general opening of a fridge, but no, for the world of Musical Theatre is riddled with those working for free.
It is a common fact that there are far too many of us in the business and the number of shiny floor TV shows seems to be in direct relation to the number of teenagers choosing bright lights and ‘a dream’ over academia. At the same time, the West End is a small place full of the same people moving from show to show and a principal line up gathered from channels 1-99 of freeview.
I’m straying towards another rant altogether, but you get the picture. The point is that in order to widen our casting, be seen by new agents, casting directors and to feel more artistically fulfilled than a commercial, painting by numbers project would allow, most have to consider working for free at some time. For this we turn to the London Fringe. A wonderfully exciting place full of interesting people, brilliant ideas, product that would never normally be considered by the big league and, most importantly, no money what-so-ever! Unlike Broadway, where ‘Off Broadway’ is just to do with the capacity of the theatre, the London Fringe (its equivalent) is a collection of spaces above pubs, under railway arches and in the back rooms of larger venues. They could be anywhere around London and are frequently not easy to find!
To be involved in a Fringe show is a very different experience and one that West End leads are now specifically searching. I know several stalwarts who have requested a stint in a dark and dingy corner of London.
Luckily for me, most (yes, I did a few – they can be addictive to those fueled by creativity and not money) have worked out to be very productive for future work: One afforded me a contact that lead to a number one tour, others have lead indirectly or sometimes directly to future work with the same production team in more financially rewarding times. Plus, of course, I cut my MDing teeth in this environment. The positive note is that sometimes these things really do pay off, the negative is that sometimes they don’t and it could take several years before you see the benefits.
One always hopes that ‘this show’ will make a miraculous transfer into town and that we will all be stars in the making, but the truth is generally far from that. The production houses that regularly go that way are elitist and the common man can’t even get an audition – they are reserved for the select few, who are part of the afore mentioned sect moving from show to show. In general you are involved in order to network. You simply don’t know when you are going to meet the next Mackintosh, Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn or Gareth Valentine. They all have to start somewhere.
To return more specifically to topic – as a creative it is quite exasperating when faced with performers who haven’t really addressed the question of ‘Why am I doing it?’. If their answer was ‘money’ they are clearly barking up the wrong tree. Even the most fastidiously honest ‘profit share’ producers won’t be able to pay you a living wage. In truth, your answer should probably be: To be seen by casting directors and such, to expand my CV, to get an agent, to network or it could be to help out friends, charity etc. There are a number of reasons available, but there should always be one. A lack of an answer will inevitably lead to despondency and back biting.
Having established the reason, then ask yourself “What can I do to ensure my needs are met?” I worked with many who knew why they were there, but then did nothing about it. Pointless. Do you need to write letter, call people, publicise on the internet? Next; “What am I expecting form the company and do they know that?” Never assume. Finally; “What is the base line?” ie what happens if you don’t get what you need out of this project? Ask yourself these questions before you accept. Nay, before you apply. If you don’t have satisfactory answers by the time you are saying yes or no to the job, don’t do it.
Those people who I worked with who I don’t believe could give full answers to these questions are the ones who caused trouble for me as an MD. In an actor-musician piece, the last thing I want to hear on a daily basis is: “I am an actress, not a violin”! I do not purport to be anything influential in the industry, but I am frequently asked to recommend suitable applicants for jobs and my opinion of people with whom I have worked. Why would I recommend someone who causes trouble and creates atmosphere in a rehearsal room?
So, ask yourself “Why?” If you can’t find an answer that betters you as a person or a performer and one that won’t keep you happy through a difficult creative process, do not press submit, do not say yes, do not pass go and collect several hundred pounds of debt.