After thinking that I might have been the only one concerned with this for the last two and a half years, The Stage
this week have produced a ten page special on a problem that has seemed to mushroom over the last decade.
With alarming regularity, actors and crew on both stage and screen are being asked to work for little or no pay. So what's new?! some of you will ask. The arts have never been a place for those wanting to make a fast buck. I fear however, that something has changed.
Years ago, unpaid work was the domain of those that simply didn't have funding; Fringe theatre and low budget films were the places for innovation and experimentation, outside of traditional funding arenas. That, to a great extent is still true. Unfortunately, those (like myself) who took on the odd unpaid job a decade ago seem to have created a monster. Only a couple of weeks ago, a casting website posted an ad looking for actors for a new show that had been commissioned by the BBC. "Expenses only" and "Great exposure" was the only pay on offer. The BBC were not directly responsible, I hasten to point out, but this production company were not without the resources to pay all contributors fairly. They do it because they can.
Some readers will declare that market forces dictate the level of pay, and that huge competition has driven wages to this point. Who can stop a desperate new actor taking on this work? What is wrong with freedom of choice? All true, but do we really want to live in a society that says "I am free to do whatever I want, regardless of the consequences".?
Those consequences are very clear to me, as I have worked as an actor and producer for 15 years now. Producers who trim their wage bill to zero can drive the cost down when competing for venues, eg outdoor touring shows. Companies that pay their actors will be more expensive and less desirable to venues. Actors who can afford to work unpaid for several weeks are the only ones that can apply for these roles.
We now have a situation where actors are being told that they must accept the likelihood of not obtaining a paid job for the first 3-5 years of their career. Saddled with debt, only those willing to plunge further into debt or have some sort of independant income are able to get a foot on the ladder.
Is it right that we are breeding a generation of actors (and crew) that are being selected for the job largely on their ability to work for free, instead of talent? How can those from a less well-off background be represented in the arts? How can we bring diversity of background back into play?
It is a problem not just for the arts, but also in other over subscribed areas of work such as journalism and politics. Unpaid interns are the subject of much debate these days. How does the RSA itself stand on the issue?
I've tried in the last couple of years to do what I can to change attitudes by setting up a production company that practices what it preaches. I've got involved with Equity and have been able to pursuade some of the ruling council that this is something that its members, especially young graduates, are very worried about. Other fellow campaigners have sucessfully pursuaded ACE to remove unpaid work from its ArtsJobs website.
Some attribute my open letter to The Stage in 2009, with nearly 1000 names in support as a catalyst to events that followed. Back then there was an initial backlash, but attitudes have changed. This week, there were some fantastic blog posts with various viewpoints. The brilliant things is, is that they didn't ask me. They didn't need to. There are many more voices now than just my own.
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