Art Isn't Easy
The London fringe has long been a hive of activity. Many of the best productions I have ever seen lay far away from the glittery lights of Shaftesbury Avenue and the West End – often in the most modest and unassuming of venues in zones of London which many rarely dare to tread.
The sheer amount of Fringe theatre means that the quality will always be extremely varied – for every exceptional show I see, I find something equally disappointing. What is the most exciting thing however is when you take a chance on something relatively small that ends up being exceptional in many ways.
The life of jobbing actors is an extremely hard one, and as the market becomes saturated with talented performers and not enough West End/touring shows for everyone to squeeze into no matter how talented they may be, the fringe has expanded and in many ways absorbed this talent, much to its advantage. Very few actors find themselves moving from one West End show to the next, so many find fringe part of the natural trajectory their job entails.
The Fringe pay debate is a hotly contested topic and one which seems to have no concrete answer. On the one hand actors are professionals and thoroughly deserve to be paid the appropriate amount of money for their skills. The simple premise of supply over demand however means that Producers can get away with not paying actors what they would receive in a larger acting job – and this is mostly down to necessity rather than greediness or people looking to make money off the back of the skills of others.
Producers on the fringe are themselves working in a saturated market – it’s difficult to get audience members through the doors. If you’re in a fifty seater house (a somewhat average size for a ‘pub’ theatre), even the most optimistic producer would be foolish to bank on over 40% capacity for a longer run – bringing down the potential grosses of a show charging somewhere between £10 and £15 to barely above the level to pay the rent. Added into this non-variable costs such as rights and licensing (which in the case of a musical can be as much as £100 per performance – regardless of how many people you happen to be playing to), it becomes increasingly difficult to balance any sort of budget – let alone one in which the actors are paid a respectable amount of money.
How much does this matter to an audience? The majority of people watching productions don’t have a second thought for how much it costs to mount a production or how much the people involved are getting paid. I am sure that many would be shocked if such figures were published – especially looking at a couple of high-profile fringe musicals this past year where actors were paid less an average weeks rent. Do the audience have a right to know this information? Would it affect how they see shows? Are audiences themselves actually complicit in actors being ‘taken advantage of’ by supporting such shows and not raising such issues?
It’s an extremely tricky situation. Enforcing any form of minimum wage on actors on the fringe would stifle the creative output considerably – producers would simply not be able to mount productions. But who is to blame in this situation? The venues for charging rent for their (often prime real estate) space in Central London? The estate of the writers collecting royalties on behalf of their clients who have created the shows? The creative team spending their time and often own money putting up the show in the first place? You can see the problem.
When actors or creatives are looking at projects to be apart of, financial gain is more often than not the last thing on their list. Those actors, directors, designers etc. who are sat waiting for a dream opportunity at a perfect salary to land on their lap are quite simply going to be disappointed. Using your skills to find or create an opportunity that may not be financially rewarding, but beneficial in other ways is often when the most creative energy is present. Money can certainly stifle creativity – so many musicals and plays are born in lawyers offices where Producers are looking for the next biopic or jukebox musical that has hit written all over it from the start. Art is about striving, challenging and pushing yourself further, and many of these opportunities have to be self driven.
The best advice I’ve ever been given is thankfully one that many in the industry share. When presented with a potential project, especially one that has no financial compensation, you always have to ask a) will the project be enjoyable and b) will I learn something from it? If both are yes – it seems like a good ‘investment’ of your time and skill, albeit for little financial gain. I’ve always been taught that you can find a positive in any negative – and even projects I’ve been apart of which have pushed me over the edge, have all had some form of positive attribute – even if it takes a while for that to surface. By collaborating, you’re meeting people like yourself and that’s what marking art is all about.
Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George ask similar questions, as well as much bigger ideas of the nature of creating art itself and the purpose its plays in life. Throughout the song ‘Putting it Together’ we here the struggles and difficulties that go through a ‘creatives’ head when starting out on a project. The Baraba Striesand version of the same song (which includes new lyrics by Sondheim) highlight a similar struggle in the pop music world – a credible artist battling against the label who are pushing her to write what ‘the public want’ – essentially writing for money rather than artistic integrity.
In many ways the London fringe is a similar bubble. Something that doesn’t sit right with me at the moment however is the insistence of producers, and in many cases the public, to transfer a production into the commercial West End. After every press night of a fringe musical you’ll see an onslaught of (often Twitter led) campaigns saying “X show is so good is DESERVES and NEEDS a West End transfer…!”.
Whilst this is obviously meant as a compliment – I sadly view these comments in a more negative way. Whilst the benefits of a commercial transfer are obviously clear to everyone (and would lead to the cast being paid a commercial rate), the comments, whilst clearly congratulating the work somehow end up belittling the very production they’re trying to promote. When mounting a production, venue is the key ingredient on so many levels. This dictates the size of the cast, band, nature of the set, direction, choreography and relationship with the audience. The most successful fringe productions are those which fully inhabit the space in which they’re in and own the venue. By turning attention too quickly to the future, both cast and creatives run the risk of missing the moment in which they’re in – not fully appreciating the success they have created the first time around.
Whilst I’m aware most of this comes from the audience, willing a show to do well and pushing it to succeed – a West End transfer from the fringe happens in so few cases, it sets a bar high that even the best shows fail to meet. The danger then becomes that a production is seen as a ‘failure’, based on the fact that everyone said it should transfer into town, and it didn’t.
There are countless examples of shows in smaller fringe venues currently running which would be wonderful in West End venues – again, the market is saturated. With upcoming productions of Urinetown (transferring from the St James Theatre) and The Scottsboro Boys (from the Young Vic), we have two similar examples to judge how successfully these moves can be. Whilst both were well reviewed the first time round, and in the case of the latter played to sell out audiences – both shows seem to be struggling initially with ticket sales, which does run the risk of devaluing the success and appeal of the original fringe production.
At the end of the day – that’s the risk. And risk is what this industry is about.