Actors working on the fringe will be guaranteed the legal minimum wage they deserve at a new experimental theatre.
Andreea Pohus reports.
A newly-launched fringe theatre in Islington will feature only new writing and will spare production companies rent – as long as they commit to paying their actors fair wages.
Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the founder and artistic director of the new Hope Theatre, which opened on 5 November right above the Hope & Anchor pub, is hopeful about the new experimental 50-seat theatre room. He has considerable experience of the London fringe, having founded the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, which has now closed down. He is also the artistic director at the King’s Head Theatre, which is down the road from the Hope. The King’s Head is the oldest pub theatre in London and also operates under the same fair wage scheme, allowing actors to receive the legal National Minimum Wage which they are often denied.
On the theatre’s opening night, Maher claimed that fringe actors are usually underpaid because, “we don’t value the arts in the UK as they should be valued. For example in continental Europe, an actor not being paid – that doesn’t exist, it’s not heard of. Whereas in the UK, we can sometimes write off theatre, particularly smaller boutique theatre, as a hobby or an indulgence.”
Maher, who has used the space that is now the Hope Theatre as a rehearsal room for years, persuaded Greene King, the brewery in charge of the pub, to rent out the room for free. In an effort to be as financially savvy as possible, the new theatre will have front of house staff brought over from the King’s Head. The Hope has also kept the financials of customers in mind, as they will be spared booking fees by buying their tickets through the Soho Theatre company. Maher explains that in fringe theatre, there is a “culture of profit share”. He says the fringe needs to, “stop being a commercial interest for landlords to exploit artists”.
Much like the King’s Head, the new Hope Theatre does not receive public subsidy. However, in order to enforce its fair wage scheme, it is collaborating with Equity, the biggest trade union for artists in the UK. Production companies looking to perform at the Hope will have to sign an agreement to pay all their actors and crew members the National Minimum Wage, and split their box-office profits with the theatre.
Martin Brown, assistant to the General Secretary of communications at Equity, says: “Working as a performer is an ambition for many people. That means that there is great competition to get work. Competition between workers enables employers to persuade some people to work for low wages or no wages. Equity tries to regulate this through collective agreements.” However, while the trade union has settled many agreements with employers’ associations to set minimum wages for those in broadcasting, feature films and West End theatre, Brown explains that this is more difficult to do in the world of fringe, “where there are no employers’ associations to reach collective agreements with”. Despite this problem, Brown goes on to say that “Equity tries to bring some regulation to this area of work by promulgating contracts and supporting members in National Minimum Wage claims.”
Fair and legal pay: an on-going battle for actors
Earlier this year, five actors who agreed to perform at a fringe theatre in London without pay, won a case in an Employment Tribunal which ruled that according to employment law they must be paid the National Minimum Wage. Equity was a lead supporter of the actors and their move against the fringe theatre company. While employment law categorises actors as workers entitled to the National Minimum Wage, many young artists who wish their talents to be recognised will often agree to work for free.
Adam Colborne, an actor performing during the opening night of the Hope, believes that the new theatre’s fair pay scheme means that “theatre-making and the creatives is becoming a really viable option, rather than never making it in the acting industry”.
Shelly Asquith, the president of the University of Arts students’ union and a representative of the Arts Group, a national lobbying group that represents arts education institutions, recognises that the UK has “historically nurtured many world renowned actors”. However, she expresses concern that, “as more and more jobs are unpaid, people from working class backgrounds who do not have the means to otherwise sustain themselves [are forced] away from acting as a profession. This will have a very negative, long-term effect on the industry and needs to be addressed.”
Maher believes the Hope gives scope for playwrights making their way in the profession. “The Hope Theatre means a new space for new writing in London. It’s the only new writing theatre exclusively devoted to new writing in the capital,” he said. The theatre will also host musicals and operas which feature unique and original new writing.
The theatre opened with two plays from the Edinburgh Fringe, Sandpits Avenue and League of St George, which will be running until 30 November. From 3 to 31 December, the venue will present Ushers: The Front of House Musical.
The Hope Theatre
Above The Hope & Anchor Pub
207 Upper Street,
London, United Kingdom