Every theatre I know is calling out for financial help from wherever they can get it, from government sources and the public. They want to avoid staff redundancies and so are taking advantage of schemes like the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (“furlough”). They are asking—begging!—their audiences to donate or take up Friends Schemes or “Name a Seat” offers. They need the money to survive.
So yes please, do support your local theatres—but as you do so, remember that you are supporting the venue, the admin staff and possibly some of the techs (although many of them are casuals, brought in on a “per show” basis and so are not salaried)—in other words, you are supporting the place where theatre happens.
But what you are not supporting are the people who actually make theatre happen: the writers, the freelance directors, the choreographers, the freelance lighting and sound designers—and the performers, the actors, the dancers and the singers. They are booked and paid on a “per show” basis—and usually on Equity, BECTU, ITC, Director’s Guild, Writers’ Guild minimum rate. So if they’re not working, they’re not earning, and, unless they’re major stars, they don’t have the savings or other financial resources to support them through the times of unemployment.
In fact, 70% of people who work in theatre / performance in the UK are freelance or self-employed. Some, it must be admitted, have partners who are working in salaried / waged jobs, but the majority have to survive some other way.
So what do they do?
They wait on tables, serve behind bars (often in theatres), work front of house in theatres, do menial jobs in hotels, work in shops, stack supermarket shelves, join cleaning companies—anything, in fact, which will bring in some money. Some earn the odd bit of cash here and there by life modelling for art classes.
Sometimes they do two jobs: cleaner first thing in the morning and bartender in the evening or part-time shop assistant during the day and theatre usher or programme seller at night. And they are usually on minimum wage and on zero hours contracts.
But of course, at the moment, restaurants, bars and hotels are shut, non-essential shops have only just opened, full-time and part-time education courses aren’t running and there’s a surplus of people who have been made redundant who are looking for work.
Some years ago, Equity estimated that, at any one time, 80% of actors were “resting”—sounds so much better than “out of work”, doesn’t it?—and I doubt if the figure has changed very much in “normal” times nowadays. In our current situation, however, I suspect that the figure is as close to 100% as makes no difference.
This is the reality of working in this industry; the people who really make theatre are at the bottom of the heap financially and are always the first to be discarded when money gets tight. And yet, while so many theatres are begging for financial aid, are going into liquidation or making staff redundant, these actors, writers and directors are still making work, producing audio or video monologues or plays in which each actor records their own parts, which are then edited together, and these are shown on YouTube or made available on SoundCloud or other podcast providers. And they’re doing it, not for pay (because there isn’t any), but because they love their work.
These are the people who, even if they are out of work in “normal” times, will form their own companies and perform wherever they can, because making theatre is more than a job, more than a way of making a living, it is a passion and a vocation.
Theatre can’t do without them but when we hear that the government is being asked for financial aid for the industry, it’s not them the industry wants to support—after all, they can apply for Universal Credit!—but it’s the buildings, in the West End and elsewhere.
By way of contrast, in May, the Sunday Times announced its “Rich List” which included The Theatre Royal Haymarket owner and show investor (he was one of the investors in Hamilton) Leonard Blavatnik who has a net worth of £15.87 bn and Sir Cameron Mackintosh, currently in discussions about redundancies at his venues, with £1.24 bn.
So if, after you’ve watched some audio or video self-produced by actors, writers and directors, you are asked to make a donation, please do so. A gift of £5 (or more. Preferably more. Make it a tenner!) will make a far bigger difference to them than it will to Cameron Mackintosh!