Should we review productions with unpaid actors – a response to Mark Shenton.

In light of Mark Shenton’s recent decision not to review productions where actors and crew are not paid fairly, I decided that it was appropriate for Upper Circle to take stock of the opinions around us, and then take a stance.

Esme Mahoney, Actor & Upper Circle Contributor:

I think that really changes need to be made on a legislative/legal level in order to have any lasting or substantial effect. It is simply not fair to ask actors/directors/reviewers/crew etc. to pass up opportunities to get involved in what they love on principle if the work is unpaid, especially as it makes no difference to whether the show will run or not – there are too many people who will jump at the chance to do something, so we are never going to achieve a universal boycott of unpaid work. Not paying people properly is undeniably bad practice, but it is unrealistic to expect that the system can be changed from the ground up. Not reviewing theatre where the actors are unpaid is, in my opinion, salt in the wound, and is punishing the wrong people by taking away potentially useful exposure for these artists. Perhaps if there was a compulsory or voluntary disclosure of payment states in shows, which could then be included and commented on in the review, we could begin to weed out unpaid work via a process of naming and shaming.

Merel van t Hooft, Actor & Upper Circle Contributor:

I really love that [Mark Shenton is] doing this and raising awareness for payment issues in the industry. There is still a small part in me that has some doubts, however; for instance, how do you measure/find out, and where do you draw a line, for what constitutes a ‘collaborative, non-hierarchical venture’? And what if the actors are still very happy to be in a production that’s not necessarily collaborative, but from which they are gaining a lot? Say, if I was given an opportunity to work with a very good director at this stage in my career, I would gladly take it, pay or no pay. And then it would even benefit my career if people like Mark Shenton came to review it. So in a way he might actually be making matters worse for struggling artists. I don’t know for sure of course. On the other hand, you could argue that me accepting unpaid work is upholding the system of exploiting young actors, and I can totally see why Shenton doesn’t want to be a part of that, and that’s laudable. In short, I think the intentions are great, I just hope it won’t have an unforeseen opposite effect on the people he is trying to help.

Anonymous, Freelance Stage Manager:

I think where I come down on the debate is that it’s basically, Mark Shenton’s tweet is just a really nice show of solidarity with actors. It seems a strange move to prioritise actors over other theatre disciplines – I have worked on shows both where I’ve been paid a lot more than actors and where I’ve been paid lot less, and either way is essentially nonsense. No one working on a professional show is more entitled to earn a professional wage than anyone else and Shenton’s gesture would be more meaningful if it were extended to all theatre disciplines, from designers to stage managers to even box office staff who are often ‘volunteers’. But I’m sceptical that it will change anything, the issues in the theatre industry especially on the fringe are endemic. No one’s got any money – producers and directors often end up making losses, they’re usually not exploitative for their own profit. And I don’t actually know how that will ever change while there are hundreds of fringe venues, all of which are tiny so can’t sell a huge volume of tickets, and enough people who are passionate/stupid enough to forge ahead with a career that is likely to bankrupt them haha. Also what about the prohibitive costs of training for actors and backstage – 3 years then often MAs, usually living in London – the whole cost of theatre industry to an individual is ridiculous anyway. 

So, what is the stance Upper Circle will take?

For now, Upper Circle will continue to honestly and quickly review anything, within reason, that we are invited to and can send a reviewer to. We are happy to do this because at time of writing, no one from Upper Circle makes any income – our journalistic ventures are not lining our pockets at the expense of actors or other creatives’ pay. I entirely support Mark Shenton’s views and think that with his sway, he certainly can have an impact on this problematic element of the industry. Upper Circle will continue to review work produced in this manner on the basis that hopefully, if work is looked upon favourably, these reviews can provide at least one benefit to those unpaid creatives.

Image: Thomas Charters, Unsplash.

Emma Betty 

Emma Betty
Emma Betty

Emma Betty is 28 and a nurse in Birmingham Children’s Hospital’s Paediatric Intensive Care Unit. Emma has the Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Soundtrack (On CD!) to blame for her love for Musical Theatre, which she found in her parents living room pretty much as soon as she was old enough to know what it was. She began combining her love for Theatre, the Internet and Writing while she was still at school, through various blogs and on social media. Having moved to London in 2013, she launched Upper Circle 4 years later. A couple of years on, she is delighted to have a small team and is so grateful to those helping Upper Circle to grow every day!

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