Many actors will admit that there are some roles where payment arrives not in the form of money, but in opportunity or experience. However, anonymous bloggers and acting unions have started to complain that the number of paid jobs is increasingly dwarfed by that of unpaid ones.
Miss L, the creator of the casting breakdown whistleblowing website and Twitter account, Casting Call Woe, has noticed the gap between the number of paid and unpaid jobs for the last two weeks.
She’s not the only one. Martin Brown, press manager for Equity, the union for performers, concedes: “Our members perceive a growth in low or no pay”. His comment is backed up by the union’s Low Pay and No Pay campaign, which launched in April 2013, and states that members have “told us that low pay and no pay work is a growing problem in the creative industries and that action must be taken.”
In December, the results from Equity’s most recent member survey showed that at least 56 per cent of its members earned less than £10,000 from being professional performers between November 2012 and 2013. In 2012, those earning with less than £250 per week median net disposable income, around £13,000 a year, were deemed to be below the poverty line. Furthermore, The majority of members were not reimbursed for their expenses. The chart below shows the number of weeks of professional work undertaken by members in 2013. Brown estimates that 60 per cent of working actors are Equity members.
The reasons for the lack of paid work are, and have always been, numerous. However, along with the 7.3 per cent increase in drama school admissions in 2013, the notion of getting people to work for free has spread from other industries. Brown says: “In some way the professional entertainment industry reflects others in the uptake of interns – who are also expected to work for no pay.”
There is a growing sense that people are being exploited as a result. Although Miss L cites TV and film jobs which are being advertised unpaid, the largest number of unpaid jobs according to the Equity survey happened in the theatre industry.
Fringe theatre has a long tradition of putting on non-profit shows or productions which work on a profit-share basis. Equity are not opposed to collaborative works that result in no or low pay. Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director at the King’s Head and Hope Theatres, who have a pledge to pay performers in Fringe theatre, stresses the importance of fringe theatres in kickstarting careers.
But problems arise, Brown explains, when an employer/employee relationship crops up in productions which have unpaid roles, some hundreds of which are advertised on websites such as Spotlight which charges more than £100 per year subscription for members to apply. Casting Call Pro also charges members to apply for paid work, although anybody with a free subscription can apply for fringe theatre opportunities.
According to national minimum wage legislation introduced in 1998, all actors working in professional productions should be paid by law, but as Spreadbury-Maher says: “many small theatres don’t comply with regulations”. According to Equity, many unpaid actors who are eligible for minimum wage often feel too vulnerable or scared to take their claim to a tribunal.
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