Thoughts On Fringe Theatre & Underpaid Actors

Song suggestion: Swimming Home by Evanescence. 

The tiny career I have built thus far is made possible by fringe theatre. Summer 2014, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time and needless to say, it was the best month of my life. No consecutive 30 days in a row have ever been so nurturing, fun, intense and hard working in my life. Not my first international tour, not even drama school, certainly not university!

In my life, I have much to be greatful for, and one of those many things I'm grateful for is fringe theatre. That same summer, I met some amazing people and made new friends. I also intentionally networked the shit out of the Ed Fringe... 8 months later I received an offer to be in my first professional show of the back of that, before I'd even graduated from drama school. That same professional show then went on to have a third life (its first incarnation was at The Fringe - and I watched it 7 times) in the West End. That's how I performed my West End debut on the 17th of January 2016, in Action To The Word's legendary, steam punk, rock opera, Dracula - which was a huge success, with an immediate full-house standing ovation as we took our bows by the way 😎. 

In my opinion, fringe theatre is a great thing and it is at the heart of what makes the UK such a great place for theatre today. 

However, recently I've encountered a counter argument worth discussing: fringe theatre is the cause of underpaid acting and the exploitation of actors in the UK. I completely agree with this notion as well, though my first instinct is: "fuck it! That's normal, everyone has to start somewhere!" 

The problem is, not everyone is as fortune as I am, and I have been extremely fortunate in the past year: from drama school to 5 professional productions in a row, including one West End credit and 2 international tours, in just under 8 months. 

Some say it's hard work, craft and dedication, but I don't entirely agree. I have friends who are also extremely hard working, who simply haven't been at the right place at the right time - yet. 

I think the truth is the argument for improper underpaid acting is the grim opposite side of the fringe theatre coin. Fringe theatre is notoriously underpaid and most commonly not paid at all! While I was working for one of my favorite theatre companies, in my first professional production, I wasn't being paid - and we actors also need to put food on the table! This also lead to other discussions with other people about what defines a 'professional production', though I'd rather not get into that at this time... 

It is because we keep accepting unpaid and underpaid jobs that there are unpaid jobs for actors in the first place! So an argument could be made that we should hold tight, and only accept work that pays something worthy. I disagree, but it is a valid point. I do think everyone has to start somewhere. What would happen to the amount of shows being performed around the UK, if you had to find a professional budget for every single one? There wouldn't be as many shows, and it is the sheer amount of shows available for an amateur actor to audition for that allows him to find success somewhere. 

I auditioned for an average of 10 shows per week during my time studying in Cambridge. My ratio then was 10 to 1. 10 auditions for every offer or recall I received. Cambridge was an excellent training ground: I learnt the meaning and value of rejection and how to take it on the chin. 

Then the argument takes an interesting spin: fringe theatre for all "amateur" actors and paid theatre for all "professional" actors - anyone who's successfully graduated from drama school should only work for money (note that having a paper saying someone's taught you how to "act" is not everything and does not necessarily mean you are a professional). 

How would it work then? I believe, if every actor decided to take some "pride" in his work (although money isn't everything), fight for their "rights" (although money isn't everything - and it certainly isn't a human right to be paid for your art), stand up and refuse to accept anything that is unpaid or underpaid (although money isn't everything - and we should do this because we love it), then we would face the ironic and terrible reality that there would be more working "amateurs" than working "professionals"! 

I do think we should do this because we love it. I do think there is far more to life than money. However, I also know that my definition of success is making a living, or in other words, being paid from doing something I love. 

Therefore, I present two solutions: number one is place your eggs in more than one basket. I don't just rely on my craft and skills as an actor, I'm an actor-musician who also sings and dances, I play six instruments and I am currently learning my seventh, and I am by all definitions what you would call a jack of all trades. This is the only way forward in the world we live today - and this is independent of whether we're talking about the entertainment industry or something entirely different, like advertisement! 

My cousin is an advertiser and he told me that in the "old days" they worked in pairs: the art director and the copywriter. Now a days, it is more frequent (at least in London - and it is cutting edge in Brazilian advertisement for example), to have two art directors, still working as a duo, but both trained in the visual-creative arts and the art of using influential vernacular to sell your product. 

Therefore: 1) Place your eggs in many baskets - best advice I've ever received in my life. 

The second solution is balance. Everyone does have to start somewhere and the world would not be the same without fringe theatre - it is utterly fantastic and lovely. The world of theatre and entertainment would certainly not be the same without the fringe, in fact I think every industry has its 'fringe' and that's always a good starting point for a young professional. Therefore, a balance between paid jobs and non-paid jobs will provide you with the money and the exposure you are looking for. Sometimes, this means working at Starbucks, which as you can imagine, sucks donkey dick. But, if like me, you've put your eggs in many baskets, you can go busking and earn 3 times as much you would at Starbucks in 1/10th of the time. 

Therefore: 2) Balance is the key to a happy life - as cheesy as that sounds. 

This is what I think about underpaid, unpaid, fringe jobs, versus never "exploiting" an actor. I do think it is a subject that is not to be taken lightly and I do think we actors need to always be careful with what jobs we say yes to because there a lot of arseholes out there... 

I hope my suggestions and proposed solutions help anyone who was in need of reading this at this moment in time. Meanwhile, let us not forget that the most important things are hard work (no one gets anywhere by sitting around on the couch waiting for their phone to ring), and enjoying that hard work! There's no point doing all of this and going through the insanity of being in the arts and entertainment industry, unless you enjoy it! 

I suggest, learn to love the audition process, because you'll be doing more of that than anything else! 

Peace, I'm out!