Fringe Theatre: Playground of the Privileged

Michael Boyd, former RSC chief, put forward his concerns in the Guardian this week that theatre could become ‘a gorgeous plaything of the wealthy’, with arts education threatened in state schools and prohibitively expensive fees for university courses. He fears that theatre is ‘in danger of self-selecting the wealthy’. His views remind me of my feelings while working as an intern in a fringe theatre – another aspect of the arts that  lends itself to a proliferation of the rich and privileged in the theatre industry.

At its best, fringe theatre is a training ground for upcoming talent, whether it be actors, writers, directors or producers. You can’t expect to make a fortune in a fifty seat theatre over a run of three or four weeks, but you hope that even if you don’t get a transfer you’ll make contacts and attract press to give you (hopefully!) good reviews.

Fringe theatres are not only frequented by young actors seeking a break but also by experienced and established actors who presumably are either attracted to a particular project, have a break in their schedule, want to support emerging talent or just enjoy working in these intimate spaces.

And the quality of the performances in these theatres is often very high. Freed from the constraints placed on many commercial productions, companies often produce inventive and engaging productions of both new and forgotten plays.

Yet for all its benefits and idealism, in practice fringe theatre has become (or has always been?) a playground for the rich. People work right through their twenties on the fringe, never making any money despite receiving critical acclaim. Some of these people have never had a paid job, presumably funding uni and what has essentially become a hobby from the bank of mum and dad.

It goes without saying that if to get a foot in the door as a producer, director or stage manager you first have to work for free for a substantial period this is a significant barrier to having any diversity in this industry. It’s unsurprising that almost everyone I met working in fringe theatre was distinctly middle-class. This isn’t to say that these people aren’t working incredibly hard, but rather that it’s a problem that fringe theatre has become the preserve of those who can afford to play at having a job without ever needing to earn a salary.

There is often concern about actors not receiving a living wage – understandably, as they are the most prominent, and glamorous, members of a company. Yet at least they are being paid something; it’s rarely acknowledged, or at least not so prominently, that often nobody else in a company is being paid at all.

In the theatre that I interned in, everybody was working for free. For some this was a way to boost their CV, while also working freelance or holding down a day job. But the theatre ‘managers’ (of which I was one) also worked for free, and there was no chance of me taking paid work while I was frequently putting in ten hour days and six day weeks.

I worked (paid) all summer, only to see my savings swallowed up by train fares (this made no less depressing by the fact that this was what I’d designated them for – it being seemingly impossible to get a paid job in theatre without first working for free). And, despite saving, I was only able to consider internships in London (where the majority are centred) thanks to the fact that my parents live close enough to London for me to commute. What hope for those who live outside of the M25? It would be almost impossible to save enough doing menial jobs to cover living costs in London if you had to support yourself completely – and I honestly don’t think that a lot of these internships would be worth it.

At least I was doing something productive that could enhance my CV – the theatre is kept going by relying on unpaid ‘interns’ who effectively end up as unpaid cleaners and box office assistants. While for some this is a short-term chore that leads to contacts and opportunities, for others they leave weeks or months down the line in the same position they were in when they started, only significantly poorer.

People sometimes struggled to understand why I couldn’t provide them with interns to deliver leaflets, or to help them get out their set, when they weren’t even paying them expenses. In my experience, most people are more than willing to put in the hard graft if they feel that they are going to get something in return, or even if they just feel that their work will be appreciated, but instead it is expected that they should be willing to jump to any task as needed, however menial, and however short the notice, and be grateful for the opportunity. I would have thought it was blindingly obvious why people soon stopped volunteering themselves for these thankless tasks, but apparently not to some working in fringe theatres.

With funding cuts in the arts it seems unlikely that this situation will improve any time soon. However, unless there are paid entry-level jobs in the arts theatre will continue to become increasingly elite and removed from society.

Are English (and History) students getting a rotten deal?

UCL English undergraduate Mirren Gidda has drawn attention to the lack of contact hours on her course, but with 8.5 hours a week she shouldn’t complain – in my final year studying History I had only 4 hours of contact time a week, and one semester in second year I had a 5 day weekend. Attendance at lectures wasn’t even compulsory. I realise that both English and History involve a lot of reading, and therefore a lot of personal study, but with tuition fees at £9000 students may start to balk at committing to what can seem like a glorified library membership. I agree with Gidda that the format of these courses needs to be more widely acknowledged, and made clear to potential students.

Like Gidda, I also appreciate the importance of quality teaching over the number of hours taught. Yet while I received some excellent teaching from some inspirational tutors I also attended some dire lectures, which may explain the lack of student attendance to these non-compulsory contact hours (especially when they were scheduled at 9am on Friday morning). The feeling of isolation from the department (and the culture of working at home in your pyjamas) that such a focus on personal study generates may also explain the reluctance people felt at having to drag themselves into campus for one hour of lectures. I really enjoyed my course, and took advantage of the many extra-curricular opportunities that University offers. But with the rise of online courses I can see Universities struggling to justify charging such high fees for so little tangible content.