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.

Matilda the Musical

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This time last week, my friend Amy and I got up horribly early to trek into central London and queue for day tickets to see Matilda the Musical. While it would probably have been more advisable to spend my only day off having a rest, Matilda was definitely worth it. I went with quite high expectations – I think Tim Minchin is a bit of a genius and I’m also a fan of Peter Darling – but they were met and surpassed (and the tickets were only £5 for under-25s)!

And a week later, the songs are still in my head. Minchin’s writing is entertaining and very catchy – in particular ‘Naughty’, whose chorus reminds me of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, with the same cheerful tones and tendency to get stuck in your head.

His irreverent and witty style fits perfectly with Roald Dahl’s story, and the lyrics manage to cover both thought-provoking and witty for the adults, and silly (but also clever) for the children. He has transferred his skill for writing brilliantly witty songs for himself and a piano on to a full-blown West End musical, and the result is fantastic. At points the songs are sentimental, but steer clear of cloying; lyrics such as Matilda’s

“Even if you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change.”

are delivered with such enthusiasm and gusto by the young actress that there is no time for them to become soppy.

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I was impressed (but as a fan of Billy Elliot not surprised!) by the consistent talent of the large young ensemble cast, as well as the obvious talents of Matilda. Matilda sings “Even if you’re little you can do a lot” and the acting, singing and dancing of the young cast certainly prove that’s true.

The show has immaculate staging, and choreography by Peter Darling – the swings in When I Grow Up are probably the best known, but what I found far more astonishing was the ‘School Song’. With the incorporation of 26 alphabet blocks into the song’s staging, to accompany the letters of the alphabet appearing in the lyrics, it’s a really clever idea, but must have been headache-inducing to bring to reality (and to repeat every night on stage).

It’s rare to find a musical, or any form of entertainment, ostensibly aimed at children but so satisfying for adults. Matilda has already been a storming success, but I’m sure it will continue to run for a long time to come.