Posted by: stelladuffy | October 17, 2012

theatre : money/no-money, funded/unfunded – there is no comparison

A thought for theatre-lovers, theatre-goers, critics and reviewers : You know how you go and see a play upstairs at the Royal Court or downstairs at Hampstead or upstairs at Live or any little studio attached to a big shiny theatre building, in any small venue that is part of a big venue, and then you go and see another play put on by a fringe/unfunded company that is part of nothing bigger than itself – and then you COMPARE THE TWO?
Well don’t. Just don’t.
Because there is no comparison.

There is no comparison between the company that has rehearsal space and the company that is rehearsing in a back room in a pub, in the cheapest space they can find, in rooms rented or borrowed from friends, or in their front room.
There is no comparison between a play written by someone with a commission and therefore time to write and time to develop, ideally with a cast and a director, time to find what the play is and might be doing before it gets into a rehearsal room, and the writer who is writing their play while working full time at a ‘career’ job, the writer who is writing their play while juggling other jobs to make ends meet because all they want to do is write, the writer who is writing while childcaring and holding down a part-time job.
There is no comparison between the work a director can do with a whole body of building staff and stage crew and admin staff and people keen to help them and the writer and the cast find the ‘vision’, and the work a director can do when half the time they’re trying to make sure their cast feel able to work at all when they’ve already come from one, two or three other jobs.
There is no comparison between what an actor can achieve when they have a director’s full attention, a playwright’s full support, a fully-funded bunch of designers and stage crew – not to mention three or four or more weeks paid full time rehearsal – making it possible for them to take time to find their best in the work, to serve the work and to shine in that work – with the actor who is already musical directing one show while working on another show while doing some other part time job they loathe to pay the mortgage.
And there is no comparison between what a lighting designer can achieve with a massive budget and one with six tin cans hanging from a pub ceiling.
Or a costume designer with not only a feasible budget but also the resources of dozens of years’ worth of previous productions. And the same for set designers, sound designers.
And there’s no point even considering how hard it is for a fringe/unfunded stage manager/operator, working an absurdly outdated lighting board, chasing up actors who all work on different schedules, juggling venues because there’s no money to sit in just one room and enjoy the bliss of that – of having a consistent work space.

And yet – I know way more people making unfunded work than those making funded work. Way more people working out of back rooms than I do people working out of theatre-building offices where someone else does their IT and a cleaner comes in the wee hours. Way more people making work, week in week out, making work that is worthwhile and valuable and vital, work that is often lauded above the more trad big-space stuff, work that FEEDS our funded bodies, work that our funded buildings and organisations pick up a year or two later, ideas they pick up a decade or two later, ideas they run with that we, in the unfunded sector, dragged out of the ether with the pure force of our wanting, simply wanting to make work. Because we believed in making work, and the wage – welcome though it always is, ideal though it always is, necessary though it always is – was not the point.

Just don’t compare. Go see the incredible unfunded/fringe/small-scale company making astonishing work and know how very much harder they’ve had to work to get it on than the big kids. How very much harder it is to make work on nothing than on something, with no home than with a home.

And to the big kids (you know who you are!) – didn’t we all come into theatre to make a difference? Didn’t we think it was about telling stories that touched people? That it was part of change? Well, here’s a difference you can make right now – stop hogging your buildings and your space and your goods. Start sharing. Throw open the doors*. Because we little kids have brilliant ideas and amazing makers and stunning writers and astonishing actors and genius designers, and they’re all really used to working incredibly hard, in absurdly difficult conditions, and making great stuff ANYWAY.
You need us. We’re fresh blood.
Wanna share?

Here’s the thing I’m making right now, in an unfunded company, with some amazing people, doing brilliant work anyway : Ordinary Darkness.

* as a company, Shaky Isles has had some amazing generosity from some (still pretty small) kids throwing open their doors to us, literally and in kind. Funny how it’s always the ones with least who share the most, isn’t it?


  1. Have you considered shoplifting?

  2. No.

  3. Of course there is a comparison, frequently they are competing for the same audience and they are also competing on the same legislative playing field – its just that some will pay for actors, set, stage management and others don’t.
    Its neither fair nor realistic to pretend that they parameters that govern them are the same. One is working harder to sustain a theatre company that pays and sustains the livelihoods of those working with it, the other is how shall we say, transitory, paying only lip service to everyday business constraints.
    I don’t believe you are working harder if you avoid commonplace business constraints, like wages, H&S, legislation, contracts – all those cheapskate companies are doing is avoiding the day when they will deal with them – that’s not hard work, its avoidance and its not even a grown up approach.
    But on a longer term , they are avoiding giving back, sustaining the industry by promoting best practice to youngsters, or legally growing their businesses.
    You are right, there is no comparison between a theatre company that lives up to its obligations to its contributors and those that avoids its obligations.

  4. Is this your real name? I hope it is. Fine name for an actor, but a pity if pseudonyms are preferable to real names in an open and honest discussion.
    I’m wondering how you’d like those companies working without funding to pay everything you suggest above? Given, as I’m sure you know, ACE funds less than 50% of applicants. Or would it be better, in your view, for no-one to make any work unless they could pay full wages to everyone working?
    Personally, while I’d love the second option, my choice has always been that it is preferable to make work than not, and far preferable for the state of theatre generally that there are people making new and non-traditional work, often the work that is hardest to get funding for.
    I don’t think it’s cheapskate, to make work on what you have – any more than I think it’s cheapskate for me to write a first draft of a novel before it’s sold to a publisher and then to work on it further with money in place.
    That’s standard for pretty much every artistic endeavour EXCEPT theatre – make the work, take it to the marketplace, then sell it.
    In terms of the traditional business model, unfunded companies, far from being cheapskates, are following standard marketing practice – no?
    As for obligations to contributors, am very proud that Shaky Isles, for whom I’m currently directing, a company that exists for the love of making work and work we believe in, has always made money from shows and has always paid every contributor in share form. (Which is a damn sight more than any other ‘profit share’ company I’ve ever worked with!) The fact that we work as a collective probably helps facilitate this, but I know we’re not the only company doing so.
    I don’t think one business model fits all, I do think it’s unfair to behave as if people working in a fully-funded company are working on a level playing field with those who aren’t. Just as I am well aware it is easier for me to write a novel when I have an advance and can give more of my attention to it, than when I am trying to write one with the necessity of other (paid) work getting in the way.

  5. Thanks,
    All artists pay for external resources when they make their work, they buy things, and that includes the labour that goes into creating the the bought items – just the same as a theatre company pays for its venue and marketing.
    As for Shaky Isles, if its always made money, why is it not able to drag itself out from the fringe? That’s the problem with the model you promote, it has no ambition, it doesn’t wish to grow, it simply wishes the maintain the status quo – that isn’t advancing theatre, its stagnating it. We don’t need any more theatre companies filling up an ever growing number of fringe venues where no one gets paid apart from the venue owner. We need theatre companies that are able to progress to medium and large scale theatre companies that are able to tour and add to the culture and capital of the country.
    I’m afraid your model isn’t a non-traditional model, its just complacency reinforced by an unwillingness to confront typical business obstacles that others are willing to confront – like paying staff and finding other grant funders outside the ACE.

  6. Couldn’t disagree more. Not least because the notion of ‘dragging itself out of the fringe’ is so dismissive. I rarely see work as vibrant and interesting on our main stages as I do made by the many fringe companies I know making valuable work. And your rude tone is not welcome on my blog, especially when you don’t have the decency to use your real name. An accusation of complacency is easy to level from a pseudonym, where you get to pass judgement on my work, but I – and any other readers – can’t do the same for yours.
    Bye now.

  7. Hi Stella,
    those who stand up for workers (and actors rights) to be paid a decent wage are often persecuted, so perhaps you can understand why I use this name. Its clear you want to pass judgement on my work, despite the fact that its not the issue you set out to discuss.
    My work is not up for question, I’m not operating a noticeboard on the web inviting others to post their views whereas you are. You are also competing unfairly with others who do work hard to pay actors and stage management a living wage, the same as all other workers. That’s not fair and its also somewhat unfair to deride others who stand up for these basic values that many have fought hard to obtain. So its only reasonable that I and others are able to criticise this, by all means disagree but disagree fairly otherwise its just censorship.
    I understand you believe your collaborations are lawful, I’m not so sure and would advise you to read other news such as this.
    There is nothing wrong or shameful about defending one’s right to earn a living and to be paid a lawful decent wage.

  8. Collectives can work in any way the collective chooses to work, so your question of illegality is irrelevant to this discussion. Of course I’ve already seen all the links you post.
    You have taken over this piece with issues of your own, which are not the issues I was raising in my original piece. This is blog, about issues I care about, NOT a noticeboard. You are, of course, free to start your own blog and raise your issues there.

  9. No, collectives have to operate lawfully, that’s what the law demands. That’s also why we have a National Minimum Wage in the UK (and NZ), otherwise McDonald’s would be McDonald’s Collective, instead it pays its workers a proper wage, not profit share.

    You raised issues of validity, comparison and worth. So did I.

    I and others also care about these issues, especially when they infringe on others abilities to create work that pays, steals audiences and fails to declare to those audiences that the ticket price isn’t going towards paying actors.

    I also have my own blog

  10. […] to a thought-provoking blog post from across the pond. This morning I read the blog post “Theatre: money/no money, funded/unfunded — there is no comparison” by Stella Duffy, a British theater artist, and wanted to share it with everyone I know who’s involved with […]

  11. ok, so I’m loathe to get into this any further, as it’s clear to me that Annie Yactor (pseudonym) is determined to have the last word here, but I do feel it’s important to correct the misinterpretations offered above.
    1. the blog piece is about process, and about the assumptions around process that are blanket-applied to all makers. A.Y. has chosen to make it about something else, their own issue and one which they have plenty of their own outlets to address.
    2. Shaky Isles is a collection of individuals, working in Open Space, supporting each other to make new work. It is a not a producer or director-led company, it is not a hierarchy and therefore there is no-one to pay anyone else. WE work together, WE chose to work in this way, WE choose to pay ourselves profit share, WE choose to spend our time creating new work.
    3. ie, Shaky Isles does not fit the capitalist model of boss & workers, in that there is no boss, therefore there is no-one to pay (or not pay) everyone else. We ALL own the means of production (ie, ourselves) and we ALL chose to work in this way.
    4. I agree, it’s really hard to make work when you’re not being paid. Personally though, my choice has always been to create rather than not create. So I wrote my first book, with no advance and no commission, while cleaning houses for rich people and doing standup and improvised comedy. I’ve written other work unpaid while earning from non-writing or other-writing jobs. This is standard for most writers – and not just for their first book/play/screenplay – MOST writers have to do the work first and then take it to the marketplace – in hope. I’d love to have commissions for all my work, that’s not the way the world works. And again, I’d rather make work than not.
    5. in the reductive way A.Y presents it, we are all workers for hire. But I’m not. And I don’t want to be, nor do the people I work with want to be workers for hire. We are makers, who want to make the work we want to make. I want to work in a collective where there is no boss, I want to work in Open Space that empowers actors and crew and doesn’t believe a director or a producer always know best, and I choose to work in a way that makes work I believe in. Would I love to be paid for every piece of work I do? Hell yes. Will a lack of payment stop me making work, or stop me encouraging others to make work, giving my time and energy to mentor and support them to write, direct, produce, perform, create? Hell no.

    ps – ‘stealing’ audiences/’drag itself out of the fringe’ – there’s a snobbery here about non-traditional work that I find very disturbing, and I do wonder if it’s what’s actually at the root of the lengthy (and repetitive) discussion above.

  12. I have to disagree with a number of the points you raise Annie and really feel like you’ve missed the point entirely. To say that is there is an avoidance of paying and exploiting contributors, is just wrong. What this kind of theatre does is allows those people with a passion and a voice and a desire to create something to have a platform. I would love theatre to be my day job, but unfortunately as the entire arts industry is severely underfunded and full with many people jostling for the same resources and opportunities, it’s not entirely feasible. At least for now. But you know what? That’s ok. I have a day job which pays my bills and is challenging but by being part of Shaky Isles, I’m able to still create art and continue to develop that career. I’m not doing it for the money. I am unequivocally not doing it for money. So I don’t see it as “cheapskate” or “paying only lipservice to everyday business constraints”. I’m an adult and I choose to work a steady job to provide a steady income and likewise I choose to create theatre where money is not the driving force. Also I don’t believe that fringe theatre is necessarily competing for the same audience in the same way that a blockbuster film is not competing for the same audience as some tiny independent film. Ok yes that simplifies what you’re saying, but essentially it’s the same thing. I also think it’s not true to say that one is being the “good model” and paying all those hard working people involved. It’s not as if there is some giant pot of money and people are being ripped off. People CHOOSE to be involved. People CHOOSE to give their spare time, to devote their energy and their time and yes they may be doing this to raise their profile and create opportunity to go and get that paid work. But also maybe they do it as there is a freedom in no financial constraints, in no money people to appease. From my understanding Stella is in no way disparaging some of the great, exciting and amazing theatre that these “big boys” make. The point is that the little people, the unfunded people have some great ideas too and are not looking for a hand out but recognition that the work is being created under entirely different constraints. It’s also very easy to make assumptions from one experience or from looking at something from the outside without knowing it. Shaky Isles is growing and is developing itself as a company. A company with strong ideals made up of a collection of people with different skills, all equally involved.
    Finally I want to say, when you remark there is nothing wrong with defending one’s right to earn a living and be paid a lawful decent wage, you are absolutely correct. So as I said before, you make a choice. And if you choose to not make work if you are not paid for it, that is your choice. And that’s absolutely ok. But some of us are happy to make our lawful wage and then go and make theatre. Because we will do that no matter what. It’s the art that drives us, not the pay cheque.

  13. “And if you choose to not make work if you are not paid for it, that is your choice. And that’s absolutely ok.”

    Again, wrong. No one can opt out of the National Minimum Wage where it is due.
    In this collectivist world that doesn’t adhere to capitalism, the one factor that no-one can overlook is the law. That’s what the law says.
    If you want to be lawful, then form a co-operative and do it properly and lawfully. It the only responsible thing to do, sooner or later you may fall out, and someone will want their payback.

  14. Personally I think the suggestion about shop lifting was good. After that…..

  15. Hah!

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