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A note to theatre professionals: You're worth it

Posted by Theo Bosanquet on 21 Sep, 2018

It's important to remember your value in this industry, and develop a business head to protect it

Imelda Staunton in Gypsy © Matt Humphrey

As a certain French shampoo brand has been telling us for years, you're worth it. But, if you work in the theatre industry, you may not truly believe it. You see, we have a problem in this ol' business called show. It's that so few of us think we deserve to get properly paid.

If I had a pound for every time an actor had told me in an interview, 'I can't believe I get paid to do what I love', or words to that effect, I'd be loaded. I've often suspected that the reason professionals say this is because they genuinely don't believe they deserve remuneration for pursuing their passion. Or rather, they know they should believe it, because they have been told enough times by their agent, friends, family et al of their value, but deep down they feel lucky to be working at all, nevermind earning Equity minimum for the privilege.

Well, I'm here to tell you all that you are worth it. In fact, not only are you worth it, but you're probably worth at least twice what you're actually getting paid. So never apologise for it, and kick that voice of self-doubt straight out of your talented heads. 

'Often people are not paid properly because they simply don't ask'
I have experienced similar feelings throughout my career. 'Oh, you mean you're going to pay me to interview this person/review that show? How truly incredible.' I always feel grateful to be doing this job. The one time I earned top dollar reviewing for a major American magazine, I felt like a lottery winner, even though it equated to an average rate for most journalists.

These feelings of gratitude and privilege often mean you undersell yourself, or agree to do those dreaded unpaid gigs. But you must always remember the bigger picture. The UK theatre industry is worth billions, its biggest shows outstripping Hollywood blockbusters in terms of earnings. 

I'm not saying every production is raking in it - I know there are far more flops than hits - but nevertheless there is major money being earned at the top of the profession, and you are part of that profession. I'm also aware of the importance of low-paid, fringe work in order to build up profile and credits. But even at this level - arguably especially at this level - there is huge exploitation.

Often people are not paid properly because they simply don't ask. They assume that what they're offered in a contract (if they even get one) is a fixed sum. But that figure often represents a lowest possible from the employer's perspective, and should be argued up. And even if it can't be, the question is always worth asking. I have a journalist colleague who advocates asking for an increase in every fee she is offered. It's wise advice, though I can't pretend I'm always brave enough to heed it.

I also advise you to try and develop something of a dual personality when it comes to your career. There's the creative, dynamic, collaborative actor/writer etc, but they need to work in tandem with the pushy, money-focussed manager. Do not just rely on an agent to play the latter persona for you; the buck should always stop with you.

This may sound rather hectoring, but I think it's really important that everyone takes responsibility to look after themselves in this industry. That's the only way we can improve pay and conditions for everyone.

In conclusion, a few things to work on:
  • Don't undervalue yourself and your contribution
  • Develop a business head, and act like your own agent
  • Never be afraid to ask for more money; you're worth it

See also:

Lisa Spirling: 'It's a battle to get in the room'

10 reasons we love working in theatre

Guest Blog: Using casting websites

6 tips for new drama school students

Why theatre is the most collaborative artform

Blog: Open Door scheme is step in the right direction

Topics: Blog

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