[This is going to be a moderately sized post about the mechanics and economics of small scale alternative theatre. If that is of no interest to you then you are more than welcome to carry on past as if nothing is happening. More other things soon I promise.]
My friend Bryony wrote a blog the other day about the relationship between artists and venues. Lots of people read it and had very different opinions. Some people suggested that artists are being taken advantage of by venues, whose salaried staff simply don’t understand the difficult economic conditions faced by freelance artists. Other people suggested that we should be equally sensitive to the difficult economic conditions the majority of venues are also struggling through, with many doing the best they can for their audiences. Some suggested artists should be able to ‘name and shame’ venues or rate them like trip advisor, which seems relatively unfair without some kind of right of reply for venues, which it is too easy to forget are not faceless institutions but are in fact made up of real people doing the best they can, often far fewer people than you might think.
Another thing that someone might have said is that this is all a little bit like bickering over deck chairs on the Titanic; that theatre as we hope it might continue to exist is basically a capitalist impossibility but that this is ok, in fact it is one of the best things about it, and what we collectively need to do is make a more compelling case to the general public for why we (venues, festivals, artists, etc.) should be better supported to make survivable careers out of doing this financially illogical thing.
I think I have all of these opinions to a greater or lesser extent.
I am sometimes an artist and sometimes I run a festival and the arguments from both sides (if there even are sides, which there probably shouldn’t be) certainly resonate with me. Forest Fringe doesn’t pay people sometimes and sometimes it does. We (myself, Ira and Debbie) don’t get paid to run it sometimes and sometimes we do. This is a situation that we are only able to sustain with any degree of good will and support because of the level of transparency we ensure we have at all times. When they work with us artists know what the full deal is all the time. Whenever anyone asks how Forest Fringe works we tell them with all the fullness we can. In so doing we hope it is apparent that we are always trying to do the right thing, and if it isn’t we hope this level of transparency encourages people to say so.
Taking this into account it is perhaps not surprising that I think some of the fundamental conflicts and suspicions that arise between artists and those organisations that support and present their work could be immediately improved if we found ways to hard wire a greater degree of transparency into the relationships between them. And to that end I wanted to make two small suggestions that I think might immediately begin to make things better.
1. To create an online space where artists can declare how much they have been able to charge for their work, venue by venue, in the UK and internationally.
This is not about naming and shaming, about slagging off venues you’ve had a bad time with, or a license to have a moan about something that went wrong. This is only about trying to create a paradigm shift in how everyone talks about the money they currently earn. Doing so should in the first instance, give all artists a clearer sense of what they should or could be charging for their work. It should also make it clear where its not worth approaching a venue about your work, or visa versa, and thus avoid some of the messy haggling that Bryony describes.
2. To encourage venues and festivals to declare as a percentage how much of their annual income goes directly to artists.
Artists in this instance might also include writers, designers, workshop leaders, associate or supported artists etc. Again, this is not about shaming venues. It is about finding simple ways in which to gauge the fairness and consistency of the way in which venues are dealing with artists. It is also a way for venues and festivals to honestly demonstrate the commitment they have to artists that is not implicitly tied to the size of fees they pay. I’m not even saying that there is a percentage amount of your income that you absolutely must be paying to artists, but perhaps making these percentages public would encourage venues to elucidate far more than they currently do where the money they have goes and why, which can only be a good thing.
I am not suggesting that either or both of these things are the solution to a very difficult situation. In fact I think I’m suggesting that there is no solution and that that is main problem. However, perhaps if we trusted one another more, were more consistent and transparent in how we talked to and dealt with one another, then we could all go on trying to solve this impossible problem together. Maybe these are two ways we might build some more of that trust and transparency.