Year of the Producer Blog: Making It Pay & Paying the Actors

Inspired by our adoption of Stage One as the charity for the 2012 Awards,
we’re declaring this the “Year of the Producer” on,
and are running a 12-month editorial series of interviews, blogs and
other features to give theatregoers a greater understanding of the
crucial role of the producer and an insight into the people who put on
the shows they love.

In this blog post, John Manning, producer at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre, discusses the ever-contentious area of actor wages.

So the festive season is upon us and, like most theatres around the country, we are currently presenting our Christmas show, which this year is a new adaptation of Alice In Wonderland by Phil Porter. Christmas is always a busy time in regional theatre and Christmas shows are massively important to the life of a venue because they are generally the most lucrative shows of the year, allowing us to make a bit of money which can go towards the other productions.

It’s also that time of year when illness is never too far away. Illness is the nemesis of the performer and it’s a real headache for the producer too. Last week, one of our cast members completely lost her voice. Like most regional theatres, we don’t employ understudies on our shows, principally because of the cost. To add just one or even two additional actor salaries is a significant increase to what is an already tight budget.

If you have a big enough show with a big ensemble, as is the case with the bigger West End musicals, the National and the RSC, it’s very feasible to understudy from within the company e.g. when a principal is off, one of the ensemble steps up to the role. With a cast of nine, which we have, and everyone pretty much on stage 90% of the time, that’s very hard to do.

Interesting to read an article in the double issue of The Stage last week – “Equity aims to boost understudies’ pay”. A lot of what is talked about in terms of giving the actors additional money to recognise their responsibility seems very fair and I realise that this call is for the commercial West End so doesn’t affect us in the subsidised sector, but, as a producer, I think the way things are reported of the Equity/SOLT/TMA discussions often perpetuates the whole “us” and “them” relationship between producer and actor which I really strive to fight against. I’m sure there are producers out there who enjoy getting as much from an actor for as little as they can, but, from my experience, they are few and far between.

I’ve sometimes heard actors and agents talk about producers as Scrooge-like creatures, sitting in their offices slavishy counting their pennies. From where they’re sitting, this may look the case, but I urge them to see things from the other side of the fence and think about the costs involved in putting on a show. An agent once used the argument that her client wouldn’t accept a walking understudy role on West End minimum that I’d offered because she had another client who was being paid £150 above the minimum for walking understudy on another show. He’d actually just graduated and was getting £600 a week which I think is a very decent wage for someone so young and inexperienced. Six months on, the show in question had closed half way through its planned run while the show I was working on had extended. I’m sure there were many, many factors in the former show’s closure but I wonder if unrealistically high running costs were one of those factors.

Getting a show to the point whereby it breaks even is a difficult task and so many great shows never get out of the starting blocks because producers can’t get the numbers to work. It encourages us to look for safe, bankable titles rather than more artistically challenging projects. With more additional costs to take into account, I worry that it’s getting harder and harder for producers, particularly new producers with smaller shows to make the step into the West End.

The more the costs go up, the blander the West End will become. A positive note to end on for Christmas, right?

Read John’s blog, “A Regional Perspective” here