The play's the thing, the pay's the problem

Actors lucky enough to find work in the theatre are paid so poorly as to make them speechless with embarrassment. A few are paid what they're worth: the rest must grin and bear it. By Georgina Brown
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The Independent Culture
Robert: How can I tour for nine months for no money with a tiny theatre company no one will watch? And yet, last night, I opened the door on a whole world... I didn't go to university like Tess, sometimes I get to learn on the job. I could if I did the part - but it's not responsible. Being an actor isn't responsible. It might be if it were valued.

So runs a scene from The Break of Day, Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play, in which Robert, a fortysomething actor, confronts a familiar thespian dilemma. Should he take the part of Vershinin in a touring production of Three Sisters, or should he "do a telly", in this case a thin role in a tatty hospital drama series? At one level, it's a self-regarding and in-jokey piece of writing since, in real life, Nigel Terry, the actor playing Robert, is playing Vershinin in Out of Joint's parallel touring production of Three Sisters. What's more, the discussion would have been sharper if the telly job had been well written - good television drama is no longer a rarity - and was therefore a tougher choice. Nevertheless, the scene makes several valid points, among them that stage actors are fabulously badly paid and open to exploitation because they are in the business for something other than money.

Precisely how little actors earn from theatre work is rarely discussed. Embarrassment prevents them talking about it among themselves. But the facts speak for themselves. An actor working in the mainstage at the Royal Court, for example, gets the Equity-agreed minimum of pounds 240 a week; in the Theatre Upstairs, it's pounds 198.90. It's non-negotiable (rendering even Rottweiler agents toothless) and democratic, which means that an actor with 30 years' experience playing a big part earns the same as an actor who left drama school last year and has two lines. In subsidised regional rep, the Equity minimum shrinks to pounds 178 (pounds 237 for the superstars) plus a paltry touring allowance. From these figures deduct the agent's fee (10 per cent), tax, national insurance and such expenses as fares to auditions, pounds 98 for appearing in Spotlight, then consider the pain of a bad review, and finally wonder why anyone thinks it's worth it. Even more Victorian are the terms of the contract which allow employers to give actors two weeks' notice and close the show, but forbids the actors from behaving similarly.

These are the lucky ones. Of 42,000 Equity members working in theatre, film and TV last year, 23 per cent didn't even walk on (for doing exactly this, but naked, five women in Hysteria in the West End are currently paid pounds 15 a night). The average time worked was 16 weeks - only 15 per cent earnt more than pounds 20,000 and 15 per cent worked more than 37 weeks (probably the same 15 per cent).

The best it gets in subsidised theatre is at the National. For doing two and a half shows per week (obviously an impossibility, but that's the way the sums are done), the minimum weekly wage is pounds 270; top whack is pounds 789, but only eight actors currently earn this much - Judi Dench, Diana Rigg and Michael Gambon among them. On top of this is a fee for every additional performance (minimum pounds 18, maximum pounds 69, average pounds 36). A canny actor will be doing three plays in rep to earn as much as possible. The canniest, most marketable actor will also be fitting in tellies, films (only 8 per cent of actors make it into movies), and voice-overs (pounds 360 for a couple of hours' reading) when they can. Not that anyone feels particularly sorry for an actor working at the National.

One actor who has just finished a play there said: "You want to work at the National almost more than anywhere because it means you can organise your life. You know where you'll be for the next six months, you spot Richard Eyre in the canteen and see lots of actors on motorbikes and you feel you've got a proper, manly job. The trouble is that when you're there, you long for the telly that gives you your own caravan in the Yorkshire Dales with golden eagles flying above and every couple of hours a lovely girl bringing a cup of coffee. Then you get that and find yourself trotting on to say your couple of lines and you wonder if anyone will ever take you seriously again. The grass is always greener on the other side."

Certainly it's greener at the National than the RSC, where you have to do more for rather less. For a 40-hour week, you get pounds 220, with a subsistence fee for being in Stratford of pounds 41.04. Leads get pounds 600 a week, which explains why so many find Stratford a resistible invitation, particularly when contracts must be signed for 60 weeks and the distance from London prohibits doing a telly or ad to supplement the income. It also explains why Alex Jennings reads so many books on tape. "The opportunity to work on Shakespeare with some of the best directors and designers is very tempting," said one actor. "So is the chance to play four different roles in rep, but you have to leave your family in London and you come to a point where you can't afford the financial or emotional consequences."

Actors can and do say no, but turning down the opportunity to work at Stratford or the Royal Court because you are holding out for a better- paid telly is never easy. "What you really want is the job that attracts the next job," said one actor. "The advantage of theatre is that it's a permanent showcase - there's always the chance that your agent will turn up, bringing Steven Spielberg with her."

The picture is a little brighter in the commercial West End, where market forces come into operation. Equity minimum is pounds 232, but if an agent can't get this up to between pounds 250 and pounds 350, they aren't trying. There aren't many "marquee" names - actors who puts bums on seats - currently lighting up the West End, but where there is one, there's probably a contract worth around pounds 3,000 a week. According to one producer, Maggie Smith, on a guaranteed amount plus probably 10 per cent of the box-office, will be getting at least pounds 5,000 a week. "Maggie's a licence to print money, but there aren't many like her." Zoe Wanamaker, who has considerable pulling power, will be on around pounds 1,000 a week for The Glass Menagerie. A big star in a huge musical can earn pounds 20,000 (a lump sum plus royalty), but according to Nick Allott in Cameron Mackintosh's office, that has only happened once. To whom, he ain't telling, but odds on it was Jonathan Pryce in Oliver!. The biggest stars in musicals are likely to be cleaning up between pounds 5,000 and pounds 10,000. The musical ensemble, in stark contrast, will get between pounds 300 and pounds 350 a week.

To a certain extent, this is meaningless compared to what an actor can earn on the television. No one would disagree that Judi Dench is worth very much more to the National than an annual basic of pounds 41,000, but the National can keep its conscience clear by arranging her schedule so that it's easy for her to supplement her income with playing M in Goldeneye and making a series of As Time Goes By. Even Dame Judi, however, cannot command the ludicrous pounds 30,000 Nick Berry reputedly earns for an episode as PC Rowan in Heartbeat. (Both Berry and Robbie Coltrane have a pounds 1,000,000 two-year contract with Granada, but this is the most cynical end of the market where a lead actor can get 50 per cent of a production's entire budget and the rest earn little more than they would on the theatre.) Dame Judi is more likely to be in Patricia Routledge's league - Miss Routledge allegedly earns pounds 7,500 for an episode of Keeping Up Appearances. (No wonder Derek Thompson squealed at the derisory pounds 3,400 he was getting to play Charlie in Casualty, small beer indeed compared to the pounds 350,000 Kevin Whateley gets for a series of Peak Practice.) Drama series pay better than soaps on the whole. EastEnders's Wendy Richard reportedly earns pounds 100,000 a year for more than 150 episodes, and regulars on Brookside are thought to get as little as pounds 250 an episode, which is what you would get for saying "Yes, Constable," in a telly drama.

There's little justice in any of it, and actors are so grateful to be working that they seldom complain. But one actor currently working in the West End in a transfer of a play is speaking for many when he deplores the way in which actors are themselves subsidising the subsidised theatre. "My investment in a new play is as important as the backers who only come in once a play has proved itself," he argues. Indeed, the greater part of this actor's career within the subsidised theatre has been funded by "hard graft" elsewhere - commercials, teaching, voice-overs and television. "The problem in this profession is that one can be forced into becoming a commodity rather than an artist. Actors want to be artists, and of course insecurity contributes to our art, but there's a limit to how much indignity we should suffer. No one would say to a plumber, "You enjoy your work so please give me a top-quality job for less than the going rate." I don't think we should have to apologise for the need for government subsidy of the theatre. Actors, like teachers and nurses, should be valued. If the National Lottery changed the rules and made available money for people, would the managements give it to actors?"

The implications of starving the subsidised theatre are significant. Already you won't find experienced, committed middle-aged actors slumming it in regional rep. That territory has been left to the young and inexperienced. Another effect is a gradual decline in the quality of acting. As one drama teacher said: "I've already begun to notice how students try to be attractive in their acting, rather than go for something truer, because they believe that will make them more saleable."

One actress I spoke to disagrees. Discovering your saleability is what being an actor is about, she says. When she left drama school, she thought, like every other student, she would do the classics. "It didn't take me long to realise I wasn't that kind of actor. You have to let the right niche find you; if you're a girl-next-door type, you'll do better on telly." Her combination of warmth and absence of danger proved to be a valuable commodity. She became a Persil mum, a Fairy Liquid mum, a Bupa mum, and beamed through building society and bank ads, earning pounds 200-250 for a day's work (each ad took a couple of days) often in exotic locations (travel fee extra) and then "residuals", a percentage of the original fee each time the ad was shown. But the big time in commercials is the buyout, when an actor signs an exclusivity contract to do no other commercials for an existing product. A paint company paid her pounds 30,000 the first year, pounds 35,000 the second and pounds 40,000 for the third for her agreement to do no other DIY ads. For bigger names - Bob Hoskins, Maureen Lipman - such exclusivity in something like the BT ads is worth hundreds of thousands. It's good to talk. Pity so few can afford to do it.