For the last two weeks most of my spare time has been taken up with Bits of Obits, a new writing mini-season featuring pieces inspired by obituaries. I got involved because @bitsofobits and I mutually followed each other within about 5 minutes. I love obituaries so having found out more about them I asked if I could be considered as one of the directors for one of the pieces. Happily they agreed.
The piece I got fell into that category of 10 minute play that is ‘character’ rather than ‘plot’ or ‘joke’. I discovered that it had in fact been taken from a number of scenes in a longer work – which probably explained the lack of the through line, but the better development of character. For a piece like this to survive, not to say, stand out, in an evening of 5 or 6 very different works, it would need some really fine acting, and a little bit of directorial manipulation. I contacted my A team, the actress I asked to play a 7ft tall Spanish ghost (she’s not 7ft, not Spanish, not in fact dead) agreed with alacrity – adding that she was keen to practice her Spanish accent. The actor I asked to play the writer on a journey of self-discovery was more reluctant, couldn’t see what was in it for his career, wasn’t interested in doing fringe anymore, and I pretty much had to beg him to take part as a favour to me.
Now I’m the kind of actress who will leap at virtually any opportunity because I just love doing it, on the other hand I can see where my male friend was coming from. How much would he really get out of the experience (apart from good karma for doing me a favour)? Yes, he gets a chance to ‘practice’ his acting and keep his hand in, but even though the event was a sell out, it didn’t provide enormous exposure to a lot of people, and I don’t know how many ‘industry’ people came along – or whether they were more on the literary rather than casting side. I argued that it would put him in front of a number of directors. But on the other hand they would be, like me, directors who were working mainly in the fringe or smaller venues, he’s looking for a move to the big time, or to be precise, Hollywood. Certainly there was no money to be had, and some expenses to be defrayed – so financial gain was never on the cards. Me, I did it because I thought it was a good idea, because I want to direct new writing and this gave me a credit in that area, because I liked the people organising it, because it was fun.
Now I’ve titled this piece ‘Of Men and Fringe’ and combined the two, but splitting off the first, in conversation with the producer (and director of many pieces) of Bits of Obits we agreed that on the whole female actors were more likely to be enthusiastic about taking part – pretty much in anything, whether its auditioning for fringe plays, taking part in free workshops, paying for classes, there will always be a huge number of women outnumbering men. Now of course as far as casting goes, this is because there are so often a huge number of men’s parts outnumbering women’s parts. This is particularly true on the fringe where there is a reliance on older out of copyright works where men often dominate, but also, sadly, in new writing. We found we had common cause in trying to redress this, from my point of view in creatively casting the classics, but also in encouraging writing that provided good parts for women.
Many, not very good, male actors get cast in fringe plays because ‘there was noone else and I guess we can work round the stutter, physical awkwardness, inpenetrable accent’, whilst brilliant female actresses end up being judged on ‘too tall, not sure about the freckles, was really thinking blonde not brunette’, because the choice is there for the director to make.
Yet when it comes to classes and workshops women always dominate. I have never been to any theatre class or workshop where men outnumbered women, in fact most of them are either all women, or at best, have one or two men. So the not very good men are feeling self-satisfied because they keep getting cast, whilst the women are constantly improving and learning, trying to find that elusive USP.
I recently attended a free workshop from the Perdekamp Emotion al Method – two and a half hours, no sales pitch, just a very honest introduction to their work. There was one man – he was a journalist with no interest in acting, but was covering it for a film magazine. To give him his due he joined in with an open mind despite having no background in acting at all. Another man turned up just before the start, but it turned out he was looking to collect something from the office next door. Over an hour into the workshop a third man arrived. He walked in, sat down, then asked (interrupting what was going on) ‘Is this what the workshop is like, is this what the whole workshop will be like’ – given his 30 second appraisal time, one hour into the workshop, you’d have to say, ‘hard to say’ but the practitioner leading the workshop said ‘yes, most of it will be like this’, to which the man said ‘I don’t think it’s for me then’ – rather than simply politely leaving, he then marched across the room and into the cupboard (mistaking it for the loo to my internal schandenfreudic delight), then went into the loo, washed his hands and left.
If more people read this blog, there would probably be a slew of comments suggesting I was sexist if I suggest that this is typical behaviour for a male actor – but sadly it is. Not every male actor of course, but a large proportion seem to think that being in demand is the same as being good and that being good means not having to be polite, or show up on time, or do the work if you don’t feel like it. I’d just say ‘show some respect’.
So that takes me to the Fringe, where men are in demand and women are cannon-fodder. Why do we persist. Well yes, we’ve all read David Mamet’s ‘Truth and Lies’ – the bit where he says he doesn’t understand why actors take classes when they could just ‘put on a play right here’. I’m guessing that the latter came under the ‘lies’ bit of the title or Mamet isn’t living in the real world, because actually ‘putting on a play right here’ is a huge undertaking that is likely to cost you more money than you have, even if you are just the actor – no pay, rehearsals interfering with your day job (that pays the rent), travel costs – not reimbursed, nagging all your friends to come in the hopes that tickets sold might even equate to actual profit share. The problem is, as the producer undoubtedly knows at the outset, that profit share isn’t going to happen, because profit isn’t going to happen.
Here’s the math:
Theatre has 58 seats
It costs £1400 to hire for a week – 6 shows – provides a bit of lighting and some marketing support.
You sell out all 6 shows = £12 a ticket – you’ve got £4176 – so a surplus of £2776
But you printed some flyers – say £100
You hired some rehearsal space for a couple of weeks – say £500
You needed some set/props/costumes – say £200
You now have £2,000 with which to pay your actors for 3 weeks work, your technicians for 10 days, and if you were hoping to give up your own day job you’d better think about paying yourself as well. So even if there are only 4 of you – Director, Actor, Stage Manager, Lighting Operator – that’ll be a bit less than £200 a week if you’re lucky and no other expenses come along.
And OK you can run it for maybe another 3 or 4 weeks – but then the chance of it selling out for 4 weeks is quite low – so let’s say you average 50% capacity and then you actually end up with a bigger loss and less money per week for the actors and yourself. So really fringe is a lose/lose situation, financially at least.
In most Actors/Directors/Writers’ heads it is a ‘springboard’ to getting seen, getting work, getting reviewed – at the very base, just getting a credit to put on Spotlight this year. But, in London, where there are 100s of fringe productions, that spreads the ‘influencers’ a bit thin – for the same outlay writers/directors could probably just take a couple of influential people out for a very expensive lunch and pitch to them face to face! But the actors do need to be seen actually acting, and that’s why fringe survives – it can’t make money but maybe once in a while someone gets a lucky break. I think as long as that the actors aren’t under any illusion that this is any more likely that winning the Euromillions then that is fine – but to those producers ‘selling’ their shows to actors as ‘opportunities’ I’d say, maybe rein it in a bit and tell the truth and lets be honest about why we are doing this and what that means. The line between amateur and professional is very faint out there in the edges of the fringe. An amateur – as the name implies – does it for love, a professional for money.
My grandmother always used to insist that at tea-time you had to have a piece of bread and butter before you could have cake* – the theatre world rather sees it like that for actors – but it used to be that bread and butter was rep, and cake was West-End/film/tv, now we just have the crumbs of the fringe and cake is being paid less an hour than that day-job in the call-centre.
*my grandmother was born in the 19th century and the theory was that you would be full after eating the bread and butter and not eat the cake. This did not work on either my sister or myself and might account for the fact that all our family tend towards fat!