Actors resist pay cuts at the Peacock

Actors resist pay cuts at the Peacock

At a time of severe budget cuts across the theatre sector and tentatively proposed new models of making work, not all fee reductions are being readily accepted.

In a letter to acting agencies this month, seen by ITM, Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail referred to the National Theatre’s decline in state subsidy – from €10m in 2008 to €7.25m in 2010 – as a rationale to explore new operational methods and to cut production costs. Having instituted a pay freeze on actors’ fees for Abbey productions in 2010 last December, he informed the letter’s recipients of a new policy to reduce actors’ fees at the Peacock to €600 a week – potentially a 35% pay cut for actors earning the Abbey’s top pay rate.

The proposal met a vigorous response from the acting community, represented, rather fittingly, by their agents. In a letter to Mac Conghail, The Lisa Richards Agency rallied hard against the proposal. Highlighting the fact that the Abbey’s 27% cut might lead to a 35% cut to its actors, the agency wrote that it was “obliged to point out that this policy is clearly inequitable unless (and we are not aware that this is the case) all those Abbey full time staff who will be employed on future Peacock productions will, themselves, be taking a 35% cut in their weekly or monthly salaries.” The agency urged Mac Conghail and his board to revisit the decision. With the next production at the Peacock already cast and scheduled to open on April 14, negotiations had a particular urgency. Yesterday, the Abbey backed down. The cast of No Escape, the first production mooted to operate under the new fee structure, was hired under existing pay rates with no reductions.

“In the twenty odd years that I’ve been working as an agent it is singly the most exercising and troublesome issue that I’ve come across,” Richard Cook, co-director of The Lisa Richards Agency, told ITM, stressing the precariousness of the freelance business. “Acting is a rare profession where you basically get fired every three months and have to reapply for work every three months. Personally it strikes me that the most vulnerable people on a day-to-day level are the creators, and generally the actors.”

The proposed new pay rates at the Peacock would have represented a reversal in the Abbey’s efforts to increase artistic remuneration, which has seen actors’ pay go up by 16% between 2006 and 2009 to reach a top rate of €925 per week for “senior actors”. It would also have plunged the weekly fee to a rate lower than that of most established independent theatre companies. But, more strikingly, it would have created a separate policy for the Peacock and the Abbey, splitting the identity of the two spaces that comprise the National Theatre.

“We can’t look at what’s currently happening in isolation,” Mac Conghail told ITM, again outlining the magnitude of the Abbey’s cuts and the ongoing restructuring of the organisation, a process that has now lasted nine months and which is expected to conclude with the loss of 26 positions. “I’m not questioning the value of the acting community,” says Mac Conghail, who remains committed to staging large-scale works on the Abbey stage, with shows such as Christ Deliver Us! and Macbeth both representing expanded cast sizes and greater employment opportunities for actors. With the smaller space, however, he believes that there is still a challenge. “Part of the remit for the Abbey Theatre is to encourage young theatre artists and maybe that’s the way I need to go with the Peacock as well. The reality is that I’ll do less work with the amount of money I have from the box office, from fundraising and the State. Nobody’s going to forgive me for driving the Abbey into a deficit.” Facing such a straitened economy, he thinks it will now be a challenge for many theatre companies to maintain their pay rates. “I think, in the bigger picture, there’s going to have to be a correction on that.”

If the negotiations over actors’ fees for No Escape resembled a symbolic battleground, one that might have had implications for the sector at large, its resolution should give heart to the acting community. Richard Cook did not believe that the outcome to the negotiations – however cordial or satisfactory – were going to inform future policy at the Abbey, however. “I think they’ll take a step back and work out how they’re going to approach it, rather than on this particular project. So many other theatre companies are trying to keep their rates as high as they can. The impression [a reduction] might convey to the industry as a whole is concerning. It’s not a single issue between us and the Abbey, or us and this project, or one we can vouch for in terms of the community. It’s a hot button issue. It isn’t going to end here, that’s for certain.”

The Abbey’s policies in regards to actors’ fees are part of the wider context of its overall restructuring, Mac Conghail maintains. However, while the theatre awaits the conclusion of that process and the severance pay to staff members it will entail – both Siptu and non-union employees have accepted restructuring plans, while the Abbey will have a date in the Labour Court with BATU members this month – the precarious conditions of freelance workers make them understandably wary of seeing their contracts redrafted. Mac Conghail repeats his commitment to staging big shows with greater employment opportunities on the Abbey stage, but when it comes to the Peacock he underlines the need to find a new approach to staging work.

“The shock that the acting community felt this week is a shock that’s not going to go away, unfortunately,” Mac Conghail added.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Comment

  1. (required)
  2. (required, will not be published)
  3. (optional)
  4. Subscribe to Comments

  5. Security code