Paying Independent Artists - Whose responsibility is it?

This article was written for the recent Winter Edition of Equity Magazine.

I had a play, one close to my heart, sitting in a drawer. 

I was saving Ross Mueller’s breathtaking Construction of the Human Heart for the right moment and this arrived when a three-week season at Sydney’s TAP Gallery became available, as did my dream cast. The decision to push ahead needed to be made quickly, but it was dependent on one thing: paying the artists a guaranteed fee for rehearsing and performing.

As a producer and director of independent work, my decision to take on a new project is always a loaded one. Independent Theatre plays a vital role alongside the main-stage as fertile ground for experimentation and new ideas. We continually see main-stage actors returning to the Independent stage as a way of sustaining and nurturing their craft.

While the opportunities are significant, so are the challenges. Venues are closing at an alarming rate; others are having to raise their rents to survive. Indie artists are often the first priced out. Funding, in addition to being repeatedly cut, is not subject to any tripartite approach – Federal, State and local bodies have still not found a way to efficiently coordinate the allocation of monies.

Among all of these pressures, the issue that is in danger of being lost is the absolute need to pay artists for their work. Apart from those that continue to fight tirelessly for this cause, I have observed a discomfort in the sector when talking about paying artists. Many actors have expressed concern that asking to be paid will leave them without work. I believe it is the responsibility of producers and directors to lead the conversation on artist fees.  

I know that many independent producers and directors have a desire to pay artists, but current models for making independent theatre don't leave much room for this. After we account for administrative, production, venue and marketing costs, there's very little, if anything, left of the budget.

We need to rethink how we make our art, in order to place payment for artists at the centre of the budget. It’s what David Pledger referred to in his recent platform paper when he spoke of the need to recognise that, without the artist, there is no art to consume. Producers and directors may need to champion work that focuses first on the artists and then creatively come to terms with their other overheads.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers or the best methods. In the case of Construction, until I could find a way of covering all costs through sponsorship, the only viable way of ensuring a guaranteed fee was to turn to crowd funding solely for that purpose. I believed that audiences would recognise how much artists give of themselves and the response to our campaign confirmed that belief. 

Just 10 days into a 15-day Pozible campaign, we reached our target. Most exciting was the level of engagement on social media – both those in a position to pledge and those who weren't shared our campaign and added comments abut the need to pay artists. I was encouraged when people in the industry who are fighting for artist pay, such as Wesley Enoch and Camilla Ah Kin, rallied behind our campaign.

Shortly after Construction closed, I was asked to join a Vivid Sydney panel, hosted by MEAA and The Walkely Foundation, on 'how we’re funding creative work now'. I shared my belief that crowd funding is successful when it addresses a need bigger than one production, in our case, alerting our audiences to the fact the Indie artists are generally not paid - something that much of the general public doesn't know - and asking them to help us redress this.

Further, I believe that people are craving a sense of community, and crowd funding offers an opportunity to become involved and support the work of a company.

The final question on the day was whether or not crowd funding was a sustainable means of paying artists. To this, I answered no – I don’t believe it can be in and of itself. 

Paying artists requires a reimagining of our entire model for making Independent theatre, and it is for this reason I challenge producers and directors to accept this responsibility. When royalties are directed towards Australian playwrights, rather than offshore accounts, we’re paying artists and sustaining our sector.

There are many opportunities to explore significant cost savings through digital marketing and social media. When we put our artists on Equity contracts, we demonstrate a commitment to working towards them being paid, even in a co-op situation.

As venues become unaffordable, we need to have conversations about site-specific and pop-up work. The opportunities are there and, with industry support, infrastructure and legal concessions can be adapted to support this form of work. We should encourage funding bodies to address long-term sector infrastructure, rather than case-by-case artistic projects.

Underlying all these ideas is a need to act as a collective. I believe that artists will be paid only when the Independent sector speaks with one loud voice. The time has come to make some noise.

- Dino Dimitriadis

I'd really like to hear your thoughts on this discussion. Please leave a comment below or send me an email