Updated: Jul 16
Show fees may be a ‘necessary evil’ of running a community theatre show, yet some companies don’t ask why they’re there in the first place.
In Australian community theatre, it’s tradition to ask cast members to pay a ‘show fee’ to be part of a production. Many of these companies bundle a company membership fee in with the show fee, some itemise the fee breakdown, and others simply ask for the money.
When discussing show fees, the biggest question I hear people asking is: why don’t production teams pay the same show fee, and why are the performers not reimbursed when the show earns a profit?
Pay vs Paid
One major disparity when it comes to paying cast fees is between the production team, band members and performers. Often performers are expected to pay fees while production team and band members are compensated for their involvement.
Every participant in a show, from a backstage dresser to the director, will have out-of-pocket costs incurred during the production period; eating away from home, transport costs, supplies for your role in the production, among other expenses. Yet performers are frequently asked to supply their costumes, makeup, hair products and shoes at their own expense. These are not costs incurred by other members of the team, some of whom are being paid a stipend for their time.
Applause as currency
In discussions about monetary compensation, you may hear that performers are ‘the ones receiving the applause every night’. However, as any passionate production team member can tell you, seeing your work come to life on the stage is just as rewarding, if not more satisfying, than being up there yourself.
This sort of thinking is commensurate with providing ‘experience’ and ‘exposure’ as a form of currency. Try asking a professional in any industry to do something and pay you for the pleasure of simply gaining experience. I’ve met plenty of passionate accountants who will not do my tax for free, no matter how much they enjoy Excel. Theatre should be no different.
We pay those who are skilled
The next argument in the debate is usually that payment is based on technical skill and demand. Musicians train for years to be able to play shows. Technicians have a specific skillset that is in demand. However, rarely will you hear someone defend the technical skill and years of training the dance captain undertook to move the way they do. Nor do we hear about the years of vocal training and choir rehearsals required by the leading actor. Why do we continue to allow music theatre graduates to pay companies for the opportunity to perform, when they have pursued graduate level certification in their craft?
Why then, do we not demand extensive leadership and management training from our production teams to undertake their roles? If these performers are being paid in experience, they deserve to be taught by someone with a skill set beyond their own, with leadership and management capabilities to boot. Would you pay for a professional development workshop run by someone who has fewer qualifications, less work experience, and an equal skillset to your own?
A lot of this devaluation of performers is perpetuated because ‘it has always been that way’. Musicians can’t be expected to play a show for free, because ‘it’s always been that way’. Performers should expect to be out of pocket a few hundred dollars (at least) because ‘it’s always been that way’. If nothing else, we need to change the way we value certain skills above others, and how we inadvertently perpetuate disparity in community theatre.
We want to provide extras for the cast
Obviously providing a tangible memento for cast members is a lovely sentiment, however these extras shouldn’t be paid for by cast fees. Some people simply can’t afford these optional extras and making it mandatory makes sure you only have a cast made up of people who don’t have to worry about money.
If your cast wants a show shirt, tea and coffee, or other extras, these things can be provided on an individual basis. Of course, bulk order discounts can be an incentive to make sure you save on unit costs, but don’t taint someone’s memory of a show with the stress of having to come up with extra cash for things they may not want.
Leverage, tradition or justifiable expense?
When these arguments are provided by companies and their staff, it makes me feel that they’re simply charging fees because it’s tradition, or they’re leveraging off the fact that being a performer is a tough business, and there are so many of us begging for a chance to be in a show, just to pursue our passion.
What are show fees good for?
There are plenty of reasons why you should charge a show fee to cast.
Initial injection of funds
If you’re starting a company, or run shows with a minimal budget, a show fee is a simple cash injection that will get the show up and running. The initial cost of a musical is largely in securing the rights, which can be in the thousands. This can leave a new or low-budget company struggling to cover smaller expenses during rehearsals, like venue hire. This initial funding can make a big difference in getting traction in the early stages of a production.
Ensures your cast is well behaved
Cast fees can act as a ‘buy-in’ measure for your performers. We all need a little incentive now and then, and humans are psychologically primed to be more committed to something if they are invested in the project; monetarily, emotionally, spiritually, physically, or mentally. A non-refundable show fee means a cast member may take your rehearsal process more seriously than if they did it for free. A word of caution: A cast fee is not a guarantee of a smooth production process. If your production team has terrible leadership skills and they lose their emotional or mental investment in the project, you may still face cast members who will forfeit the fee and retaliate or leave anyway.
It’s a form of fundraising
You may be running a show and realise that asking the cast to sell chocolates just won’t raise the amount of money you require. A mandatory show fee is a guaranteed income in place of traditional fundraising methods. If you decide to go this way, you should not expect cast to raise further funds.
But it will cover the cast member for insurance purposes!
This one is hard to prove, though may be valid if you have high insurance premiums (though we recommend you shop around if this is the case, ours is less than $500 a year). Insurance is something a company will pay regardless of their production costs, as most venues require a certificate of currency before you are permitted to hire a performance or rehearsal space. Any individual in the venue under the auspice of the company with the insurance is covered, regardless of their cast fee status - and I don't remember any director paying to be covered by insurance.
How can we ethically charge show fees?
If you cannot pay your cast members, and you make a profit, you should return their show fees – especially if you’re paying other members of the production to be involved.
The benefit of paying back the contribution of your performers who are doing the work every night is more than an incentive to put on a good performance, but also motivates them to sell the show for you. If everyone has a stake in the show doing well, it stands to reason that everyone will want the show to be a financial success. This approach can be carried over into production team stipends as well. If you must pay your creative team, their full stipend can be proportionate to the financial performance of the show.
Whatever path you take, it is your responsibility as a producer to keep expenses under control and be transparent about the financial health of the show with the people who are assisting production with their cash injections.
Profit is income minus expenses, so forego the lavish set and moving lights and pay back your actors. They’ll tell your story much better than any light could, and they’ll feel like they’re part of your team. Moreover, you’ll be setting a better standard of practice for the industry as a whole and demonstrating the value of artists and performers.