Vanity projects – the future of Fringe?

Vanity projects – the blight of the London Fringe scene? Quite possibly. Most actors and directors will have a story about a less than favourable experience working on a production that ends up being a total farce. And whilst these stories of woe are often hilarious to share over a few glasses of wine it is often a sad reflection of where the London Fringe scene is slowly heading.

For those not familiar with your typical theatrical vanity project, here are few examples of the most common ones –

1) An actor/writer/producer combo looking for a director to direct them in a play they’ve written themselves, which they will also act in and are also producing (i.e. funding). They already have a set idea about how they want the play to be staged so the director is always a slightly pointless addition to the process. Notes are never taken on board and any suggestion to cut the script is met with cries of anguish. Chaos ensues.

2) Director/producer combo who has been desperate to stage a particular play and is looking for a cast to be involved no pay. Director usually overworks the actors and has little appreciation of time. Play usually makes no profit. Actors plot the demise of director and possibly report them to Equity.

3) Actor/producer combo who has been desperate to play a particular role in a play and is looking for a director to be involved for no pay. Play is usually Hamlet. Actor can’t understand why director can’t turn them into Laurence Olivier. Play usually makes no profit. Director plots the demise of actor and tries to blacklist them amongst director friends.

4) Director/actor combo looking for a producer and/or assistant director to ‘fundraise’ money for their show because they can’t be bothered to do so themselves. No money is offered up front and no money is ever made, in fact, the show itself is often never staged! This leaves the hapless producer/AD feeling totally despondent about the whole industry and considering a career in telemarketing.

In all of the above examples it becomes clear that making a profit is not the driving force in most vanity project’s and unfortunately in these tough times for theatre makers if there’s no profit there’s no way of making this career work.

Whilst it may not be as artistically satisfying, if I was involved in a so called ‘vanity project’ but was being paid equity minimum I would probably just suck it up and get on with it. But unfortunately, when no money is involved – either in an upfront payment or in the form of a genuine profit share – then you just end up feeling like you’ve been used and got nothing out of it (and you can’t afford your rent/heating/food/travel card to boot).

However, I’ve also been on the other side when I’ve produced plays with my own theatre company and known the extreme financial difficulties there are in staging a play and actually getting people to come and see it. Spearshaker Theatre has always been adamant we don’t want to be a company for vanity productions, however because of so many up front costs we have often been forced to offer profit share payments for the majority of our shows.

It’s a bit of a vicious circle in today’s fringe scene. On the one hand you have small theatre companies that genuinely want to stage a show with artistic credibility and make enough money to pay everyone a fair wage. However their costs are so high and bums on seats are so hard to achieve they often end up in the red by the end of the run and unable to pay the actors involved.

And then of course you do just get your out and out vanity project and heaven help you if you end up getting involved in one of them – though you will be able to join in the drunken hilarity of ‘worst show you’ve ever done’ and that’s something isn’t it??

So what is the answer? In all honestly I really don’t know. You can’t stop someone with money putting on a theatre show, and you could also argue that no-one is forcing an actor or director to give their time to a production where there is no money upfront. However, in an industry where even larger more established theatres are inviting people to work for free (that’s a whole other blog post!) your hands end up being tied if you want to have anything recent on your CV.

I am always genuinely interested to hear people’s opinions on this subject – whether you work in theatre or not, so please do comment if you have anything to say as I’d love to hear your thoughts!

1 thought on “Vanity projects – the future of Fringe?

  1. According to German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer:

    “Pride is a conviction of one’s own worth, while vanity is the desire of rousing such a conviction in others, generally accompanied by the secret hope of ultimately coming to the same conviction oneself.”

    So the aim of a vanity production is to persuade the audience to buy something the producers wouldn’t buy themselves. Hardly what you’d call an attractive sales proposition is it? No wonder theatre is going through tough times!

    I’m old enough to remember what fringe was like the first time around – when places like The Donmar were still just derelict warehouses where so-called “amateurs” could put on the kind of productions the professionals weren’t interested in, but audiences were!

    If vanity is the problem then the answer is to get rid of it every step of the way. Instead of pleasing the professionals how about pleasing the audience for a change?

    And while we’re at it, working for nothing is another issue but it’s also part if this one. Whether you’re working for nothing in a vanity production, the BBC or Tesco, somebody, somewhere is profiting from it. Working for no money is exploitation and slavery and ought to be against the law. The fact it isn’t tells us everything we need to know about the true purpose of the economic collapse, austerity and so called “recovery”.


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