There are terrible dangers of falling through the gaps between psychic satisfaction and material security in the performing artists’ career path, according to arts and entertainment solicitor Mark Williams in a new Platform Paper titled Falling Through The Gaps: Our artists’ health and welfare from Currency House released today.
Perceptions of the actor’s lot can be largely divided between substantial fame and wealth on one side and penury on the other. In former decades it included people cast out from community by race, sexual preference, accident or, indeed, freakish ability. Some made good, more didn’t. Now we call out what used to be elided as a third category of unlovely or unlikeable figures cast aside: alcoholics, substance abusers, the mentally exhausted; the bitter and twisted. To these we might add yet another category of once-successful leading men—and others in positions of power—disgraced after decades of sexual predation.
These categories also describe many other professions; the distinction is that those performing artists who have achieved great heights and made substantial contributions to our culture and society will, by comparison with the rest of working Australia, still end up poorer, have worse mental and physical health, and a shorter lifespan. And the traditional support networks—the family, charity, the welfare state or free-market economics—will have failed them. That means, as a society, we have failed them. We have failed ourselves.
In the light of the recent, highly publicised accusations of sexual misconduct it is worth stressing here that none of us condone criminal behaviour. In stage and screen performance the expectation of just deserts is inevitably a moral element; but I prefer here to adopt the Salvation Army motto, ‘Love the sinner: hate the sin.’ Crime, or even sin, is not seen as involved in a very great number of careers that end in poverty and neglect.
Australian institutions do exist to support performers, crews and other creative contributors to the performing arts.
We lose a great number of our storytellers far too early and forever. We also know many living down inner-city lanes or in places no better than squats. Some are with their aged parents in small country towns on quarter-acres, or out in the bush with dubious plumbing. Some are in hostels or homeless. We lose a noticeable number, predominantly men aged in their fifties, to suicide, substance abuse and related cancers. In the last twelve months they have been designers and directors—a surprise possibly because those tend to be roles in the theatre where some longevity is possible. These are relatively high-profile figures on stage or screen but are personally known only to a few in tight-knit communities. They have died, often in squalor.
One of the surprises, in researching this paper, was that the first thing the American Actors’ Fund did after its foundation in 1882 was to buy burial plots in New Jersey. The stigma attached to actors was such that they were not even given a decent burial.
Australian institutions do exist to support performers, crews and other creative contributors to the performing arts. The Actors’ Benevolent Fund in NSW was founded in 1944. After the war, the Victorian Fund was formalised following a series of fundraising activities. These included benefit performances by visiting English artists from 1958 and with guidance from the equivalent English funds. A formal trust deed was executed in 1963. From 1975, the Actors’ and Entertainers’ Benevolent Fund of Queensland has also fulfilled a similar role in that state, whilst the funds in South Australia and Western Australia have a less formal structure and role. The remaining states and territories tend to be looked after by the older bodies. There are also close connections to the equivalent fund in New Zealand.
Each of these benevolent funds operate on principles similar to the English and other international models, in that they are for the relief of immediate hardship and are no substitute for pensions or other regular income support, health benefits or other forms of state assistance. Requests are considered in strict confidence and are sometimes made on behalf of a nominated person, who is often too conflicted to ask for assistance. A regular response being one of relief tinged with regret at the need to have asked because there are others worse off.
What the Australian funds have been unable to do – though the Dramatic Homes were set up to do it in Melbourne as early as 1870 – is solve the problem of homelessness in a workforce that spends most of its life on the road. The Dramatic Homes are now part of the Old Colonists’ Association in Melbourne where in the UK, the US and Europe, housing for members of the performing arts community stayed part of the landscape. In a dispersed national landscape, we need to rethink a solution to the proplem of low-cost social housing for all members of the community, not just those in the performing arts.
So, what practical steps could be taken to fix the problems with which we find ourselves today?
*The industry superannuation funds might look at the provisions of their trust deeds and set up and administer emergency and other charitable support for members of the industries they cover; not limited to the individual balances of members of the fund but out of specific reserves which would not infringe the ancillary purpose test of the SGIC.
*The commercial funds likewise should have elements of social responsibility further built in to support their members and the wider community.
*Government, in addition to low-balance support for superannuation, might consider a further supplement based on the salary sacrifice principles common in other sectors (and this includes the relatively low-paid university sector) under which individuals in relatively good times of well-paid work could make additional contributions to their super via the PAYG system.
*Another supplement (not a new suggestion) would be a levy of as little as five cents on every ticket to live performance sold in Australia to support a similar fund.
*An immediate need is a greater concentration, in training and within companies and the theatrical community, on dealing with health and mental health issues in the performing arts and should be provided with funding.
*Performing arts education institutions, including those run privately, must not be afraid to talk about the downside of being a creative performer, the protocols of good performance and the economics of the industry. Aspirants should graduate with a realistic understanding of the choices available and the networks to support them; that talent on its own is not enough: that performance is a competitive business and success does not come just by ‘wanting it enough’.
*Industry unions and producers, together with the major state-funded performing arts companies, must look above the hard graft of day-to-day issues and strengthen recent initiatives to encourage whole-of-life support even in a business with high short-term commercial risks, rocky long-term financing prospects and a reliance on youth, mobility and internationalism.
* The work of the Actors’ Benevolent Funds and related institutions must be inclusive, be clear on unified messages, speak to the discrepant and fragmented nature of the sector and avoid divisions of employment between ‘legitimate’ theatre, the media, variety and cabaret, circus, backstage and front-of-house.
*Finally, and, in my view, based on all of the above, housing and access to emergency accommodation has to be available both for working individuals and those in permanent or semi-retirement at or near to the major capital cities.
Platform Paper, No. 56, Falling Through The Gaps: Our artists’ health and welfare, by Dr Mark R.W. Williams, is now available from Currency House.
Dr Williams is solicitor in Melbourne, an Adjunct Professor in the School of Art at RMIT University and a Member of the Committee of the Victorian Actors’ Benevolent Trust.
For details of the launch of this Platform Paper in Sydney tonight , Canberra (August 20) and Melbourne (August 23) click here