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The market forces of theatre pay

They covered writing and acting in films and commercials. He’s played a taste bud on radio, supplied the voice of a dog on television. ”Actors must look at the market and say ‘These are the areas in which I can make a living’,” he says. ”Ideally, it would be great to do exciting relevant theatre at the Market all the time, but then you go to the Hypermarket and a can of beans has gone from 45 cents to 98.” Fridjhon lives well on what he earns from acting, which puts him in an exclusive category. 

Professor Ian Steadman, head of the School of Dramatic Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, is conducting a survey of actors’ salaries, and he estimates only five percent of all South African actors make a decent living. ”It’s a wacky business we’re involved in,” says Fridjhon, ”but it’s nevertheless a business. If more actors viewed their acting as a business they’d be better at it. There are boring things like rental, food, tax. You must keep your receipts. You must claim for the right things and not pay too much. You can’t do that by being an artiste.” 

Fridjhon is one of the few who make a living out of radio and television commercials. The amounts involved seem low, but, he says, ”you can do a fair amount in a day. You can be in a studio for five minutes or 45 minutes.” For an average 30-second radio commercial the actor is paid R250. He figures this is a great improvement- in 1974, when voice artists went on strike for three months, they were getting R16. After the strike, the rate soared to R25. Television commercial voice-over work- in which an actor either provides the narrative or the dialogue- is worth R250 for recording it, and R670 for a year’s usage – or R920, whether it’s a 10-second or a one-minute commercial. If one is selling flu tablets or other seasonal products, it’s a R665 total, and a retail ad pays R440. Add it all up, keep decent books, collect your own fees (”agents often. can’t be bothered,” he says) and hustle for enough of these fees, plus audio-visual presentations given at sales conferences and the odd spot of scriptwriting – and you’ll be able to do a stage play, occasionally. 

”I’d do a lot more stage work if I could,” Fridjhon says. ”I haven’t done a play since I’m Not Rappaport and that was two and a half years ago. I can’t afford to –  I’ve got two sons to educate. ”Sometimes a play comes along that’s just so beautiful to do. Even now if a good stage part came along I’d probably do it. But- and it sounds awful to say – that weekly salary is pocket money.” 

Patrick Mynhardt, who also belongs in that successful five percent, has taken a different route from Fridjhon’s. For 20 years he has made a living out of one-man shows. He was paid R100 a week for the first run of A Sip of Jerepigo, acting Herman Charles Bosman stories in a small theatre at the Civic in 1969. Two years later he was earning 10 times as much for the same show, touring the Transvaal for Pact. When he devised More Jerepigo four years later he ”became my own impressario”: He hired a theatre in Pretoria for a fortnight and stayed for five weeks. ”I found myself with RI0 000 to R15 000,” he said. ”Now I could call (theatre manager) Brian Brooke and say ‘Come and see my show’. Now I could make deals – 60 percent for me, 40 percent for the management.” 

The next few months set a pattern that has worked ever since: he hires a theatre or makes a deal with the management. ”I never rent theatres unless they’re extremely inexpensive,” he says. He prefers to make a percentage arrangement with the management, so if he breaks an arm or a rib and the show can’t go on, he’s not responsible for several thousand rands of rent. Or he tours for service organisations, which buy a series of shows as fundraising schemes. Or corporations fly him to casinos or game lodges to perform one of his two one-man shows, Just Jerepigo or Boy from Bethulie, at their conferences. ”They pay me enough money in one night to live for a month,” he says. 

”I used to look askance at actors who did one-man shows because I thought they didn’t do anything else.” No longer. With the proceeds he produces plays he believes in – like Nemesis, a Mario Scheiss play; or he accepts the parts he wants to do for Pact, the Market or other managements. ”I spend my time trying to engineer work with other actors,” he says. ”One becomes an actor to act. To just be the same character all the time has no therapeutic value.” Pact pays him well when he works for them; the Market does not, but the Market doesn’t pay anyone very well. He doesn’t mind. He’s been an actor since 1953, in Britain and in South Africa, on radio, in films, on the stage; and he has reached the point, he says, where ”for an actor in South Africa- although not for a businessman or an insurance agent – I’m pretty well-to-do. And mainly because of my one-man shows.” Back when Mynhardt was just starting out there were a spate of plays about ”a bunch of madcap kids who hire a theatre and put on their own play”.

In fiction they became overnight stars, noticed by Broadway producers and Hollywood talent scouts. South Africa tends to be short of both species, but still people hire theatres and put on their own plays, and sometimes they are successful. Some have formed their own production companies, like Bold Productions, created by actor and playwright Deon Opperman, whose Memoirs of a Bourgeois Baby opens next week at a new one-man show venue at Windybrow; or Snap, which is Paul Slabolepsky and Bobby Heaney’s company, now touring with Smallholding. Some sell their shows to managements, and others, like the ”madcap kids” of stage and screen, cut deals with the management for a percentage of the gross. Deals range all over the scale, from 50-50 to 80-20, and they are struck with Pact, the Market, the Black Sun and occasionally the Wits Theatre. 

Actress and director Gina Benjamin has worked for others, sold shows to managements – a both Pact and the Black Sun – and struck deals, and found the latter two options preferable to working for a salary. ”Sure, the management will tell you ‘We have overheads, running costs, a box office, a set, lights’, and it’s true. ”But we know how many people are in the audience, we know how much they take at the door. Actors,” she adds, ”can count.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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Barbara Ludman
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