Calculating Fees by Lucy Carter

It becomes so clear to me how lighting designers’ buyout fees are not fit for purpose when producers and institutions ask if I would work with an associate to increase the access and opportunities for emerging designers into buildings and productions that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to be working on at the stage they are at in their careers. The gesture is absolutely brilliant and comes with the right intentions. However, I recently negotiated to have an associate on a production with me for exactly those reasons, but when the producers and I were discussing what their fee should be and discussed paying at least the living wage to them for their time, including prep time, it became clear that for a ten-day technical period, plus plan drawing and attending numerous creative and production meetings, this fee (based on a day rate) was going to end up being more than most other members of the performing and creative team. So, the way forward was hard to fathom because in the end you can’t pay an associate lighting designer more than the associate director, or the performers who are in rehearsals every day. It would have been more than I was getting paid as well.

This is something that other lighting designers have been telling me about too, that their associates’ fees have been calculated on days attended and ended up being more than the lighting designer was earning for all the time they worked on the production. The discrepancy between team members who are being paid by the day and those being paid a fee is enormous and pretty difficult to unpick.

As the article in the last Focus about buyouts states, a buyout fee should cover the hours worked, including overtime. Then if we add something for the creative input a lighting designer gives to the project, how do those hours and days worked get fairly remunerated? Even if you take the living wage and just tot up the hours I work preparing, meeting, researching, designing, in rehearsals, and in technicals through to premiere, I am not paid the living wage for most theatre productions I work on.

So basically a skilled designer with thirty years of experience and a good reputation isn’t earning above the living wage. This isn’t the full picture because I earn royalties for some of the work I do, and I earn some fees for productions that transfer elsewhere, so don’t get me wrong – I am not complaining about my own personal lot. What I am trying to say is that because producers start at the top with employing directors and then the design team and then associates, and because they try to get everyone for the cheapest deal possible, by the time they get to the bottom reducing and equating responsibility to amount paid there is not even a living wage left for the associates and assistants before they hit the lowest of the low. Adding to the difficulty is the common retort when we lighting designers ask for more reasonable fees that the designer has agreed their fee before us and the producers can’t go higher than the designer’s fee. Or the writer, director and designer have agreed the royalty structure and therefore it can’t be changed. I recently got the writer, composer and director on a Zoom call and told them that if they agreed to the royalty offer the knock-on was that my cut was a pittance, and that as a team we needed to fight for better. In reality, the feeling is that everyone has to fight alone and for themselves, which will never ever change the situation because the presumed hierarchy within creative teams means that producers continue to play us off against each other.

We talk about fees all the time in our professionals working group, and we have so many good ideas and theories between us about how to raise the bar, get paid our worth and protect the weakest. Those ideas are all well and good but it’s all theory and desire. The system is immovable unless we can convince producers to consider new ways to remunerate the theatre workforce – and especially designers on buyout fees.

So, if programmers’ day rates are £350 per day and production electricians are £350–450 per day, how can we keep the day rates that the other members of the lighting team are earning and get the lighting designers’ buyout fees in line with and above those, in recognition of responsibility? How are producers ever going to afford that? What’s clear is that lighting design fees can’t go up to the detriment of anyone else.

So, should we be thinking about a design fee, a rights fee and an attendance fee for designers? Because what we do in terms of designing – our creative contribution, the research, the experience and skill of each individual designer – is variable and negotiable. Then a rights fee could be developed and based around a clearer structure, depending on size of venue, size of show, musical, play, ballet, length of run, etc. Royalties already have a basic structure to them, although this can vary considerably from producer to producer and production to production. Then, for attendance, LDs could be paid a daily or weekly rate just like the other members of the lighting team – just as production electricians and programmers are paid, and this would mean that lighting designers are less likely to be being paid the least amount of money on the lighting team, as so often happens in theatre.

I don’t think that we can just base our fees on a day rate, because then how do you differentiate between designers with five years’ experience and thirty years’ experience? That’s how the creative fee remains a buyout for the commitment and creative part, and the day rate covers the attendance on site, and the rights fee is for usage of the design.

Producers are so far unwilling to consider splitting the fee this way in negotiations with Equity, and they do not want to address the low pay situation because it’s a serious amount of money they will need to find over and above what they seem to be budgeting for currently. I am still hearing language such as “Lucy needs to invest and trust the project and not think about breaking it down into actual hours worked”! Honestly, I have heard producers say so many times in negotiations that this project is going to have legs, and transfer here, and tour there, and invest your time now, and it will pay off. Maybe one in fifty projects have paid off for me! How many times have we all worked for barely anything in the hope that this will be the show that makes our career take off? What I wonder is if we add up the time I donate for free working on a production and calculate what my financial donation of free time adds up to and what percentage of the whole investment that donation of mine is, then alongside my current royalty we could add my additional donated time into it and increase my royalty. If I give my time for free, I am contributing to the investment pot alongside the other stakeholders.

That doesn’t help when we are dealing with subsidised or not-for-profit productions though. However, if we start with the commercial situation, then hopefully the situation also improves elsewhere.

We are discussing these things all the time on the ALPD committee. We currently are continuing with our working process documents, which are intended to educate and inform producers about everyone’s extensive roles on the lighting teams. We are developing, with AAPTLE, lots of collaborative documents to sit alongside these that will explain and illustrate how everyone’s roles on design and technical teams work together towards the whole, and we are working out the best ways to share these. To that end, AAPTLE is in regular contact and meeting with SOLT/UK Theatre specifically about how to share and create impact with these documents among their members, as well as other areas of discussion. Our brilliant Zoe Spurr (ALPD Equity rep) and the Equity directors and designers committee are preparing for the upcoming claim/negotiations for designers and directors, with a new three-year plan that they will be discussing this month with all relevant associations before beginning that negotiation process. There is a newly formed theatre freelancers branch within BECTU, which is forming two working groups – one for those who charge a day rate, and another for those who get paid a flat fee for a project. So we need to coordinate all of these conversations to try to find a way forward for everyone in lighting. Please be in touch and let us know your thoughts.