WRITING

Ducks on stage / Arthur Smith

October 2000

As headlines go, it belonged in the 'Freddie Starr ate my hamster' category. 'Duck gets the bird from West End show' is how my daily put it. As even the most serious of newspapers seemed incapable of taking it seriously, perhaps the whole thing was a mere canard. Apparently not.

In case you missed it, the story goes like this: Arthur Smith has been forced to drop a live duck from his new comedy revue, Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen. The duck was due to appear nightly, wheeled in on a tea trolley to Cohen's Like a Bird on a Wire. It turns out that George, a Muscovy Duck, was demanding a whopping fee of £250 per day. I wouldn't be surprised if the riders in his contract stipulated foie gras and a regular supply of chicks in the dressing room, too. When previews in Bath revealed that George couldn't quite quack – sorry, hack – it, he was replaced by a bird called Al. But Smith could no longer duck the facts: with the minimum weekly rate for actors currently £292.86 – outside London, it's less – it would be cheaper to splash out on a duck suit and hire an actor instead.

It's a funny story – even funnier if you imagine it delivered by Arthur Smith – but it highlights some uncomfortable truths. There are many reasons why theatre is in crisis, but the fact that we appear to place greater value on ducks than people must surely be high on the list.

No one imagines money is the only issue. We live in a different cultural climate from theatre's post-war 'golden era'. You wouldn't get today's audience saying 'oh good, it's in colour' when the curtain goes up. Most of us wouldn't even understand the joke. Ours is a climate of digital technology, playstations and multi-channel television, and there's a vast difference between the entertainment expectations of the Spielberg generation and the realities of live theatre. The diversity of the population and changes in educational policies mean that audiences no longer come to the theatre equipped with the same cultural references. The 'rep' companies of the 1950's could count on a regular audience who felt a sense of ownership over their 'local'. In my hometown of Derby, my parents' generation went to the Little Theatre every week to see the resident ensemble in a new production. A steady decrease in funding since the 80's has left theatres unable to afford either new productions or anything resembling a real 'company'. On many stages, you're lucky if you need two hands to count the actors.

Salaries are not the only problem, but they play a large part. Improving conditions for actors and creative managers is one of the priorities of the Arts Council's National Policy for Theatre, currently in development with Regional Arts Boards. Actors, especially those with mortgages and families in London, can barely afford to take work in regional theatres. Given the disparity between salaries in the commercial world and the subsidised sector, actors are better off waiting for the odd mobile phone commercial than earning a regular pittance – if a regular pittance exists – in rep. The average actor is employed in theatre for just eleven weeks a year. And this is where the art suffers. Theatre used to be the training ground of the acting profession. From well-trodden boards, great actors went on to conquer television and the movies. Now, if anything, it works the other way round. Theatre is no longer a training ground - it seems to be the playground of fantastically wealthy Hollywood stars who find the poverty of minimum rates picturesque. We've had Nicole, Kevin, Juliette and Ralph all lining up to do the theatrical equivalent of a Marie Antoinette. It's laudable that they have all played the Donmar or the Almedia for the same money as the next guy, but I can't help thinking of Lenin's comment about travelling first class.

A director of the firm that supplied George defended his salary on the grounds that ducks require insurance and intensive training. 'You can't just go and haul any old duck off a pond for this type of work', she said. Quite so. Whereas acting, well, any old ducky can do it.