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  • Phoebe Robertson

Behind the Curtain: Investigating a Wicked Underbelly

Words by Phoebe Robertson (she/her) 


Theatre brings fantasies alive on the stage: a sentiment particularly true for Wicked, a production packed with hit musical numbers, glittering costumes, and a formidable set. But behind the curtains is a stark reality: the majority of those creating this magic are not compensated for their efforts. Casting an investigative spotlight backstage unveils a tale of unpaid actors, bewildering pay contradictions, and an industry that capitalises on the passion of its performers. 


Wicked, produced by G&T Productions, wrapped up its Wellington production on 3 September after a three-week season at the St James Theatre. There were around 150 people working on Wicked as volunteers, including four unpaid interns from Toi Whakaari.   


The Pay Predicament


After interviewing a variety of people involved in Wicked, a worrying pattern was revealed: nearly nobody received any pay. This encompassed not only the ensemble and backstage crew, but also some of the lead actors. 


Ushers, backstage technicians, front-of-house team members, dressers, props handlers, and wardrobe specialists all also worked without compensation. While some duties, such as ushering, are commonly done by volunteers, others like audio and lighting require specialised instruction and semi-professional knowledge. Even the backstage photographer worked voluntarily. 


Amidst those unpaid jobs, the orchestra was a lucky, yet unusual, outlier. They received an undisclosed hourly rate for rehearsals and dress rehearsals, with payment being so strict they abruptly ended a rehearsal as soon as their time was up.

The lack of clarity about compensation undermines both audience perceptions and the well-being of those involved. A particular crew member noted there was a "real lack of transparency" when it came to payments; confusion existed regarding who got paid and who worked without pay. The fear of being blacklisted by G&T Productions and Capital Theatre Trust stifles open conversations about paychecks, and creates a dangerous power dynamic, with companies being able to treat performers however they see fit. 


As reporting for this article wrapped up, I was informed that volunteers were all given $100 at the Wicked afterparty, as the show closed. Such a gift did not happen at the end of last year’s production of Les Misérables


Crunching The Numbers


The St James Theatre seats up to 1552 people, and Wicked performed 19 shows here during its season. While Salient can’t confirm the number of tickets sold, they were advertised at an average price of $89.50. 


According to Susan Pepperell, a Communications and Media Manager from St James, the costs associated with setting up and taking down the production can range from $5445 (+GST) for packing in and $7260 (+GST) for show day. Venue hire rates may be adjusted depending on the production. 


The sets and costumes used for Wellington’s season of Wicked were re-used from previous productions in Auckland and Christchurch, significantly lowering production costs.


The Enigmatic Organisational Landscape


Understanding how exactly these productions go ahead with a volunteer workforce requires understanding the two entities producing Wicked: G&T Productions and Capital Theatre Trust. While they collaborate on the production, their legal statuses differ. G&T Productions is a NZ Limited Company, while Capital Theatre Trust is a Charitable Trust. Capital Theatre Trust's website states they provide "quality, affordable, socially, financially, culturally, and environmentally sustainable accessible live entertainment”. Despite that mission, ticket prices for both Wicked and Les Misérables were not particularly accessible to students or those struggling with rising costs of living.


G&T Productions' website contains no explicit claims of affordability, but it does state that a share of its profits goes to trusts promoting NZ theatrical talent. There is no public information on which trusts receive funds or how precisely these funds advance local talent. The board of G&T Productions has not answered Salient’s requests for more information. 


When I asked for clarification on the division of profits between Capital Theatre Trust and G&T Productions I was told by Sandy Brewer, the chairperson of Capital Theatre Trust, that individual confidential agreements between the two organisations and outside contractors meant that this information could not be disclosed. 


The Charitable Aspect

 

At the Wellington Airport Regional Community Awards in August 2023, Capital Theatre Trust was honoured with the ‘Rising Star’ Award and was also a finalist for the ‘Arts and Culture’ category. The purpose of these awards is to celebrate volunteers committed to giving back to the community. When I questioned Brewer about how proceeds from Wicked benefit the community, she replied that "while the trust is in its growth phase, the profits from the shows simply contribute to the operating costs of the trust's current activities.” 

Jo Maxwell, the Brand and Sponsorship manager for the Wellington Airport Regional Community Awards, told me “the awards are aimed at celebrating volunteers, rather than professional activities or companies. The Capital Theatre Trust clearly fits this criteria as they help volunteers gain valuable real-life experience with major productions. […] These volunteer roles are clearly advertised and understood as unpaid roles.”


Values and Inclusion


A goal of Capital Theatre Trust is to "recognise diversity", yet in March 2023, their actions did not live up to this mission statement. 

At the audition for Wicked, the trust (alongside G&T Productions) explicitly invited disabled performers to try out for the role of Nessarose in their casting call, a character depicted as using a wheelchair.


When Noah*, a disabled actor who uses a cane for mobility, arrived at the audition, they were put under scrutiny by sign-in personnel asking what “was wrong” with them. Noah relayed that during the audition, the panel members spent more time focusing on Noah's cane instead of their performance and cut their audition short, leaving them feeling exposed and excluded.


The hardest part was not being judged due to their disability—which they expected—but rather that theatre companies claimed to support disabled actors while treating them unfairly. This, Noah said, made them feel "awful" and "scared".


Funding a Season

The companies argue that producing shows of this scale is too financially risky to pay performers. However, tickets for Wicked were available for purchase as early as February 2023, before Wellington auditions had begun, and directly followed a sold-out season of the show in Auckland. Advertisements from G&T Productions declared that tickets would "WILL sell fast" and "WILL sell out" before the show opened. 

While information from the cast and crew suggests that Wicked was projected to make substantial gains, Salient cannot confirm its box office takings. If budgets are tight, an option for productions is a profit-sharing system, where profits are dispersed among cast and crew once ticket sales surpass a certain minimum required to break even. 


The profit-sharing model was used by Hell School: The Musical in the 2023 NZ Fringe Festival, as many shows in the festival did. A member of the organising team explained that by using a profit share model, “we were able to pay all the artists involved. This promoted equality throughout the team, because everyone was able to benefit from the financial success of the season, and it was a way to show appreciation of everyones' time and mahi. Recognising and compensating artists is vital in an industry that is becoming increasingly undervalued.” 

Brewer made it clear that the stage crew and actors were aware that they would not receive financial compensation when they auditioned for the production. However, maintaining a status quo of unpaid and volunteer labour in the theatre industry creates problems for those wanting to work in New Zealand. 

Grant Meese, the operations and artistic manager at G&T Productions and director of Wicked, is a major player in this dispute. While he has not responded to requests for comment for this article, in a 2018 interview with Adam Goodall via The Pantograph Punch, Meese was asked about using a profit-share model, and argued that “I think the thing to remember [...] if there isn’t a profit, what happens then? Who takes that risk?” When pushed further, he stated, "I think the important stuff for what we’re doing is that it goes back into the community." 


One of the crew members working on the current production of Wicked, who did not wish to be named, jokingly implied their unpaid labour was funding Messe’s holiday in Africa during the show’s season. 


Impact on Performers

For hopeful performers, the lack of paid jobs in the industry takes its toll. I recently spoke to Te Auaha Musical Theatre graduate Jamie* who has since left show business due to the absence of compensated roles. “We can’t pursue the industry that we want. You don’t ask doctors to do medical procedures for experience outside of their industry. As soon as they have their degree they’re getting paid. So why is it different in the arts, and in the performing arts industry?”For those in technical roles especially, not getting paid for their work can make it difficult. Working without getting paid on one show could mean undercutting those who earn money for similar services on other projects. This devalues technical skills across the whole industry.


The very essence of the arts is dependent on people who are willing to contribute out of love for their craft, and yet there's a stark contrast between amateur performances and company-produced shows like Wicked. The unfortunate reality is that many companies abuse artists by offering them ‘experience’ and ‘opportunities’ instead of a paycheck. This makes it difficult for performers to refuse to take unpaid roles, since they can be replaced quickly with those who are willing to work for free. 


The Call for Change

The world of theatre is often portrayed as a place of beauty and emotion, but the story of underpaid talent is a reminder that success in the industry does not come without its struggles. The recent production of Wicked serves as evidence that performers deserve to be compensated for their invaluable contributions. After all, the show wouldn’t be able to go on without them. 


*names have been changed 

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