Medical aid: Actor and playwright Robert Fridjhon is being helped by the Theatre Benevolent Fund after suffering a severe stroke in 2017 and being left partially paralysed and needing ongoing therapy. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN
Medical aid: Actor and playwright Robert Fridjhon is being helped by the Theatre Benevolent Fund after suffering a severe stroke in 2017 and being left partially paralysed and needing ongoing therapy. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN
Richard Loring. Picture: SUPPLIED
Richard Loring. Picture: SUPPLIED

Theatre producer Richard Loring laughs when he recalls staging the musical African Footprint at Gold Reef City Casino.

"A customer asked if I ever gambled and I said ‘Yes, every night.’ But I told him I didn’t play the machines, I put on shows, and that is the biggest gamble of them all," he says.

The theatre is a gamble for the cast, writer, director, lighting and sound engineers and costume and set designers because even great shows can be scuppered by audience apathy. Multiply that by comedians, musicians, dancers, soap stars and camera crews, and the number of people trying to make a living from the performing arts is enormous.

Yet Loring says that based on figures from Equity, a trade union for the entertainment industry in the UK, at any given time only a quarter of them are actually working.

Job security is as precarious as a trapeze act — and there is no safety net. The dangerous result is that most entertainers don’t have medical aid or even a hospital plan, no pension fund and very little chance of accruing enough savings.

One tiny bright spot of support when the limelight fades is the Theatre Benevolent Fund, a charity that pays a small pension or stipend to actors and other entertainers in dire straits.

One of the latest beneficiaries is Robert Fridjhon, a popular actor and playwright felled by a severe stoke in 2017 at the age of 48. The stroke left him paralysed on one side and affected his speech. He had no medical aid and little savings, so his parents are in debt after R600,000 of medical bills, while ongoing occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy costs R30,000 a week.

The fund made a donation towards the bills and is now paying Fridjhon a monthly stipend. It also pays a meagre pension to 33 retired or ill singers, actors and technicians, including once-famous faces.

People usually turn to the fund if they are too old or weak to work or a disease like cancer is assailing them and they have run out of savings.

"In Robert’s case it was out of the blue — 48 years old with a stroke and no medical aid. It’s a nightmare — where do you find that money if you are not earning anything and you are part-ially paralysed?" asks Loring, who has been involved with the fund for decades.

"We never neglect anybody but you almost have to be penniless. Most of the people we help don’t have a pension, live in rented property and sold their car because they can’t afford the petrol, so they really are destitute, " Loring says.

Apart from erratic, low or non-existent incomes that make paying medical aid difficult, the fairy-tale world of showbiz seems far removed from practical mundanities such as buying insurance and squirrelling away some savings.

"When you are young and in a show with your friends around you and getting applause every night, it’s very different from going into an office and getting paid 52 weeks a year with a pension and medical aid.

"Everybody has a picture of the guy or girl on the red carpet and it’s all wonderful. But it’s not really as glamorous as it seems." Loring points out. A mid-tier artist may land two or three jobs a month and earn perhaps R24,000, before tax and an agent’s commission of 15%.

"It sounds a lot compared with what the majority of South Africans earn, but they are left with a minimal amount for rent, living expenses, clothes and travelling to auditions. Then the artists will say ‘Let’s party,’ and when the party finishes they think ‘Oh s**t, I’ve got no money’," Loring says.

The Theatre Benevolent Fund was formed in 1962 to help an actor who fell ill. It contributes towards medical and funeral costs, supports widows and dependants and helps to source medical equipment and supplies. It relies on donations and was topped up recently when some artists bequeathed it their houses and cash.

"If you love the theatre don’t leave your house to a cat or dogs, leave it to the artists," Loring says dramatically.

The board of the Theatre Benevolent Fund now wants to investigate if a health insurance company will work with it to devise a plan specifically for the entertainment industry.

"That would be fantastic to give you a feeling of security if something happens. But it’s difficult because members would have to pay on a regular basis and the problem in this business is one month you’re earning and the next you’re not," Loring points out.

Actor and comedian Alan Committie is planning a Stars for a Star benefit show soon to help raise money for Fridjhon’s ongoing therapy.

"There is more recovery to come from Robert and this performance will be an opportunity for people who support live theatre to help him. But this has to be a wake-up call to performers, writers and directors that it can happen so quickly," Committie warns sternly.

The intoxicating aura of showbiz prevents some players from seeing reality, he believes. Older professionals were also once protected by the Performing Arts Council, a state-funded body that provided steady employment for many performers and technicians by staging regular operas, plays, concerts and ballets.

"They were looked after well with medical aid and regular pay cheques, and if you got in you could get at least 10 roles a year and a retainer," Committie says.

When the council was disbanded in the 1990s the performers were left floundering because they had not been prepared for freelance work.

Committie hopes that young performers coming through drama school or technikons realise how difficult the industry has become and will look for various income streams and understand the need to save.

"You have to treat this brilliant business of ours like a business, so I have a strong hospital plan and dread disease cover and try to invest some money as a back-up," he says.

"I sell stand-up comedy, which is slightly easier than if you’re a classical actor doing Chekov, when your money is going to be minimal."

Performers who find themselves penniless can appeal to the Theatre Benevolent Fund, but it needs donations from outside the industry to top up those from within.

"Actors don’t have the money to support the fund if they don’t have the money to look after themselves," Committie says rather dryly.

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