Francis Reid, writing in The Stage recently, suggested that perhaps too many theatres have now become managerially top heavy.
What on earth is a head of participation? What does an audience development officer (digital engagement) actually do?
Theatres that once seemed to function quite well with an artistic director, a general manager and a small administrative staff now have extra floors dedicated to chief executives, executive producers, producers, marketing managers, corporate events coordinators, development managers, finance officers and their legions of assistants. What on earth is a head of participation? What does an audience development officer (digital engagement) actually do?
This expansion in the managerial departments seems not to have been matched with a commensurate increase in the number of creative staff employed and has frequently signalled a diminution.
I wrote about all this a couple of years ago in my book The Reluctant Escapologist. I said then that I believed the history of the last 50 years of British theatre formed a perfect arc. The first 25 years were devoted to the struggle of artists and practitioners to get their hands on the means of production. The second 25 were dominated by management and executive trying to prise them back.
The phenomenon was kick-started back in the 1980s when the Conservatives pursued the idea that culture must serve the economy and that left-wing, arty theatre practitioners lacking sufficient business acumen could not be trusted to run their own organisations. The artistic directors were frequently downgraded and replaced or superseded by chief executives with the requisite hard-headed commercial qualifications – although not necessarily with any experience of working in the arts.
This prevailing orthodoxy also dictated that theatres must increase the amount of financial support derived from corporate and individual sponsorship and donations. Continued public subsidy would be dependant on an organisation finding matching private funding. Accordingly, theatres then created another tier of administration – the development managers and corporate hospitality consultants- a new breed of fundraiser who, like the new breed of chief executive, often prioritised financial gain over artistic integrity.
At the same time marketing departments, with all their attendant voodoo, blossomed like flowers in the spring. All these wealth creators then needed a whole bunch of assistants and suddenly there were line managers and human resources departments and appraisals and targets and options analyses and all the other detritus of 1980s business practice.
Dozens of have told me they would never voice their opinions because they wanted to “still have a career”
New Labour, instead of dismantling this nonsense, managed to increase it. Not only would organisations have to find matching private funding, but now their level of subsidy would depend on achieving “measurable success factors” for social and sexual inclusion, cultural diversity, education, outreach and access.
Many theatres had to set up new departments and employ new personnel to comply with the box-ticking demands. Add to all this the new legislation on health and safety and risk assessment and you could end up with a theatre with a full and part-time staff of almost 100, but one that can only afford to stage four productions a year with a maximum of five actors.
I realise, of course, that I am painting an extreme scenario, but surely no one can deny that, in our present straitened circumstances, the time has come to consider redressing the balance?
Chillingly though, Francis’ piece ended with the words: “I would not have dared say this while I was still working.”
Since my book was published two years ago, dozens of practitioners, some of them eminent, have told me they agree with this analysis, but they, too, would never voice their opinions because they wanted to “still have a career”. I could name names, but I won’t.
Is this fear justified or is it paranoid nonsense? Do theatre executives actually spend their time compiling a blacklist of troublemakers who seek to disrupt the cosy status quo? I seriously doubt it.
On a separate topic I know a number of writers who have genuine grievances about the treatment they have received from major theatre companies, but are afraid to express it in case their future work might be summarily rejected. Justified or not, this fear of speaking out is no help either way.
Increasingly, the urgent business of theatre is to speak truth to power. How can we hope to do that if we are scared to speak truth to ourselves?
Perhaps the solution would be for concerned members of Equity, The Directors Guild, The Writers’ Guild and BECTU to lobby their organisations to set up a national conference with theatre chief executives and funding bodies to discuss this and other widely (albeit secretly) expressed concerns such as best dramaturgical practice, status of directors versus creative producers, relationships between theatremakers and funding bodies, low pay, no pay and probably more. I realise that chocolate bunnies don’t vote for Easter, but it might be a start.
In 1959, Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop with an administration of just three produced a season at Stratford East that included The Hostage, A Taste Of Honey and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. True they worked 120-hour weeks and lived on strong tea, benzedrine and a tenner a week, but there’s got to be a lesson in there somewhere.