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Backstage theatre workers ‘pushed to breaking point due to lack of work-life balance’

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Backstage theatre workers are being “pushed to breaking point” due to a lack of work-life balance, with a “regular expectation to work 15-hour days”, industry bodies have warned.

Unions BECTU and Equity and professional associations for stage managers and lighting and sound practitioners have argued that “excessively long working hours” are leading to “burnout and serious mental health issues”.

The concerns were initially raised by the Association of Lighting Designers, with chair Johanna Town stating that an “expectation to work under intense pressure for periods of 15 to 18 hours per day, six days per week” is standard.

Writing in an opinion article for The Stage, she said: “Theatre production freelances are increasingly having to work excessively long hours, with a particular group of professionals being pushed to breaking point: lighting programmers.”

Town added: “The intensity of the work is causing burnout and serious mental health issues, and programmers are finding themselves physically unable to function after weeks of tech, which is so wrong on every level.”

ALD chair Johanna Town: We need to support lighting programmers or we’ll have no shows

Assistant national secretary at BECTU Helen Ryan argued that a “long-hours culture” affects all backstage roles, agreeing that workers were regularly expected to do shifts of 13-15 hours.

“A mix of being committed to the production, more being expected from staff and workers, and low wages are meaning that some job categories are working lots of overtime to boost their wage to a reasonable rate to be able to live on,” Ryan told The Stage.

Ryan said that ‘buyouts’, under which workers are paid a set fee for anticipated overtime, were also contributing to the problem, because “a person ends up working all hours demanded for a fixed cost with no ability to say ‘Enough is enough’”.

Ryan argued that an increase in basic wage and more controls on working hours within contracts would help to address the issue.

Association of Sound Designers chair Dominic Bilkey said that while some workers in the sector enjoyed a sensible work-life balance, many worked 60 hours or more a week.

Bilkey told The Stage: “To maintain a career within sound design, most have to be working across a number of shows to sustain a living wage.

“This frequently leads to extended working hours answering emails, producing content and other work at the end of a long day in order to support future shows.”

He said a wage structure that allowed sound designers to work on productions in a more linear fashion would help to improve the situation.

He added: “[Re-assessing] the way in which shows are produced and the mentality that drives some working practices would enable a better work-life balance and enable our members to have sustainable careers while looking after themselves.

“Initiatives such as job sharing, supporting return-to-work parents and considering different production models could all be used to enact this.”

Equity, which represents stage managers, agreed that many of its members “struggle to have a positive work-life balance” due to the nature of the industry.

Equity’s head of live performance Hilary Hadley said: “In theatre, the traditional six-day working week adds to [the pressure of working in the industry], as does the need to work when others are at leisure.

“This imbalance is exacerbated for stage management, who are called earlier and finish later than the performers and are often required to miss breaks and take on additional duties to get the required work done.

“A working week of 48 hours is not uncommon in theatre, even those theatres covered by Equity agreements, and in technical periods the hours are routinely very much more than this.”

Hadley added that long working hours were particularly difficult for members with caring responsibilities, and that the union would continue to push for more flexible working policies in collaboration with other organisations including campaign group Parents and Carers in Performing Arts.

Executive director of the Stage Management Association Andy Rowley echoed these concerns, adding: “Like many creatives, stage managers regularly work long hours and are expected to forgo breaks and days off to fit in the work necessary to make the show happen.

“It is crucial for the quality of our shows and for the well-being of everyone involved that show schedules and backstage contracts recognise and take account of the work that needs to happen outside the core tech, rehearsal or show hours.”

Rowley added that the SMA was also a partner with Pipa, and would continue to campaign for family-friendly working hours, guaranteed breaks, and opportunities for job-shares.

‘Disgusting’ backstage conditions threaten the future of regional theatres, actors warn

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