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Olivier-winning designers: ‘Industry must combat crazy-hours culture for offstage theatre workers’

Left to right: Jon Clark, who won the Olivier award for best lighting design; Catherine Zuber, winner of the best costume design award; and Gareth Owen, winner of the best sound designer award. Photos: Pamela Raith
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Olivier award-winning theatre designers have said the industry needs a “big sea change” to tackle a culture of long hours for offstage workers.

The winners of the best lighting design, best costume design and best sound design categories told The Stage of the “crazy” shifts that backstage workers are expected to take on.

Their comments follow recent concerns from unions including BECTU and Equity that “excessively long working hours” are leading to “burnout and serious mental health issues”.

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

Jon Clark, who won the Olivier award for best lighting design for The Inheritance, said: “It needs a big sea change and I don’t know how you do it. We do these crazy hours […] and we work tirelessly.”

He added: “We do make work in a specific way, and there’s something about that intensity and pressure that delivers the work, but at the same time I have three small children and the oldest is 10. The hours I work to keep going are tough, it’s true, but [it won’t change] unless there’s a shift across the whole industry. It has to be a global change.”

Come from Away‘s winning sound designer, Gareth Owen, said the long hours “wear you down”, adding that he was particularly concerned about the workload for roles such as stage managers, production engineers and associate designers.

He told The Stage: “I do a lot of work in New York, and one of the things that is really good is that they enforce breaks.

“That means you have to get out of the theatre and go get lunch. Sometimes that’s really frustrating because you’ve got to work on something, but at the end of the day it means you get out the theatre, you clear your head.”

Asked if he would like to see this introduced in the UK, he said: “It needs to be more flexible. Sometimes if everything is going really wrong, and you desperately need to use part of your break to fix something, it can be very annoying to know you can’t.

“But a more flexible system where, say, you have to take one of your two breaks every day, I think that would be awesome.”

Catherine Zuber, winner of the best costume design award for The King and I, echoed these comments.

She said: “They’re really long hours, that’s absolutely accurate. And especially for the people from stage crew or the costume crew, they’re usually in at 8am when they’re doing technical rehearsals, and they work till midnight, and [then] we have notes after that.

“It’s a real crunch during that technical time period to get everything ready.”

Olivier Awards 2019: the winners in full

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