Lauren Mooney: Privileged of today will be employers of tomorrow
One of London’s premier new-writing theatres is seeking a resident assistant producer. As well as working on various different productions, including development and delivery of its marketing strategies, you’ll be responsible for producing two evenings of short new plays and assisting the literary department. You’ll also need to be able to support yourself while working three full days a week for no money at all. In London. Not even expenses.
Theatre503 is not alone in regularly recruiting early-career roles on an unpaid basis in exchange for ‘experience’, a practice widely excused in the industry as theatres try to make themselves viable in an economy of low arts subsidy. But how can we keep having conversations about breaking down barriers to engagement in this industry, about inclusivity, when the solution to making it work is regularly making people work for free at the start of their careers?
Theatre503 recently recruited for a new artistic director with pay offered at £28,000-30,000 a year; that’s obviously not high for an AD role, reflecting the venue’s lack of regular subsidy, but nonetheless implies a stable, annual turnover. It does raise questions about why a small amount of money couldn’t go into at least covering travel for unpaid roles, making them more accessible to, for instance, young people seeking training opportunities instead of further education.
Without any financial remuneration, it seems unrealistic that the role can be filled by anyone whose parents are unable to support them for at least six months in an incredibly expensive city, making this yet another early-career arts job that can probably only go to someone from an affluent, supportive, middle-class family. By homogenising the industry in this way, we do it permanent damage. A range of perspectives is vital in keeping the arts relevant and accessible. Plus studies have shown that affinity bias affects recruitment: entry-level roles don’t just affect who will be working in the industry in a few years’ time, they also dictate its future hirers.
I’m sure that whoever takes on this job will be extremely passionate, talented and capable, but then they deserve to be paid for the meaningful work it’s clear from the job description they’ll be undertaking in this role.
Ultimately, we need to create a culture in which it isn’t acceptable to consider that a funding problem has been solved because you’re able to pay those at the top thanks to the unpaid hard work of those at the bottom. Theatres need to look into other solutions. If they are genuinely willing but unable to fix these inequalities, it would help if they felt able to speak openly about how they’ve tried to solve these problems, so we can unite behind them as an industry to have a wider conversation about what core cost fundraising solutions there might be beyond the finite resources of national portfolio organisations.
Equity’s fringe agreement has made a huge difference to the poor payment of actors. So why should other fringe jobs continue to go unpaid? If we can’t work together to create a cultural shift around unpaid entry-level work, we are not only asking overstretched young people to fill the gaps left by poor funding, but are also seriously limiting the diversity of people able to enter this industry.