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Catherine Kodicek: Stop treating costume professionals as second-class workers

While some theatres such as the Young Vic (above) employ full-time staff in their costume departments, many others offer only short-term contracts to freelances. Photo: Peter Dazeley
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After years of hearing stories about the unfair treatment of her colleagues, Catherine Kodicek set up a trade association for costume workers. But, she says, it’s time venues started treating them like other technicians

People talk to me. I have that sort of face. Strangers talk to me at bus stops, and my colleagues talk to me at work – not just idle chat but often full-blown, state-of-their-lives conversations. And while I’m a good listener, I have one infuriating habit: when I hear about problems, I want to find solutions.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I work in a good theatre, with a good employer, in a team that I feel truly part of. As head of costume, I earn the same as the other heads of departments. I feel appreciated and that my opinion matters – and I feel empowered to instigate change.

Listening to freelances’ stories, I began to get angry on behalf of all costume professionals

But I also employ a lot of freelance costume professionals and over time I’ve come to appreciate how much of a bubble I am in. Listening to their stories, I began to get angry on behalf of all costume professionals.

I sought out and met up with people who were talking about these issues facing them on social media. I began to list them in a notebook: low pay and no pay, bad contracts, uncaring managers, unfair hiring practices, impossible deadlines, low budgets for shows, bullish directors, long hours without overtime, working through breaks as standard and disparities between the costume department fees and those of other technical departments.

The list covered freelances, those who work in full-time, permanent jobs and those on long-term, fixed contracts. It covered people who were paid by contract and received overtime, people who were on buyouts, people who were on weekly rates with overtime, people who were paid by show call, people paid a fee.

As I talked with them, I began to develop some theories about where these problems had sprung from. Here are a few:

• Costume people are too isolated, so we don’t know what other people are earning or what a fair wage should be.

• The contracts we take are many and varied and at each stage we are required to negotiate on our own behalf.

• Many of us are working in a twilight-gig economy of fees that bear no relation to hours worked.

• There is an expectation that we will work through our breaks, and that if our hours are going to be too long we will accept a buyout that underpays us to illegal levels.

As an industry mostly made up of women, we cannot be too demanding or too difficult because that is frowned on. When we do question something, expect something or demand something, we may find that we are shunned and cannot find work. That’s tough when a freelance is only as good as their last job.

The issues seem vast and insurmountable. How could any individual hope to change them? So, with the like-minded costume professionals I had been talking to, I set up the Costume in Theatre Association to bring us together.

We conducted a pay survey that demonstrated the huge disparity of income, especially among freelances, and our Facebook forum and occasional open meetings have gradually become places where people can talk about the issues they face.

There are many different problems affecting hundreds of costume professionals and each problem overlaps and intersects with the other issues. If you were to contrive a system designed to hold costume professionals down and disempower them, you would create the current system of working.

There simply isn’t space to write about all the issues, but here’s a concrete example. It isn’t earth-shattering. It isn’t the biggest issue we face today. It’s just one small stitch in the whole giant tapestry. Recently, the Bridge Theatre opened in London to great fanfare. It is not a small theatre, with a single technical manager who oversees all technical aspects of the building. It is a large-scale producing theatre with a head of lighting and a head of sound among the technical staff.

Both these roles were advertised in this paper; applicants were afforded all the rigours of fairness and transparency demanded of an advertised role. But there was no advert for a head-of-costume role; instead a friend of mine was offered a short-term contract as a wardrobe manager.

UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre recently commissioned a survey of backstage workers. One of the issues the review highlights is that: “An endemic culture of networking and closed recruitment practices is effective at creating good short-term results, but means that the make-up of the sector is self-perpetuating and exclusive. This culture unintentionally works against piecemeal attempts to improve diversity in the sector.”

Just consider for a moment a parallel reality in which all full-time technical staff were acquired in this way. What if someone was ringing around asking if anyone knew someone who wanted to set up the lighting department in a new theatre?

Consider a parallel reality in which all technical staff were on short-term contracts. Would sound and lighting technicians be happy with this?

Would sound and lighting professionals be happy with this? Would they think it fair or equitable? Or would they be understandably concerned that temporary employees on rolling contracts have no vested interest in the department as a whole?

In a world dominated by freelance roles, a new permanent head of costume position would have been like gold dust – a fine opportunity for one of my many talented colleagues to advance their career and the craft of costume.

There are few enough as it is and the Bridge is certainly not alone in taking this path. But permanent heads of department provide so more than just labour. We are able to take an active part in developing the department, committed to its smooth running and infrastructure, as well as health and safety.

We can offer work placements and employ apprentices, providing opportunities for others further down the ladder. While it may seem like a cost-saving measure to do without us (after all, it’s just clothes, right?), it’s a false economy. And, as the survey findings point out, employing freelances on a ‘who you know’ basis, without even the courtesy of an interview process, makes it very hard for new people from diverse backgrounds to get a foothold in the industry.

Of course, it’s not like there isn’t a well-worn groove of producing theatres wanting costumes in their shows and yet seeing a costume department as a luxurious add on. But it would have been wonderful to see the Bridge’s ethos of innovation extending to costume.

Their website states that they are “committed to managing a fair and equitable recruitment and selection process to the highest industry standards”.

This is likely true, which is a damning indictment of those industry standards as they apply to costume professionals.

CITA website: costumeintheatre.com; SOLT/UK Theatre workforce review: bit.ly/workforcereview