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Lyn Gardner: Millennials refuse to let arts industry’s dinosaurs silence them

Tea House Theatre. Photo: Ewan Munro Tea House Theatre. Photo: Ewan Munro
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There has been some furore over an advert placed – then hastily removed by Arts Council England – on its jobs website by the Tea House Theatre in London seeking an admin worker paying £15,000 to £20,000.

Beginning with the chatty greeting, “Dear Millenials” [sic], it went on to decry the office skills and commitment of previous applicants, declaring that it was looking for someone who would graft and who understood “the bottom line” of running a small theatre.

I reckon that with a salary below the London living wage, whoever applied for the job was going to have to know an awful lot about the bottom line. Particularly as millennials are already burdened by so much student debt and high rents.

Some of those who had previously been interviewed for the post took to social media to recount their experience of the process, including one candidate whose ability to do the job was doubted by the male interviewer because she was a woman.

Much has been made about the obnoxious nature of the advert, and what it reveals about the attitudes of the theatre’s directors; one of whom has simply dismissed the saga as a case of people getting “their knickers in a twist”. Interesting language.

That latter piece of self-justification was possibly only trumped this week by Hampstead Theatre artistic director Edward Hall. He was responding here on The Stage website to a letter, signed by more than 100 playwrights and directors, pointing to the lack of female representation in Hampstead’s autumn season. He complained how difficult it was to run a theatre and how, now Hampstead had its Arts Council England national portfolio organisation funding cut, it would be harder than ever to programme female writers.

But, where there is a will, there is almost always a way. Yes, running a theatre is hard – whether it is a tiny fringe venue or an NPO-funded house. But it is also an enormous privilege, and the responsibility of any artistic director is not just to the theatre they run but to a much wider theatre ecology and the next generation.

Diversity is not something you embrace when you decide you can afford it, but as an ongoing commitment that changes the way you work. When an artistic director points, as Hall does, to the lack of plays he has available by women that will sell out in the main space, he is really saying that women playwrights are not ready to have their work produced at Hampstead. So, if not now, when?

People need a chance to prove themselves, whether they are entry-level graduates or the many hundreds of fine women writers we have who are not Lucy Kirkwood or Nina Raine.

Paid internships and entry-level jobs in the profession are scarce, and despite great schemes such as Third Angel’s paid internships, they are getting thinner on the ground.

But if a small company such as Third Angel can run such a scheme, why not many larger, much better-funded organisations? As Lauren Mooney observed in Exeunt about the Tea House job posting, it reflects a post-crash, squeezed arts attitude of: “It’s hard enough for us to keep going, you’re lucky we’re paying you at all, so shut up and take the money.”

Not so long ago, I heard about an arts organisation that, when faced with two over-qualified candidates for the same job, gave it to the one prepared to do it for the least money.

That kind of thing is unacceptable, and shutting up is just what a younger generation of arts workers, bloggers such as Mooney and other theatre commentators are refusing to do. All power to them.

There are an increasing number of younger people who work in the arts ready and willing to call out these fossilised attitudes when they surface, often using social media and publicly swapping experiences of bad practice.

It is starting to make British theatre a more open place and is slowly eroding the culture of secrecy that flourishes in an industry – both in the commercial and subsidised sector – that is so based on personal relationships that bad behaviour and bad practice are rarely called out.

That failure to name and shame is why a 2011 survey came up with the astonishing finding that bullying is more widespread in the arts than it is in the army. That shouldn’t be the case in an industry that so often uses its stages to call out inequality and the morally indefensible, but isn’t always so quick to recognise the inequalities and the morally indefensible in its own practice. The Tea House saga is no storm in a teacup, but a reminder that, despite the challenges they face, the millennial generation is standing up, being counted and leaving theatre’s dinosaurs nowhere to hide.

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