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Soapbox: The show mustn’t go on in the face of terrible treatment from the top

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I recently finished a contract in a creative/production role on a large-scale musical in London. A job that should have been inspiring, unfortunately, opened my eyes to some of the worst behaviour in the business.

From the start, the poor treatment and emotional abuse that was dealt out by the producer and director to their employees – including me – was appalling.

My colleagues and I put up with it. We accepted the awful working conditions, put on a stiff upper lip and repeated, through gritted teeth, that “the show must go on”.

The incompetent leadership at the top made this job hell. One employee was told they could not take a toilet break without informing a superior. Members of the stage management team were unfairly criticised and labelled ‘incompetent’, even though they were not given the right information to cue the show.

When set was damaged, the producer asked a team member to pay for this out of their own pocket, even though it was not their fault. There were also issues with pay, with the failure to pay a cast member for weeks with no reasons given, and people repeatedly being paid the wrong amounts.

On reflection, I wish I’d walked away when it became clear that conditions would not improve. Instead, I struggled through, with lofty ideas of my ‘duty’ to the show as conditions became worse and worse.

I was one of the more junior members of the core team. Some of my colleagues had been working professionally for decades – and even they did not walk away from the work. They too gritted their teeth and recited that wearying mantra.

I believe that many stayed on the show partly because of a squeezed marketplace – it was paid work, after all – and partly because they also felt a duty to the gods of theatre to make the show happen at all costs, regardless of how poorly they were treated.

It is a shame that bad behaviour like this can be accepted in the theatre industry, and that it should be endured, whether at the start of someone’s career or after years of work.

When I’ve spoken to other theatre professionals about poor working conditions and egotistical colleagues, they have brushed it off and offered a coffee in sympathy. They know similar behaviour all too well.

But in other professions, for abusive behaviour to go unreported is not normal. Friends and family who have jobs, in say, engineering, law, medicine, or advertising, are genuinely shocked by how demeaning and abusive the theatre industry can be.

We all know full well that managing difficult people is part and parcel of working in entertainment. However, my colleagues and I are professionals, even if we are lucky enough to be doing what we love for a living.

And as professionals, we must challenge exploitative behaviour rather than write it off as the excesses of showbiz or for fear of our livelihoods. We must have the self-respect to walk away if conditions or behaviour don’t improve, or else they never will. It’s time to challenge that ‘show must go on’ mantra. In some cases, it must not.

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