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The Editor’s View: Let’s invest in theatre’s greatest asset – its workforce

A White Light training session in progress Technical services company White Light provide training as well as sponsorship for many schools and events
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For the past year, I’ve been working on a report investigating the UK’s offstage theatre and performing arts workforce. It has been fascinating and enlightening. On occasion, it has also been rather depressing.

During the course of the research – working with arts consultancy Nordicity – I’ve spoken to employers, senior managers, production staff, designers, stage managers, education and outreach staff, directors… I could go on. From top to bottom, they reflected a workforce that is deeply committed to the industry it works in, but is struggling with some major obstacles.

In many ways, the report paints a pretty damning picture of the sector: skills shortages, exclusive recruitment practices, a lack of professionalism when it comes to organisational culture, a growing habit of unpaid work at the start of careers and a lack of in-career training and advice for workers. It also reveals a workforce nowhere near representative of the country at large.

None of this will come as a huge surprise to readers of The Stage, for whom this represents the day-to-day reality of their working lives. But what to me is most remarkable – and encouraging – is the fact of who commissioned the report: UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre. Essentially, employers.

It is heartening that employers have taken it upon themselves to face up to the challenges in the sector and take a lead in addressing them. Many other industries would not have (and have not) commissioned such a piece of research for fear of the answers it supplied.

It is timely – although coincidental – that the report is published in the same week that Equity unveils its new casting manifesto. These documents are two sides of the same coin. They underline challenges a sector can face when blessed with an over-committed workforce and stretched resources.

Identifying the problem is only the first step, though. What is needed now is action and, for that, SOLT and UK Theatre will need broad-based support from the sector as a whole.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Boyden report called for more money for practitioners. In fact, though, much of the extra cash the sector received (especially Lottery money) was invested in multimillion-pound building projects. I can’t help but wonder what our sector would look like today if priority had been given to investing cash in theatre’s greatest asset: its workforce.

Now is the time to address this imbalance.

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

Read the report in full