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Lyn Gardner: Theatre’s feudal system shackles its most precious resource – artists

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Few working in theatre today, beyond a group of ostriches with their heads firmly buried in the sand, are unaware of the many different kinds of inequality in the industry. It runs from the questions around those who have access to theatre, to those who get to make the work and those who do not. Organisations such as Tonic and Act for Change  are at the forefront of making theatre take a long hard look at its structures and how it operates.

But there are other, no less insidious, inequalities too. Like with those who have a permanent job – and the security of a monthly pay check – and the freelances, the vast majority of the people who make shows happen but do not have a regular salary and are part of the ‘precariat’. It’s also about inequalities of power.

As Anita Clark, head of Glasgow’s The Work Room, recently observed: “We need to be much more transparent as an industry and recognise that the way things are mostly run leaves those who make the work with the least power and often the most vulnerable. We need to make sure that they get a chance to be at the table more than we often do.”

One of the things that happened during the good funding times under the Labour government was that arts organisations expanded their administrations. Meanwhile the artists – the people without whom the buildings’ stages would be empty – stayed poorly remunerated and had no seat at the table. No wonder those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds don’t consider theatre a potential career.

I’m not setting out to pit administrators against artists. Yes, everybody in theatre works hard, whether freelance or full-time. There are never enough resources to do everything that needs to be done. As funding is stretched, so too are the people trying to make it work.

But programmers, producers, and artistic directors attached to buildings have sick pay, paid holidays and job security while many of the people they work with do not. More importantly, if you are an independent artist then every email you send costs you in the time it took you to write it. The very least you can expect is to get a prompt answer. Many don’t.

No wonder so many independent artists trying to access buildings still feel like supplicants prostrating themselves before feudal lords, knocking repeatedly at the castle doors but never gaining admittance

No wonder so many independent artists trying to access buildings still feel like supplicants prostrating themselves before feudal lords, knocking repeatedly at the castle doors but never gaining admittance. I know of companies creating work within 30 miles of major buildings that have repeatedly, and yet fruitlessly, invited producers from that building to see their work. Nobody has ever come. The lack of discussion about how widespread  a phenomenon this is, is largely because those making the work fear naming and shaming would mean those castle doors will remain permanently slammed shut.

But it shouldn’t work like that. Artists are theatre’s most precious resource and we should take care of them. That means treating them decently, not just when they are trying to gain access to the building, but also when they actually do. That means not trying to screw them over on the deal you give them for touring, and not leaving the marketing pack that they spent time and money on unopened. I get a steady stream of stories from companies turning up at a theatre to perform only to find their print and posters still pristine in their wrappers.

This is particularly galling when only a few people turn up as a result, and then the theatre says they won’t book future shows because there is no audience for the work. Of course there isn’t if no effort has been made to raise awareness of the show. These attitudes invite catastrophe for the future of live theatre, a future in which venues across the country come to rely on endless repeat screenings of NT Live because they do good box office. They are digging their own graves.

Arts ‘at risk’ as government fails freelances

Then there are the endless meetings that freelance artists are asked to attend unpaid and frequently at their own expense. This week Alan Lane of Slung Low tweeted: “A theatre recently asked for a meeting with me, then cancelled it with a few days’ notice. Cost me a £200 train ticket. Rescheduled (I find it hard to say no) and then [they] cancelled it again because they no longer want to meet me.”

If Lane and Slung Low, a national portfolio organisation with a national reputation, is treated in this way then what does it say about how the arts organisation in question is likely to treat those who are still at the beginning of their careers or are less well known?

Lane posted his tweet “just in case anyone starting out thinks the bullshit ever stops”. But it could so easily if those who hold the majority of theatre’s money, power and resources took more care and behaved more thoughtfully in how they treated the artists who do not.

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