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Stephanie Street: Challenging our work practices could bring about positive change

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I write this week from the midst of the thickest of fogs. I’m in previews of Quiz, my first-ever experience in the West End. It is a bold, daring, joyous piece of theatre that sparkles like a jewel with some of the most extraordinary, high-tech production elements I’ve ever worked alongside.

It’s now been a whole week of 11-hour days (so I ask your compassion for any lack of sense that might follow). To boot, my 16-month-old has decided to sprout his molars over this very same period so, yeah, I’m pretty delirious with fatigue.

But then we all are. The entire company has been working flat out for a week and we have another week to go until press night. Nerves are frayed, nutritious food has been sacrificed for the holy trinity of sugar, caffeine and Berocca and no one is at their best…

I was unsurprised therefore to read in Society of London Theatre’s recent report on encouraging more supportive working practices that stressful working situations in our business could “excuse or lead to unacceptable behaviours”.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not whistleblowing. There is no unacceptable behaviour going on at the Noel Coward. But I only have to extrapolate from the general tension and anxiety of these relentless hours and the performance pressure to see how, in the wrong kinds of circumstances, all sorts of things could go wrong.

But this is the case in every sector, surely. I have often evoked the family of doctors that I come from; at moments like this I think about my brother’s time as a junior doctor, working through the night, several nights in a row.

Does it need to be this tough? Does the scheduling need to be this relentless?

And while on the stage we aren’t dealing with life or death, human beings have their limitations whatever their professional practice. Does it need to be this tough? Does the scheduling need to be this relentless?

The junior doctors took on the NHS because they saw how the system was chipping away at them and they decided to fight for their well-being (and also the well-being of those who receive their care). They challenged the way “things have always been done” and campaigned for better, safer working practices.

It costs a lot of money just to be in a theatre without an audience. So tech time is always scheduled at a minimum. That’s the way it’s always been done – life just has to grind to a standstill during production weeks. And what happens to those with caring responsibilities? Things get very tough and very expensive.

I was struck by a comment that I overheard at the Tonic Awards recently, in a conversation around theatre becoming more representative. A creative (who happened to be a woman who had needed to make a lot of compromises with her family to enable her career) suggested we might just want to think about challenging these common practices. We might want to investigate a better, more productive way of working. Just maybe.

I have to say, from the thick of the fog, that seems like a very good idea to me.

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