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Costume designer Catherine Kodicek: In tough times, the Theatrical Guild is there to help

The Theatrical Guild was founded in 1891 by Kitty Carson. Photo: The Theatrical Guild
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What do you do when you are employed in your dream job but you are still struggling to get through the day? When for whatever reason there is no one who can really help you and you don’t know where to turn?

I’ve written before about how difficult it can be to get through hard times as a theatre professional. When your job is in theatre there is an assumption that you have signed up to long hours, low pay, work that is unpredictable and insecure, and that being part of a glamorous, interesting and challenging world makes up for it.

When there is so much competition for a place in this business it can feel churlish to complain. We are all guilty to some extent of colluding in this perceived glamour. We do not want to tarnish the sheen by moaning about scraping to make ends meet, or about the terror of approaching the end of a job without another on the horizon. Instead, we focus on the interesting projects and people we work with and count ourselves lucky.

The downside of this manifests itself when people feel they cannot talk openly about inequality or harassment, bullying or toxic workplaces, socio-economic exclusion and racism. All these issues overlap and intersect with each other, making it very difficult to know how to tackle them.

Back in April, I wrote about the Theatre Helpline and other initiatives to alleviate some of the emotional issues facing backstage technical workers. While I welcomed the helpline, I was also concerned about organisations using it to divert attention from their own obligations toward their employees. By focusing on mental health, it was too easy to sideline the more concrete causes of suffering: low pay and the fragile financial existence that comes with it. All it takes is a bereavement, ill-health or other sudden change in circumstances to throw your life into crisis.

Costume designer Catherine Kodicek: Work conditions must improve for the sake of our mental well-being

Of course there is no silver-bullet solution but it’s important to be aware that there is no shame in encountering tough times, and there are people who can give practical help. For employment problems, I always recommend going first to the union, but when the curve balls come out of nowhere, there is also the Theatrical Guild.

The guild is a charity that has quietly assisted and provided support for backstage and front-of-house workers for more than 100 years. I first became aware of it from a colleague barely a year ago and could not believe the amazing work it has been doing with no fanfare: providing financial help, training and counselling for those in straitened circumstances. I am now on the committee and take every opportunity I can to recommend the guild to fellow theatre folks who may need some extra support.

So this is my public service announcement to backstage and front-of-house workers in theatre: you don’t have to suffer in silence, there is a charity directly created for you.


Visit the Theatrical Guild’s website

Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek

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