The story of Andrew Aldis, the general manager of Bridlington Spa who claims he was sacked after refusing to take a pay cut, encapsulates many of the challenges facing municipal theatres across the UK today.
Having been dealt significant cuts by central government, local authorities are now having to pass these on. In some areas of the country, theatres and arts centres are having to bear the brunt – usually in the form of cuts to subsidy, but in the case of Bridlington, it looks as though it has resulted in salary cuts.
In the past couple of decades, more council venues have either been spun off to independent trusts or outsourced to commercial operators like ATG or HQ Theatres. The thinking behind this is often cost-related, but also a tacit admission that councils don’t have the expertise to run theatres in-house.
Meanwhile, as fewer councils run their own theatres and cuts to arts officers increase, the levels of theatrical understanding and expertise within the local authority sector continues to diminish. Aldis observed: “I was told by the director of the section that the general manager at Bridlington Spa is no different and needs no additional skills to running a leisure centre. It was absolutely horrendous.”
Clearly, this is ridiculous. Bridlington Spa is a major venue with a 3,800-capacity concert hall, a 675-seat theatre and a conference centre. It has hosted bands such as Oasis, as well as touring musicals, opera and comedy.
A few years ago, the council part-funded a £20.5 million refurbishment of the theatre, but it is only willing to pay the person responsible for running it less than £40,000 a year. To put that in context, the chief executive of the East Riding council is paid a salary of £163,000 and six other members of council staff are paid more than £115,000, according to the council’s most recent annual accounts. I’m sure none of them has had to deal with the Gallagher brothers.
This pay discrepancy is symptomatic of two major issues facing theatre: first, that it is often undervalued by those working outside it, who underestimate the level of skill required to run a theatre successfully. The second is how much theatre undervalues its own workforce.
There is a widespread disconnect between the amount that theatres pay staff and the millions of pounds that are often suddenly available to fund extravagant capital works. Buildings need to be maintained and improved, but the best-kept theatre in the world will not operate properly without expert staff to run it. Those staff deserve to be fairly remunerated.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith