The legal rights and wrongs of the dispute between the producers of Tree and the young writers who claim to have been sidelined from the project are not cut and dried.
More may emerge in the coming days, weeks and months. In the meantime, it is clear that two emerging artists, who thought they had landed their big break, have been left feeling seriously let down and ill-treated by some of the theatre industry’s biggest players.
Kwame Kwei-Armah and the producers behind Tree dispute the version of events depicted by Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley. But, putting aside the precise details of this case, aspects of the pair’s narrative will appear depressingly familiar to many working within theatre – and any industry where there is an oversupply of young talent wanting to work in the sector. In fact, perhaps the most remarkable thing about their story is that they have chosen to tell it: many in their position would not have for fear of repercussions. That is a sad reflection of our industry.
Too often, artists at the bottom of the career ladder are treated as an infinite, disposable resource: their time is undervalued and their contribution under-recognised.
Getting a foothold in theatre is increasingly precarious for emerging theatremakers: secure, staff opportunities are few and far between, freelance rates are relatively stagnant and costs of living increase everywhere. This is especially true in London, where most of the work is and where some employers still don’t pay London Living Wage for entry-level positions and continue to engage unpaid interns.
Theatre is, generally speaking, not a rich industry, so we will not always be able to pay people rates that compete with other industries. In that context, the way we look after young talent becomes even more crucial.
The sad irony of this row is that the Young Vic is a theatre that has for a long time – quite rightly – been regarded as a beacon of how to develop and support emerging talent. This is what makes the young writers’ account doubly distressing.
Let’s hope that Kwei-Armah and his colleagues can find a way to reach out and rebuild its relationship with these young writers – it is undoubtedly their responsibility as those with more power and experience.
Meanwhile, it’s important that the rest of the industry does what it can to engage with and support two young theatremakers who have risked an awful lot to speak out about an unfairness they believe has been done to them.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith