“Go and look at the rooms in which our artists are compelled to spend the greater part of their official career, notice how grimy and filthy they are, mark how they contain the most obsolete and primitive form of lavatorial and sanitarial arrangements, see how they are huddled together, dingy, dark, untidy and, as a rule, badly lighted.”
The above is from an 1878 article written and published in the Era, a one-time theatre publication (and rival to The Stage until the mid-20th century). Nearly 150 years later theatre is still grappling with the issue of unsuitable working conditions for its workforce.
“We don’t have enough toilets, we don’t have enough showers, sometimes when we do have enough toilets and showers, they are in awful condition – there is no ventilation. We have rat infestations…”
This was Equity councillor Tim Walton talking 10 years ago at the union’s 2009 Annual Representative Conference.
“It’s not just performers, I know of a West End theatre where a stage manager had to contend with a drain that leaked running through where she was working right next to the lighting racks. I don’t need to point out that electricity and water don’t mix,” said Hywel Morgan at the 2018 Equity ARC.
This week, we have the catalogue of complaints from performers on failed zombie immersive experience Variant 31.
Even judged against the standards of regular and long-held gripes from performers and stage crew, these accounts are shocking. They go way beyond the usual run-of-the-mill complaints about uncomfortable conditions. Staff allegations are that the working conditions were genuinely unsafe.
No one should have to work in premises with mould growing in them, be assaulted by audience members or be at risk of “impaling” themselves on nails sticking out of walls. And, of course, people should be paid for their work.
Immersive theatre is an emerging genre and the producer behind Variant 31 is not the only one experiencing growing pains in this field. To some degree it is understandable. But it’s not the Wild West or 1878. Providing a safe working environment has to be at the top of all producers’ priorities – it can’t be treated as an afterthought once a show is up and running.
And, if you can’t afford to transform a derelict non-performance space into an environment that is safe for audience members and staff, then you shouldn’t be producing the show in the first place.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith