Features Published 20 May 2021

What lessons can be learned from theatre’s pandemic redundancies?

Last year, theatres made sweeping redundancies. As venues reopen, and roles start to be readvertised, Salome Wagaine argues that changes need to be made.

Salome Wagaine

Theatre Royal Plymouth, which made sweeping redundancies in 2020

“It feels galling that a lot of orgs/venues have been posting [for] the anniversary of venues closing – just how great they have been and all the wonderful work they have done, whilst making no mention of the redundancies they have made.”

Theatres have reopened their doors after a long, cold winter, and over a year since Covid-19’s impact first hit. But for many venues and organisations, they will be resuming public facing activity with a dramatically reduced workforce.

A BECTU study found that 39% of theatre workers were made redundant during the pandemic. It has been difficult to get an overall picture of where the job losses have fallen (during my research, I noticed that more than one venue had dropped the ‘Team’ page or list from its website at some point over the last year, instead opting for a Senior Leadership spotlight or generic contact form). Still, some of the largest performing arts employers have made up to 65% of their team redundant. And some venues have been permanently scarred, like Theatre Royal Plymouth, which lost its entire artistic team.

70% of the theatre sector is self-employed, and that means conversations about employer relations and HR can take a bit of a backseat. But the past year has seen a wave of redundancies across all departments in the industry: front of house, communications, producing, technical, creative learning and more. What was the process of being made redundant like for these workers, and where are they now? What can be learned? I surveyed 40 theatre workers who have been made redundant since March 2020 to find out more.

Losing your job overnight

The pandemic meant that previously buoyant businesses with entirely reasonable plans for making revenue (namely, having people congregate indoors to share an experience together) were suddenly prohibited. The same conditions that made live theatre impossible also made redundancies especially painful and difficult.

According to the industrial relations agency Acas, a redundancy is ‘usually a type of dismissal when a role is no longer needed’; if this is the case, the employer has a statutory obligation to follow a consultation and selection process. By law, this means that your manager or the person in charge of leading on the redundancy process (so in theatre, this might be the Executive Director, General Manager, or an HR team) has to arrange a private meeting with you.

For redundancy rounds of over 20 staff, this consultation process has to happen collectively, with all affected present. In lockdown, this meant that theatres were hosting all staff video calls about the impending and likely changes. One survey respondent recalled switching their camera off during one of these all-team meetings, only to be asked if they were still present: “[I] had to turn my camera on while sobbing to explain that yes, I was still there, just didn’t want lots of people seeing me ugly cry.”

Collective consultations should also involve a notice period of at least 30 days before the redundancies are scheduled to take place, and must involve either the recognised trade union or employee representatives. But this risked getting forgotten in the sudden cessation of operations last March. One theatre worker reported that “the organisation I was working for violated the terms of their UK Theatre membership by not notifying BECTU / Equity in advance of the redundancy process. I’d imagine this was the case for a lot of places, but when this was raised in a meeting with senior staff they didn’t even act like they cared about this detail”

Communication breakdowns
Whether the experience was neutral or negative, an overwhelming trend with respondents to the survey was a sense that theatres were not equipped for this level of pressure on their HR functions.

This often included gaps in communication. As one respondent explained: “none of my colleagues were informed redundancies were in process, and many only found out I’d been made redundant months later, which made me feel isolated. Some of my colleagues confessed that they felt they couldn’t reach out to me because they felt they ‘weren’t supposed to know’, which exacerbated this and made me feel as though I had been cast out.”

That theatre is such a public facing industry led to a feeling amongst many workers, especially those casually employed, that there was a carelessness around giving people news. The night that theatres did shut down, members of the front of house team at the National Theatre expressed their dismay that they found out their workplace would be closed via Twitter rather than through internal channels. It’s not the only example of a venue souring relations with its own employees in its haste to communicate with their audiences.

In other instances, respondents felt that artistic leaders prioritised contributing to the public conversation around theatre’s recovery over their obligations towards their own teams. One respondent suggested that the AD at their organisation addressing them personally “would’ve been nice, [as] there were only 13 people losing their jobs”. Instead, they noted, he was “using his twitter to be optimistic about ‘the industry’ while we all felt we would never work in it again.”

While most instances detailed in the survey did not suggest malice, many of the people who shared their experiences noted that theatre buildings’ processes left them feeling isolated, confused and undervalued.

“I was not permitted to return to the building to collect belongings, under the pretense of being ‘Covid secure’ – however, staff were working in the building and socially distanced workshop activities were taking place during this time. I seemed to be treated as persona non grata as soon as the redundancy was confirmed.”

However, some employees were satisfied with their treatment during what is a necessarily destabilising time. Responding to the question ‘What, if anything, could your employer have done to improve your experience of the redundancy process’ one theatre worker said “Not sure. The Executive Director was kind and generous given the circumstances” while others noted that the experience was “fine, just a shame.”

A leadership problem

There is a strong tradition of Artistic Directors being (joint) Chief Executives of the companies whose creative vision they steer. Are artistic leaders sufficiently prepared for, and knowledgeable about, the work of motivating and retaining a team, the majority of whom are employed to support, rather than create work?

My first non-seasonal job was not in theatre. Instead, I worked for what was at the time, the UK’s fastest-growing charity. With an average employee age of 27, they had a workforce made up of individuals who were willing and able to take up posts that paid less than their peers if that work aligned with their values and interests.

Yet, unlike most of the arts organisations I’ve either freelanced or worked for, this charity had a two-person strong HR team. As a result, each of the offices had a visit from a pensions expert when the government’s auto-enrol scheme first kicked in for larger employers: he explained the pension landscape, what our options around opting out were and what that could mean, and took questions from us. When the formal letters about the scheme were sent to us, aged 22, I felt uninterested but well-informed, which I don’t think would’ve been the case had I started off working in theatre.

The lack of organisational process within arts organisations compared to other sectors – be that inductions, appraisals and complaints processes or else training and development – is partly due to a lack of resources. As the past year has shown, the viability of a venue opening with a show can come down to tiny financial margins: the difference of one extra cast member or 20 fewer seats available per night. Budgets are tight, so an additional dedicated member of staff might be difficult to justify.

In addition to this though, there is the belief that we work in the arts to avoid the bureaucratic, impersonal excesses of corporate life; that formulaic policies are soul destroying and creativity-zapping bores to resist. I have some sympathies with this view. But at the same time, arts venues are often able to act like impersonal, bureaucratic companies when it suits them.

The most concerning answer in the survey suggested the ex-employee’s bosses had a very clear understanding of the options available when needing to make job cuts, and the organisation was able to use this knowledge to lead the person to take a higher payout on condition of a gagging clause:

“Technically, and I mean technically, I wasn’t made redundant. I was told I could go through the process and receive statutory redundancy, or leave immediately “of my own choice” and receive a higher sum as a formal settlement. The benefit to the company being that they can continue to state that they have not made redundancies. I didn’t feel I had a choice – I needed the higher sum. With that higher sum comes a confidentiality clause, hence my wanting to remain anonymous. However I don’t think I’m the only one (the Cultural Recovery Fund allows for these payments as a cost-saving exercise, so there may be hundreds of us – the hidden redundancies) and I felt it important to speak up for those that can’t.”

In other cases, those surveyed felt that the redundancies were handled badly more because of organisational dysfunction than because of a lack of will to get it right. As one respondent put it, “The majority of the time redundancies are the last step, they’re never desired and are incredibly difficult for both employer and employee. It’s just a shame that the processes around them aren’t always the best within the arts and the associated HR is often poorly delivered.” For another arts worker, their experience was enough to put them off working for theatres altogether: “I’ve been fortunate to retain work as a freelancer however I do feel hesitant about the HR aspects of theatres and venues. I don’t think they are adequate for our needs and this makes me uncertain about applying for roles within organisations.”

Human Resources departments don’t exist to support employees; they exist to support organisations. But in their pursuit of keeping the business going, they do have an incentive to retain staff and their knowledge and be considered a desirable place to work within the industry. In the past, the arts could rest on its laurels, safe in the knowledge that there are more people looking for work in the sector than there are roles. Post-Covid, theatre is perhaps a less attractive place to be looking for work, so employment satisfaction is something organisations will have to more keenly consider.

Next steps
Of the people who shared their experiences of redundancy, there is a wide variety of roles people are now in. Some are still within the arts, working freelance as producers, programmers, actors and dance artists, or now employed by a university theatre department. Others are working in sales and retail as supermarket and store assistants. Some have gone into training and studying, while others have moved their skills into different sectors, such as moving from marketing and comms to the commercial or charity sectors.

Will these people return to a career in theatre? Freelancing has been an option of mixed promise for respondents, often depending on experience, connections and financial circumstance. While one respondent felt that “I feel fortunate that I can draw on a strong network of contacts to develop high quality and fundable work”, not everyone felt so confident. “I come from a low socio-economic background and have been made redundant before in the arts,” said one respondent. “This time feels different. I’m not sure I’ll find employment and I don’t feel I can financially sustain a freelance career. I fear I may have to leave the industry.”

While some respondents expressed hope and excitement at the prospect of roles being re-advertised (“cannot wait” “Ready to go!”), concerns around pay and competition lingered. For some, a taste of life outside of the arts has put certain aspects of their previous conditions into perspective:

“My annual leave pretty much doubled when I entered a new sector, my employer pension contribution tripled and I have access to free counselling – it feels like the redundancy really highlighted what a rough deal a lot of arts sector employees get, so for now I don’t feel thrilled at the prospect of returning.”

The prospect of more people choosing to leave theatre brings with it a lot of further questions. Although some organisations and positions have always had high turnover, retaining experience and knowledge within the sector is vital for it to thrive and improve.

The last year has emphasised how important your quality of life outside work is: be that one’s social life and connections, access to outdoor space or the ability to build up savings. A career in theatre has got to be worth it – and it’s on organisations to demonstrate that.

In light of this, it’s important that theatre looks outwards. Theatremakers such as Chris Thorpe have begun starting conversations about feedback, inspired by working in other industries:

There’s also room to look at how theatres’ existing structures work, and the opaqueness around making key decisions. One respondent was clear that leadership extends beyond the senior management: “boards have a lot to answer for.”

In the eagerness to reopen and prove that ‘The Show Must Go On’, there must also be space for theatres to reflect on their less public, more internal processes. This could include consortiums of organisations banding together to hire HR specialists to put more formal, fairer structures in place. It could also include specific measures, like running regular staff satisfaction surveys and forums, offering a greater focus on training and development to encourage retention, and creating a band structure around pay to ensure employees at similar levels in different functions are equally valued. What will work best for organisations will vary greatly, but change is needed. After the events of the past year, theatre workers won’t settle for being just grateful to have a contract in the same way as before.

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Salome Wagaine

Salome Wagaine is a producer and writer based in London. She’s written for Exeunt magazine, Kinfolk, Bustle and runs a cultural criticism newsletter, Peeled and Portioned. In 2019, she set up Broccoli, which produces across performance and literature with a focus on work by/for/about queer women

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