No one in theatre really likes to talk about money. The gigantic issue of people working in our industry for free is one that is generally skirted around for as long as possible, before inevitably descending into furious debate with a lot of mud-slinging.
But at a point in time when things have never been more financially difficult for young people attempting to bridge the gap between school and a sustainable career, we need to carefully and collectively tackle the issue of how we ensure an equality of access into the theatre-making world.
I was lucky enough to go to university and study drama when fees had recently been introduced at £1,000 a year. Even then, for a person from my socio-economic background, it felt like an enormous gamble. At the risk of sounding like I had to eat coal growing up (I didn’t), having to keep an eye on money is broadly incompatible with sustaining romantic notions about creative careers. I chose my university options while working evenings and weekends in the local cornershop for £2.50 an hour, in a neighbourhood where many families used milk tokens to buy food. The idea of investing time and money to enter a career where the likelihood of me ever making a viable living from it was fairly slim seemed ridiculous to a lot of my peers in South East London. For most people in my circle, there were no years stretching ahead in which to live at home supported indefinitely by our parents whilst establishing hard-to-enter careers.
We now sit at the point where a degree in theatre or drama carries a price-tag of up to £27,000. While this sum can of course be deferred, with loans, indefinitely into the future, this solution only works if your existing relationship with money allows you to take this massive leap. If you are from a background where your family has always lived pay-cheque to pay-cheque, where no-one in your family has ever had a mortgage, this financial burden could seem an impossible millstone around the neck on entry to any potential career – let alone one where, statistically, you are unlikely to earn a living wage for a decade or more.
We are potentially entering into an age of university apartheid, where a university entry into a career is just financially inconceivable for swathes of the population. Of all the university subjects, it’s going to be the applied arts and humanities subjects that seem to offer the least reliable guarantee on financial investment. There is an enormous risk that those subjects become the preserve, mostly, of young people who are fortunate enough not to need to worry excessively about how they will support themselves in the future.
To be blunt, in ten years’ time, the diversity of our young theatremakers might have narrowed to a point where they are predominantly from already-privileged backgrounds. What sort of stories will these artists have to tell? How will a potentially entirely unrepresentative generation of directors, writers, performers and producers make theatre that speaks to and engages with a broad and diverse audience? How will they succeed in defending theatre against claims of cultural elitism at a point where it is likely to be fighting harder than ever to justify continued public funding?
As a community of working artists, whilst we are limited in what we can do in practical terms about this narrowing of access into university education, there are many things we can do to create an infrastructure that nurtures entry to our industry from all social spheres. In my opinion, we should be challenging the assumption that the beginning of a career in theatre-making involves working for free, often for several years, on other people’s projects.
We should also be challenging the pernicious rationale, which I’ve often heard voiced, that “if you really want to do a job/make a project you’ll find a way to make it happen”. That excuse for maintaining the status quo – which I’ve mainly heard trotted out by people who I know have been supported by their parents or partners for extended periods of time – takes no account of the differences in people’s circumstances. It needs to be widely recognised that for many people, those without any kind of financial buffer, working for free is not just uncomfortable, it is impossible.
Whilst of course artists should be free to reject payment, or to make work in a way which challenges the capitalist structures that confer value, or to pursue the creative innovation which has no monetary gain, we should be under no illusions about the fact that these are manoeuvres that one can attempt most successfully when one is not simultaneously having to do a mind-numbing temp job to keep up with extortionate London rent.
It is remarkably easy to take advantage of the keenness with which people offer themselves up for unpaid work in the creative arts, without interrogating with any degree of rigour whether they are being offered anything meaningful, in terms of career advancement or experience, in return. If there is a genuine need for a role, whether a performative, backstage or administrative one, it’s not hard to agree in principle that we should be creating budgets that work to pay that role, or that at the very least in some way offer people a proper stake in the creative product of their labours.
In these straitened times, however, it is of course difficult to find adequate funding for the essentials of a production, and far easier to fall back on existing patterns of paying (or not paying) people that have always seemed generally acceptable. But in doing so, we need to collectively take responsibility for the future we are creating – which is one that denies access to careers to those without existing means, and by extension narrows down the range of voices that theatre is speaking with to a monotonous and privileged drone.
Most of us would agree that making theatre is a political activity, but we need to think with more rigour about how it is also an economic activity. We are creative people, and we need to extend that creativity to examine the structures of economics that surround our art form, and where necessary, adapt and reinvent them. Finding ways to offer the next generation of theatremakers a meaningful stake in our industry should be high on our organisational agendas and on our lists of problems to solve.
How do those of us working in the industry now create opportunities for those young people who are potentially going to be denied the opportunities that we had? How do we restructure our organisations to make space to support early careers effectively? The first step, in my view, is openness: a willingness to share our budgets and explore what – and who – we are paying and the directions in which that money is flowing, a desire to come together and invest time in finding solutions, and ultimately, to talk frankly and honestly about the problem.