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Features Published 18 July 2017

Not my cup of tea

Tea House Theatre sparked a Twitter storm after its job listing went viral. Here's Lauren Mooney on its unpalatable message about undervalued, often female labour in the arts.
Lauren Mooney

A fascinatingly angry rant-as-recruitment job advertisement from Tea House Theatre has captured widespread attention on Twitter since being posted on Artsjobs. The ad, since removed by a contrite Arts Council (yes it is user-generated, but it had to be approved before posting – why did they ever put it up?!), deserves to be read in its entirety if you haven’t already done that:

Teahouseletter

It’s a pretty interesting hiring strategy to combine open vitriol with a complete lack of useful information about the job in question (are they even…still offering a job? It’s hard to be sure), but there’s a chance they’re delighted it’s had so much attention, I suppose. Certainly I’d usually be loathe to talk about publicity stunts by men who want to be talked about – but this advert is such a distilled example of so many employment problems in theatre and beyond that it feels hard to ignore.

What this weird open letter to an entire generation lays bare is the culture of replaceability and gratitude that has completely pervaded a post-financial crash job market. Wages are frozen or falling, and entry level work is few and far between as squeezed arts organisations cut jobs. It’s an environment that breeds an attitude of: ‘It’s hard enough for us to keep going, you’re lucky we’re paying you at all, so shut up and take the money’. The idea that it’s hard enough for small theatres to exist without having to pay everyone properly and treat them nicely is a damaging one that I’ve written about before at higher profile venues, but it’s the sheer open entitlement of this job ad that really sets it apart from the rest: an entitlement that shows a lack of willingness to invest in graduates, expecting them to spring out of education fully trained and fully-formed, and blaming any lack of knowledge on the trope that ‘kids today’ are feckless, selfish and, ironically, entitled.

Rumours about employers like these pervade theatre. Anyone working at entry level in the industry today will have heard horror stories, by which I mean: ooh I could tell you some things, except I can’t, because they’ve happened to my friends and they don’t want to talk about it. A culture of silence surrounds mistreated entry level staff, with young people scared to speak out for lots of reasons, not least a fear that the industry they’ve already sacrificed so much dignity for will protect itself by shutting them out. So it’s actually a bit of a rare gift to see an organisation raise a giant banner above its door saying WE ARE CUNTS, RUN A MILE.

Miya Tokumitsu, writing for Slate, talked about the insidious culture of ‘Do What You Love’ – a motto for work in the 21st century that keeps people trapped in damaging and underpaid working conditions in ‘desirable’ industries. She talks more about academia and photography than theatre, but she could easily be writing about any number of arts professions when she says that the concept of DWYL ‘reinforces exploitation…within the so-called lovable professions, where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labour is the new norm’.

Most people accept unpaid or low-paid work in theatre because it will help them to develop and learn. But in fact, few squeezed arts organisations have the capacity to be much interested in their entry level staff’s career progression. Large numbers of admin staff get ‘stuck’ in these roles – so many that schemes like Step Change exist expressly to prise us out. It’s endemic. But Tea House’s advert spells it out beautifully. Its language is unusually brazen in being not about ‘you’, the potential employee, but ‘them’ as the creatives, highlighting the attitude so many employers have to arts admin: that it is skill-less, that its workers are replaceable, and that you are lucky to get to facilitate their VISION.

Part of the reason it can be hard for arts administrators to progress is because we are, as Alan Bennett once wrote about history, women ‘following behind with the bucket’. We do a little bit of everything that needs doing, but higher level roles require specificity rather than generality. And it is so very often women, and young women at that. It is so often young women holding the bucket and being told they should be grateful, and men doing the desirable CREATIVE work.

Although plenty of online commenters have focused their anger on the fact that the job expects so much for a 15-20k salary, this job is really not that much lower paid than most entry level work in theatre – it’s been fascinating to see that so many people think it is. Where the low pay thing becomes most relevant here is that they’re looking for a range of skills better fitting an office manager than an entry level role – which is traditionally much higher paid, but still traditionally female. Part of the problem of deciding what work we culturally value is that women end up time and again in these traditionally female roles, and most of those jobs end up undervalued and underpaid precisely because women do them. Tea House sound like they need an experienced office manager, not an entry level assistant, but they believe the work can be done by anyone regardless of experience, precisely because administration – even high-level administration – is so undervalued.

Tea House Theatre have shocked people by being brazen, but the problems here are borne of a much wider cultural problem with the way we think about, talk about and reward the ‘boring’ work that keeps plates spinning in this industry and beyond. So if you’re in a position of power in an arts organisation, remember that most early career arts administrators will be working for you to get on somewhere. Ask yourself if you’re paying enough, and if the added value you offer to make up for any low pay is really valuable to staff. Investment in your team can keep them on your side and on your payroll longer, and isn’t that worth doing?

After all, our employment culture says people are endlessly replaceable, but if this job advert shows us anything it’s that they aren’t, and as Tea House have found out the hard way, recruitment is fucking expensive.

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Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.

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