Features Published 26 September 2020

People are theatre’s biggest asset; it’s time to start valuing them

As the UK’s leaders use the language of business to justify further devastation to theatre, Alice Saville argues that they’re looking for value in the wrong places.

Alice Saville

National Theatre workers protest against redundancies

Ever get that feeling where right when you need to shout about something the loudest, the words suddenly dry up? Right now, I feel a bit like I did one night at the pub in the before-times, when I reached into my bag only to find another hand inside it. A smartly dressed man was midway through stealing my phone; he melted back into the crowd as I watched him in mute horror.

The government has screwed over theatre with such bare-faced audacity that it really is hard to know what to say. So I’ll start with a short recap of what you probably already know. Six months into this pandemic, the government still hasn’t joined two vital dots; if you’re going to target specific sectors for closure, then they’ll need sector-specific support to survive until they’re allowed to operate as usual. The furlough scheme is coming to an end, but since conventional indoor performances are still banned, theatres have little or no income. There’s a government-administered Cultural Recovery Fund, yes, but most theatres won’t meet its overly tight eligibility requirements, and the funds are only being made available after most venues have already let huge numbers of workers go. Theatres have been strongly encouraged to fill their coffers by holding socially distanced performances this Autumn, which a) ran at a loss, because audience numbers were too low to turn a profit and b) are now under threat, as lockdown restrictions tighten. 

And now, Rishi Sunak has added the delightful new category of ‘viable businesses’ into the mix. Only ‘viable’ businesses are eligible for phase two of furlough, the Job Support Scheme (which still only pays up to 22% of employees’ wages). How many theatres will be among them? And how did we arrive at the argument that nonprofitable bits of the arts should be cut off and discarded, like wilting leaves on a plant?

It’s a rhetoric that makes me think back to Cameron Mackintosh’s words in The Times last week (although he won’t be a fan of Sunak’s announcement, either). He argued that it should be economy-boosting West End theatres (rather like his own) that should get government funding, not “failing” subsidised theatres;

 

“I’m not saying that I’m against them for the work they do but in a practical way it is businesses that do good business, that will be able to start throwing money back into the exchequer and fill the terrible void we have in the economy.”

Mackintosh is valiantly clinging to the ‘business case’ for theatre’s survival; the one where you describe theatre as a world-beating multi-million pound industry that’s valuable primarily for the money it makes, even though making money isn’t a particularly strong facet of the experience of at least 99% of the people who work in it. That case feels even less persuasive than usual right now. With social distancing in place for the foreseeable future, a huge dip in tourist numbers, and a global recession due to cut people’s disposable income, it feels naive in the extreme to think that the West End can lead us out of whatever financial crisis is coming next.

But more than that, if people who work in theatre make the ‘business case’ for the arts, that means that the government can treat theatres as businesses in return – which means using profitability as the main metric of success, and cutting them off when they ‘fail’. 

If we must look at the theatre landscape as one big collection of businesses, most of which are indeed currently failing, their biggest asset wouldn’t be the buildings, it would be the people who work in them. People who work in theatre create a huge amount of value; in working overtime, in taking jobs whose pay is just a token gesture towards the effort and emotional investment involved, in directly subsidising and paying for things to happen. 

The government has not valued theatre during this crisis. And in turn, a lot of theatres have not valued the people they work with. Theatres, including Cameron Mackintosh’s own, have reacted to the crisis by making their lowest paid, most vulnerable workers redundant en masse. With a few shining exceptions, there’s been a culture of doing what you can get away with, not what you should; many workers have only been furloughed after months of asking for it. And there’s often been a bare minimum of communication. Theatre boards have handled decisions invisibly, and often ineffectually, while staff are left in the dark. 

Theatre’s not alone in handling redundancies badly. But there’s something about the relationship that arts workers have with their jobs that makes it sting more. So often, arts organisations treat employees like prospective life partners when it’s hiring them, and one night stands when it’s firing them. You’re brought in with promises of fulfilment, growth, doing what you love, making sacrifices together. But when you’re let go, you find out via a chance social media post, or just ghosted, and they leave you with as little as they can get away with.

It hurts, I think, because something has been taken away from you – even if it’s not as obvious as a cold hand reaching into your backpack.

And to articulate that, I want to talk about ideas of ownership. If you work somewhere, I think that you own a tiny piece of it. Sometimes that little piece is spiritual (your care, your knowledge, your emotional investment) and sometimes it’s more literal (your financial entanglement in a business). But either way, you have a stake. If you work for more hours than you’re paid for, if you invest your free time and energies into making that place better than it would otherwise be, that stake gets bigger. Collective ownership isn’t just a socialist ideal; it’s a thing that already exists, that management can choose to acknowledge or not acknowledge. And if arts leaders make huge decisions about your future without consulting you in any way, without even telling you what they’re doing and why, then you’re having something taken away from you. 

Look at theatre’s workforce like a hard-headed businessman; it’s a seemingly limitless resource, so you pay as little as you can for it, use it freely, and view each portion of it as replaceable and expendable.

Look at theatre’s workforce like an ecologist, and things look different. Yes, the resource currently seems limitless. But where did it come from? What energy went into creating that resource? What’s the wider impact of misusing this resource? Will your actions now damage the environment you’re working in, and its sustainability in the future?

It’s a destructive waste when the government undervalues theatre workers until they’re forced to leave the industry; one of time and money spent training, of accumulated knowledge and skills, of potential and creativity. And it’s also a waste when individual venues and arts leaders undervalue or fail to listen to their own workers. They’re cutting themselves off from a valuable resource of knowledge and ideas that’s desperately needed, as venues have to think more creatively than ever. And they’re also more likely to find themselves out of step with the public, as they try to navigate the endless succession of moral compromises they’ll need to make to survive the next few years. The Lowry seemed wrongfooted by the backlash that met its decision to convert into a temporary court; would that have happen if it had consulted its own staff and audiences?

Theatre’s ideals for itself often centre on the principle of ‘community’. Community means everyone having a stake, and everyone being valued, and everyone contributing something to the greater whole in return – the invisible, unquantifiable labour of care and communication.

Something that really isn’t ‘viable’ is a world where people only do things they’re paid for, or things that make ‘business sense’. Families would stop raising their children, the streets would fill with litter, gardens would go untended, and no one would make any art.  

In the tech world, feminist thinkers are increasingly talking about ‘The Maintainers’, and arguing for the value of the people who keep society’s systems running. Put simply, it’s much, much more expensive to come up with endless reinventing-the-wheel initiatives than it is to look after and adapt the ones we already have, and to dream up new ways to make them operate in new times. If theatre loses its workers, it loses an invaluable source of knowledge, creativity, time, and care – and that really will be bad business.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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