Features Published 5 November 2021

Theatre’s hiring crisis

As theatres fight to find and retain backstage workers, Alice Saville talks to people on the frontline of theatre’s hiring crisis.

Alice Saville

All quiet backstage! Photo: Ben Tofan

“For the first time I’m going, ‘I’ve got the budget, but I can’t find the people.’ It’s so strange,” says production manager Heather Doole. Her words are echoed across the theatre industry, in meetings, social media and job listings sites, where the same roles come up repeatedly and with increasing urgency. It’s surreal, because until the pandemic, the main conversation about theatre and hiring was on the impossibility of breaking into what often felt like a cliquey closed shop.

There are areas of theatre where that’s still true, but the last few months have seen unprecedented hiring shortages. All kinds of jobs are getting fewer applications then they used to. But the people I interviewed for this piece felt that stage managers, lighting designers, carpenters and producers are particularly sought after right now – and that’s not a coincidence, because all have skills that are very easily taken to other industries.

Doole reckons the shortage really started to bite this summer. “In May, it was very easy to find people. But by the end of June, it suddenly became incredibly hard. I began looking for a builder for a set build in August – not a huge amount of notice but I hadn’t left it to the last minute. I ran through something like 15 different companies, and they just either didn’t have the staff or didn’t have the capacity.”

This sudden staff shortage is an industry-wide problem, affecting everyone from fringe productions to high-profile shows that would normally have no issue finding staff. An anonymous senior backstage professional mentioned that touring musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks is “having to take out quarter page adverts in The Stage to fill what you think is an incredibly juicy, exciting job.”

It’s also a situation that’s fraught with potential dangers, as productions are forced to go ahead understaffed, or with underexperienced people in key roles. As one senior backstage professional said, “people are trying to do like hugely technical shows right now without the genuine understanding of what makes that safe. People are cutting corners and scrambling to do what they can without enough workers on the ground. If this situation continues, we’ll come to the point where there are show stoppages, where there are accidents.”

But how did we get here?

As an anonymous senior backstage professional who’s struggling to hire technical roles put it, “It’s a perfect storm. People were made redundant during the pandemic and have found other roles. People have retired. And people who are still working in theatre don’t want to work the same hours as before, because the working conditions are worse and the money is less.” When the pandemic hit, theatres made redundancies swiftly and often painfully: many chose not to take advantage of the furlough scheme which would have allowed them to retain staff. And now, they’re feeling the burn. They’re committed to staging productions planned before the pandemic hit, but often with less money and less time. And their once-dedicated permanent staff have been replaced with a scramble to find workers, often on short-term contracts.

TV and film opened up before theatre, and they soaked up large numbers of talented technicians. Not everyone has fallen into new jobs they actually want to keep longterm. But workers who want to return are faced with a stark choice: stick with their secure non-theatre job, or chance it on a badly-paid, short-term theatre contract that may not be followed up by more work. One anonymous designer explained that a leading Scottish theatre can’t persuade its casuals to return after it programmed a series of short run works coming out of the pandemic: “it’s heartbreaking to me that there are workers getting more out of a full-time job in a supermarket chain than they do by going back to coming back to this industry.”

Where salaried roles are being offered, they can’t hope to compete with other sectors. Leeds Playhouse are currently advertising a senior lighting technician job at £18,000 – a surprisingly low salary for a role that requires a high level of experience and specific expertise. Meanwhile, the average salary for a professional electrician is £35,000, and a lighting technician in film or TV can hope for a similar or higher rate – as can similarly experienced staff in other departments of many theatres. As one designer said of the role: “the application package for the role talks in detail about the importance of diversity but we’ve seen again and again and again that the biggest barrier to diversity backstage is money.”

The current situation definitely isn’t the “building back better” scenario a lot of people hoped for during the pandemic. But theatres and producers aren’t starting with a blank canvas.

As one anonymous producer explained, “Most of the projects I’ve been working on were already in the works pre-pandemic. Once you’ve started planning a project, you’ve kind of established the model that’s in place. It can be quite difficult to kind of reimagine that in a way that allows for better working conditions because you can’t really go back to a funding body and say ‘I would really like to have another 10,000 pounds, please, so that I can hire more people and to have each of them doing a bit less.’”

Building back better is a challenge in a world where producers are scrambling around for funding more than they used to. It requires thinking differently from the start. As the producer continued, “the one project that wasn’t planned pre-pandemic is the one where I felt we were most able to take creating better working conditions seriously, because we were starting from scratch.”

Still, although improving conditions is challenging, it’s also essential. Returning to work in theatre is often taking a severe physical and psychological toll on workers who’ve spent up to 18 months in other roles. One designer spoke of a heavy rate of attrition: “people are dropping out due to ill health which I believe to be due to the overwhelm and exhaustion and burnout that I’ve seen everywhere, everywhere.”

Traditionally, antisocial hours are baked into theatre, especially into certain areas like touring. One senior backstage professional described working on touring theatre as “like running away with the circus – it’s really bad for your mental health longterm. You spend a third of your day sleeping and the rest working. It’s a hard life, and often people are doing it to escape.” It was always tough. But after 18 months away, many of the workers I spoke to said they were finding it more physically and mentally taxing than ever, especially with the added burden of worry related to ongoing Covid-19 risks.

As one designer said, “those of us who are working are actually being really choosy about looking after ourselves.” They explained that “I’ve been saying no to shows where I just know that my time over the previews is going to involve being in a non socially distanced auditorium with audiences that aren’t wearing masks, and I’ve still been getting loads of stuff”.

Heather Doole said, “the pandemic has made everyone reevaluate what they want from life. You don’t want to go back from seeing your family every evening to working these really long shifts. And I know a couple of carpenters who were really excited to come back to theatre. They did it for a month or so. And then went ‘No, I’m going to go back to building staircases and bookcases because the money was really good, and I got to be there for bath time for my kids. Why was I putting myself through this?’”

But why can’t theatre carpenters be at home by 6pm for the kids’ bathtime? There’s no inherent reason why late nights have to be the norm. One anonymous producer spoke approvingly of a theatre in France where “techs were done in two shifts: the older more experienced technicians would come in first, get things set up, then leave to pick their kids up from school. Then younger workers who are happy to work late nights come in later an finish things off.” At Theatre503, as sound designer, composer and actor Roly Botha recently told The Stage,  “we don’t do evenings in tech, which is unheard of [elsewhere]… For actors and directors, tech happens once every six months…For technical creatives it’s every week. It’s easy to forget there is a sector of the industry that lives in tech. It’s not just about making those two weeks more comfortable, it can be about making 80% of someone’s working life better.” Similarly, NDT Broadgate has been designed as a place where rehearsal processes can happen in a more mindful way: there’s a designated mental health breakout room, plus free studios for designers with collaborative spaces that combat some of the pressures of freelancing in the industry.

Moving to a different, more humane model means planning differently from the start; and those decisions go right to the top. The entire sector won’t change overnight. As one senior backstage professional said, ruefully, “it would require a buy-in from Nadine Dorries and people like that, and that’s never going to happen”. But at the same time, although technical theatre isn’t going to get a massive injection of cash overnight, people are already working to improve conditions.

Often, that means difficult choices. Anna Coombs said that “What we have now is a surplus of product – a huge amount of work being made, some of it being made without people being properly remunerated. It’s my personal and possibly slightly controversial view that if thought and care is put into every step of the process, there may be less work, but that work will be better.”

Coombs is artistic director of Tangle Theatre, which is confronting the technician shortage with a scheme called Amplify, which offers paid mentoring for those who want to start careers in technical theatre – with a particular focus on those from underrepresented backgrounds. As Coombs explains, “we don’t support unpaid training schemes. If you’re not based in London, and you see an opportunity for free training in another time or city, how do you get there? How are you compensated for the loss of income from whatever other job you might be doing?”

Amplify is supported by Genesis Foundation. Elsewhere in the industry, cash is in shorter supply. But some interviewees felt confident that changes could be made, even without a substantial injection of funding.

Heather Doole said that “I’ve had a really great experience on one of the shows that I’ve done since the pandemic. And a lot of that was because everyone agreed really early on, ‘We’ve had a really rough time, we’re going to look after each other, and we’re going to listen.’ The creative team were very receptive to feedback, and to understanding the limitations that kind of have always existed, but now exist in a much firmer way.”

This story touches on something wider: the way in which good relationships between technical and artistic staff make everything easier. Several of the technicians I spoke to mentioned a gulf of understanding, or a sense that directors and actors were valued more in the process: “If you lead with artists all the time, or you don’t have genuine input from technical staff from the ground up, then of course you’re going to really struggle to retain people,” said one.

“Over the years, there’s been an accidental undervaluing of those who work backstage” said another interviewee, “and that’s not helped by the way that often people who work in those roles aren’t the best at talking about what they do.”

The current shortage of technical theatre staff can be seen as a wider and more systemic cultural issue: “this country has maltreated the majority of the lowest paid workers for so long that they’re quite within their rights to go ‘fuck this’,” one senior backstage professional said. “You can draw a line between this situation and what’s happening with truck drivers, only no one’s offering backstage staff £70,000 to come back to work”.

We’re in the middle of the so-called Great Resignation, where huge numbers are leaving their jobs, often citing post-pandemic burnout; and construction, tech and logistics workers are most likely to be affected. It’s worsened by the impact of Brexit, which has drained workers from every industry; “several people I know have moved back to mainland Europe, the combination of the pandemic and Brexit meant that it kind of wasn’t worth it for them to stay”, said Doole.

We’re also starting to see the results of the consistent undervaluing of the arts in education, something that this government’s relentless focus on STEM has facilitated. It’s not just backstage staff that are hard to recruit right now. Diverse City executive producer Becky Chapman is currently struggling to hire disabled performers for circus Extraordinary Bodies. She said that there’s “quite a hairy combination of a lack of new people coming through training pathways, and people leaving the sector. I think the real block is that there aren’t enough financially accessible, economically accessible, physically accessible training pathways available, so that young people from more marginalised backgrounds are currently really put off.” That’s something that’s only exacerbated by the sector’s fragility during the pandemic – it’s hard to imagine starting a career in an industry that you’re constantly being told is in a state of crisis.

A generation of new graduates have missed out on valuable networking and work experience opportunities – they’ll need support to find their way into roles. And perhaps, when and if they do find work, they’ll also ask for a bit more than their predecessors have – as costs of living soar, they can hardly afford not to.

One thing’s clear: the current situation can’t continue. “I don’t see how theatre can survive if it tries to keep the working conditions that we had a couple of years ago,” said Doole. “Conditions and wages are going to have to shift, and it’s up to creative teams, production managers, and producers – anyone who has control over what the hours are, how the budgets work – to take the lead.”

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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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