Features Published 17 December 2020

It’s time for theatres to stop treating front-of-house staff as disposable

Samuel Sims chats to front of house workers about why theatres need to change both their attitudes and their contracts.

Samuel Sims

Theatre workers protest against redundancies on Southbank earlier this year

“My front of house colleagues and I were told to ‘watch our emails, because some news is gonna come through’ and then the next day, it was like ‘Okay, you’re fired.’”

I’ve sat poring over statements like this by front of house (FOH) workers for several days now and it’s staggering how many of us have gone through almost the exact same experience, during the mess we’re (still) in. It’s shocking, but not surprising. Three months ago – at the end of an incredibly bizarre summer, I was this person: one day a member of staff, furloughed at one of London’s most prestigious theatres – and the next, gone.

I could very well have sat on the Postman Pat duvet-covered single bed I now have in my husband’s Nan’s home (our new abode since leaving London in August) and bashed out a tale of bitterness and rage, spittle flying out of my mouth, but alas, it’s not as black and white as all that. I still don’t exactly know how I feel about my own experience, as I know my colleagues and I were more fortunate than many others. Yes, we found out that our workplace was closing and that all upcoming shifts were cancelled, via the theatre’s Twitter account – a bizarre and hugely thoughtless act that I still can’t get my head around. But we were furloughed for several months and my pay – for doing nothing basically – was pretty good. So how angry can I really be?

As someone who worked for a theatre that was criticised heavily and expansively in the press, I feel it important not to get angry but to start a conversation. So I spoke to four complete strangers about their FOH experience. There was a deep feeling of companionship, of relief and finally, empathy.

“We were told, initially that we’d be paid for the week, which was a relief to me, and it was made quite clear by the managers that they’d keep us updated and we’d see what happened.” Emilia* who was working at one of London’s West End theatres when the government announcement came in March, was initially as much in the dark as the rest of us when she was sent home and told to await further news. Then, lockdown officially began, and rumours started about a scheme nobody had ever heard of: “Furlough? That wasn’t even a word in our vocabulary.”

Emilia felt that her experience was largely positive, and that she was updated often by her managers and supported where possible, but her colleagues didn’t always feel the same way: “There were a lot of disputes, especially in the group chat, with my colleagues about how much we’re being paid and why we’re being paid differently.”

I remember similar disputes way back in March, in a group chat my former theatre colleagues had, though ours was to do with how the company were working out everybody’s wages. “How does everyone feel about February 2019 being used as the basis for wages?” was how one such conversation started. “Isn’t government advice average of 12 months? One is not representative of how much someone works…” And so, it continued. But it’s hard to negotiate when there’s no legal standing for zero-hour workers, which many theatres predominantly hire, and which many more theatres may turn to during the uncertainty of the next few months and years. Emilia says that “I feel like some theatres will use this as an opportunity to change contracts and maybe even make a zero-hour house contract, because they can. They will change contracts to give people less rights, make more profit and make up where they have lost money.” Though the voice at the other end of the phone has expressed radiant optimism up until this point, it is clear she doesn’t hold out much hope for FOH workers being given a second thought as theatres are and will continue to reopen.

Sabrina*, who worked at a publicly funded theatre in Central London, shares Emilia’s gratitude: “I was lucky to be furloughed up until the end of the summer, which compared to some people is amazing. I didn’t think I would be.” Though some weren’t so fortunate: “A lot of staff were let go overnight at the beginning, which is kind of unforgivable. That’s like the worst thing that can really happen with a day job; just gone overnight, with the whole world in turmoil.”

Sabrina is an actor and working FOH was something she did on the ‘side’, to pay the rent. But this isn’t brand new information, is it? The majority of those that guide audiences to their seats at the theatre do FOH because it works beautifully in tandem with their creative pursuits as writers, directors, actors etc. I wonder how many FOH workers will have been spoken down to during a shift and asked if they’re ‘trying’ to be an actor with no real interest from the speaker. As soon as I left the West End and started working for a bigger theatre four years ago, I realised that this didn’t just come from patrons, and that a general dismissive attitude was adopted by colleagues working in other parts of the same building. I share this with Sabrina, and she enthusiastically agrees: “Those in administrative positions in the building did not treat you respectfully.”

This feeling of ‘us and them’, of FOH somehow not deserving the same level of regard as those who run, say the catering department or one of the actors, is something that unfortunately comes up repeatedly during my chat with fellow FOH folk. It’s bizarre to me that somewhere along the line, it is forgotten just how much we contribute to a theatre’s overall success and how we’re not thought of as part of the same ‘family’.

Branden* was working at two fringe venues in London, returning to one two weeks ago and the other, sometime before Christmas (before London returned to Tier Three). He tells me more than once during what is to be my longest chat, that he loves both theatres dearly as though expressing his frustration and anger towards them is somehow representative of his entire experience. I deeply relate to this.

“They did treat us very badly, and the communication between upstairs and downstairs in FOH has always been appalling. It’s a small team and I’ve worked there for nearly three years now but there are still people I’ve never spoken to,” Branden says. As this is the theatre he returned to earlier this month, I ask if that has changed. “The FOH manager has always been brilliant but the rest of management still hasn’t spoken to us. Towards the end of a shift when I’d been on my feet for about six or seven hours, cleaning and stuff, a lot of management were just sort of sitting in the bar, congratulating each other. It will be a real shame if a lot of people’s hard work is ignored.”

With an almost perverse curiosity, I ask Branden about his experience in the other theatre; one that I adored going to as a patron but have gone off during lockdown. I’m pleasantly surprised by what he tells me, but I also feel a newfound disgust towards my own ex-workplace as I realise that they could have done so much more to support us. “A couple of days before the proper lockdown was called, the literary department said there’s a huge backlog of unsolicited scripts and there literally isn’t anyone able to help read them, so come along and… spend an hour with us. They told us how they go through scripts and how to write reports. I really respected that.”

It may seem like a simple move by this theatre’s ‘upstairs’ but it shows initiative that many others haven’t. I feel relief for Branden and his colleagues, and wonder if he got support like this pre-Covid. “A year or so ago I sent a script in and got a really nice email back from the head of literary. She said it was a no but that they knew I worked there, so if I wanted feedback in person, they’d be happy to do that.”

For Juliet*, who worked at two theatres in Scotland, just getting any recognition from people in senior roles was the challenge, never mind as a creative in her own right: “We got a message from our CEO – so it wasn’t even our FOH managers [who we still haven’t really heard from] – who said OK, this is how it’s gonna work… you might get furloughed, but you might not, because you’re all casual. At no point did anybody check that we were okay… I’d been working at [one of the theatres] for five years and the managers knew how much we loved and relied on the job. It genuinely felt like they just stopped caring.”

Talking to fellow FOH comrades and discovering just how similar our stories are is cathartic, yes but it also brings about an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Clearly, there’s a lot of anger, but I think predominantly, we all just feel gutted and a bit violated. FOH may have ‘just’ been – on the face of it – a side hustle for many of us but, but it was so much more than this. You’re a family, right? And families should stick together.

As mentioned, my own experience – especially early on – was dire but based on my theatre’s track record of communication and toxic ‘upstairs-downstairs’ culture, it came as no surprise. There were several instances where FOH were not paid correctly and if it weren’t for a certain individual at BECTU, who offered frequent help and support and a constant flow of encouragement on an online FOH group, then the theatre would have gotten away with far more. Heck, after the announcement that the theatre was firing all FOH, a huge letter was sent by us to the HR Director with a very reasonable and considered alternative, but by that point, the decision had clearly, been made. We were just not taken seriously.

“I think for a bit, it’s gonna go to the most capitalist version of theatre possible.” Branden’s closing words have really stuck with me. Is generating a quick profit or indeed some income going to become the sole priority for every arts institution? If it is, then the future of FOH workers looks to be a disturbing one.

Producers like Nica Burns, who co-owns Nimax theatres, took a risk by reopening their theatres at a loss this month, to provide people with employment. There’s clearly some consideration here from the ‘top dogs’ but I hope that when FOH workers are back in those theatres next year, their longer-term future is also taken into account. If theatres have to close again (god forbid), will we be on contracts that protect us? Is our long-term health and safety being taken seriously? And if communication and respect was already lacking, who is going to ensure it improves?

I don’t have the answers – none of us do. But through conversations with other FOH workers, I am certain that we can’t oppose the government and their attitude to the arts if we – the passionate, devoted family of people who work in theatre – don’t start acting like we’re all in this together, instead of believing in a bullshit hierarchy. Nor can we keep on treating FOH workers like they’re disposable, when their role in looking after audiences and keeping everyone safe makes them some of the most important people in our industry right now. If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that we must be kinder and more mindful if we’ve any hope of rebuilding.

*The names of people in this article have been changed at the request of interviewees

For more on employment rights during the pandemic, read Alice Saville’s article on Theatre’s Left Behind Freelancers

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Samuel Sims

Sam is the Director of A Younger Theatre as well as a writer with work published in The Stage and Attitude magazine, among others. He can be found trying (and often failing) to make vegan food from scratch over on his Instagram @givemetokyo

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