This is now Part 1 of a three part series!
It is a tricky business, this.
Many of us who work in theatre know this all too well, and yet there are some who are lucky enough never to need to realise it.
Let me elaborate. The majority of the work done in theatre (and for the purposes of this article I’m referring specifically to backstage theatre, but the principles are very similar for performers too) is freelance based.
Someone once told me (and I have never bothered to do the research into how accurate they were, I must confess) that 60% of backstage theatre professionals work on a freelance basis. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. The freelance business model fits into the way the industry works in an almost ideal way.
It fits the industry because very few companies want to keep technical staff on a retainer for 12 months a year when in fact they only produce shows for, say, 6 of those. It doesn’t make commercial sense. It also means that those companies looking for technical support can always pick from the best available at that time (sometimes this can also be a problem).
It even fits many of those working freelance themselves. Many have other commitments, whether they be family, a second job, or indeed the fact that theatre is, for them, little more than a paying hobby.
However, I suspect that many theatre professionals trying to forge a career in this industry struggle to maintain a good life. I would put myself in this boat. Don’t misunderstand me; I love working in theatre. I love the variety, I thrive on the fact that no one day is the same. In a strangely masochistic way, I really enjoy the sense of achievement after finishing an extremely grueling tour, and I believe I am not alone.
Lets say Fred, a freelance theatre technician, is working on a job. It’s a tough daily tour. He’s got 5 weeks left and he starts looking for jobs around his daily work commitments, but there is very little time to do so – meaning that when he does actually find something, it will then be very hard to sort out an interview before he is finished.
The result is that many of us – unless we are really lucky – do not go from job to job without a break in between. Sometimes, we go as long as 2 months between jobs – meaning that it can be very difficult to plan for the future. Some people love this way of life – and it is just that, not to mention being almost entirely alien to anyone outside the industry. How many businesses in the world would think it the norm for someone to be unemployed for as much as 3 months a year?
These periods of ‘rest’ can be useful, of course. Personally, I use them to do all of the things that just cannot possibly be done whilst working (and again, to anyone outside theatre, this will be alien). At the moment, this includes such things include having a massive clear out of my flat and putting stuff on eBay. For others it is training courses or even holidays.
This however brings me onto my main point for posting. I have been writing this entry for a while, and keep returning to it and rewriting it, but never actually posting, mostly because I could not quite put my finger on what it was that really pained me about the subject.
It is something that Barbara Eifler of SMA fame touches on in her weekly Stage column this week, and which their regular ‘flyman’ column has also mused over of late. It is all about the money.
I, like many in my position spend a good proportion of my time job hunting. And there are many and varied methods for doing so. My preferred method, and it is probably the most effective in this industry, is word of mouth and networking. The best way to get a job, in any industry, is to be offered it before it is advertised. And this happens a lot. Many of us, I am sure, have been ‘asked to interview’ for a position, and we have a pretty good idea what the likely outcome will be (positive).
As with all job searches, one method is never enough. There is the Stage newspaper and website, and several arts/technical inclined job websites, to name but a few.
What I am constantly struck by, is the ability of employers (whether they be technical staff themselves, or producers, or even HR departments) to proudly advertise a job, and ask for all of the skills you can think of (and if you fully take their word for it most Stage Management positions should only be applied for by those of who have spent many years working their way up through the ranks, reached the higher echelons of the trade, say at perhaps the National Theatre or in Covent Garden, and are bored of it – and I can’t think of any such practitioners), and then offer a fee that is basically minimum wage. Professional Technical staff are not interested in profit shares. if they have the skills you require they should be paid fairly for them. It makes no difference whether it is a small TIE tour or a co-pro in a regional venue, the skills required, and the time commitment required will be very similar, and therefore there is no reason why the fee should be wildly different. Take into account that because freelance staff don’t, by the nature of their industry, work permanently, then the fee should be commensurate that you can survive in-between times, let alone consider that perk of the employed – ‘a holiday’.
One position I saw advertised recently, in London (they shall remain nameless, but they are a small up-and-coming company) asked for an SM book cover, wanted several years experience, and duties included: propping the show, on the book during rehearsals, running the tech and dress as well as company management, and then offered £25 per day in remuneration.
It was an eight show per week, three week run – meaning they were essentially offering £600 for 6 week’s work. I don’t know about the rest of you, but it would probably cost me more than double that for those 6 weeks alone.
I have no issue with small theatre companies offering low pay. It is often new work, and I really love doing new theatre. It is exciting and refreshing, and often very rewarding. The issue I have is that this company in particular (and by no means are they alone) would not consider that to get someone of such calibre they would probably need to triple the fee, which they were unable to do, but also would not (I know this as a friend of mine in this situation was told exactly this) consider employing a young, enthusiastic graduate interested in doing the work not for the money but for their CV, as they did not have the experience they had asked for.
I have since heard that they ended up employing an amateur Stage Manager, who had another career in a different field. I am told that they were quite dissatisfied with their work, and wouldn’t be using them again.
You pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
Click here for the next instalment: Part 2, where I talk more on employment!