Our industry’s ecosystem is broken – from the ground up it’s all gone pear-shaped. There was so much hope (ironically) back in 2020 when everything closed that when we returned, we would fix everything that was wrong. Of course, that was extremely naive and ambitiously optimistic, but it did feel like our best chance to reassemble and re-evaluate how our industry had limped through the last few years prior to the pandemic.
Fast forward two years and so little has changed. There are more angry voices calling out inequality in the industry, but no finance to address how we open up our industry to all. So for sure, there are more opportunities, but very often we don’t have the talent coming through to give the opportunities too. We don’t have the talent because the funding around training is worse than ever, and the outreach programmes aren’t effective enough to create a real change in the landscape.
We spoke about how ‘the show must go on’ probably wasn’t the best practice that we all thought that it was, then the theatres creaked back open and (some) producers desperate to keep the industry alive exploited the motto more than ever. As swings and understudies got lauded, dance captains and associates were buckling under the pressure of yet another cut show and more rehearsals than we’d ever had before (straight off the back of no work for 2 years). The landscape had changed and the unthinkable was now a regular occurrence – shows would cancel a performance, often leaving audiences out of pocket and slightly scared to rebook. . . yet.
The landscape is still so sparse to what we were used to pre-pandemic, and in spite of so many people leaving the industry during the dark times, colleges with their ever-growing populations kept churning out thousands of graduates eager to work and determined to stay the distance, whilst industry stalwarts that usually managed to stay afloat were suddenly left on the sidelines with them waiting for things to really take off again.
Throw in the real impact of Brexit and the lack of opportunities for performers to now work abroad – the cruise ship industry is still buckling under covid, and for the few jobs that there are available, an EU passport is now as valuable as a good turn out or a top-class voice reel.
In the UK we’ve finally named that the touring model is deeply flawed from digs to pay – but what’s the answer? People are tired of things being hard.
2 years of hardship and people’s resilience is low. Those 2 years stole more than our work, for many the pandemic stole their identity. As a vocational industry so many of us identify as our jobs – this is a personal choice not endorsed by the industry, but a reality of a lifetime of dreams getting fulfilled. So many of us made the career choice at a stupidly young age that it somehow became a constant in our lives – until that fateful day in 2020 when our industry closed down.
The successful amongst us saw their life savings dwindling away to nothing. In technical theatre literally hundreds of ‘us’ realised that their skills were transferable, and more than that, were transferable in industries that naturally treated their staff better. Shorter working hours, larger paycheques, financial security. The talent drain amongst our technical theatre community is staggering.
We returned saying that we would look after each more carefully, but that hasn’t happened, in fact, quite the opposite, we’ve returned more self-centred than ever, after all . . . all of ‘this’ could simply be snatched from us again. We have to look out for No 1 now.
As the person that started #time4change, the very first campaign for a better understanding of mental health and mental illness in the industry way back in 2016 the regression is clear. I mean the narrative and social media click baits are more on-message than ever. If you only studied theatre twitter you’d think that we’d had a revolution of understanding – but of course, the reality is different. People STILL can’t differentiate between mental health and mental illness, now illness gets celebrated as opposed to people being encouraged to go and seek out help. A couple of schemes and an increase in mental health first aiders was not the revolution that I’d hoped for 6 years ago.
Take mental illness out of the picture and just focus on mental health and we’ve come back worse than when we left it. Now your resilience is tested because you should be grateful to be in a job – the cruise industry is currently a great example of this dangerous narrative. People on shows are working longer hours than ever (the joy of the covid cut show), for less money than ever. Less money adds to the everyday stress which was already hugely present for most freelancers during their non-funded pandemic. Companies are struggling so those invoices are being paid later than ever. The stress on the individual is huge (it should be noted on both sides of the table – as producing stuff during this time is a heart attack waiting to take hold).
All of the above will eventually sort itself out, but it would be a damn sight more healthy if the struggle was named more openly if people were supported during their wobbles and if companies focused on individuals as much as their accounting software.
There’s still time for the revolution that our industry desperately needs, but first, we all have to breathe, take stock and heal. We have to learn to be kind to each other as we all take the next steps in the resuscitation of an industry that really could be world-class again.