When I hear/read the current criticisms of zero hour contracts, in the arts and other industries (although almost unfalteringly customer-facing roles), there’s a temptation to go “phew - glad I’m out of that game”. I am currently lucky enough to have a full-time job and a fair annual salary, but I’ve seen zero hours contracts work from a few different perspectives now, and I think that they are unnecessary.
I’ve worked in the office of a commercial receiving house (a non-producing theatre) that had its large front-of-house team on zero hours contracts. I ran the weekly payroll. Most staff were students, but some had been doing the job for over 20 years.
I’ve worked front-of-house in a large, regional, subsidised, multi-purpose venue and been on a zero hours, minimum wage contract. We shouldn’t confuse the zero hours issue with the minimum wage issue, but the two go hand-in-hand so often. I never had enough work (much less, even, than was indicated when I asked that question at interview) and I am still recovering from the knock-on effect it had on my financial situation.
I’ve worked front-of-house in a large, regional, subsidised producing theatre that had all its customer-facing teams on annualised hours contracts. When we were taken on, we could choose if we wanted to go onto 12, 18 or 25 hour contracts, and I chose 18, as I was studying as well. The pay was low, but was above the minimum wage. In December I probably worked a 30 hour week, in the summer it was more like 6, with some weeks off completely. Every single month - without fail - I received my £535. (I hear all their ushers are now on zero hours *cry*)
It’s not all black and white of course. Some of my old colleagues, for example, used their shifts to subsidise earnings from a day job, or as a boost to their pensions, and didn’t want to be tied into a minimum time commitment. Ushers at the Young Vic protested when their long-standing (and convenient for many) zero hours contracts were threatened, although it seems like that venue’s internal communications was the thing to really let them down.
And the subsidised arts are struggling. Government grant in aid continues to drop. All arts organisations, venues or not, need to diversify their revenue streams and cut costs. Anyone looking at the theatre available outside Edinburgh this month will see that there’s very little need for a 50-strong front-of-house team right now.
But front-of-house teams are as much gatekeepers to your art as the critics are. Often, they want to work in your venues because they love - LOVE - what you do. Zero hours contracts may suit some people, but they offer no financial security, and reinforce the idea that customer-facing work is somehow less valuable to an organisation, one of the most hilarious fallacies I’ve ever come across. Front-of-house staff have the single largest impact on an audience member’s visit to your venue. They arguably wield more power over your business than any of your producing team. Just think about the fall-out when one goes rogue after a shitty day.
Zero hours contracts are cheap, but there are many ways to employ people cheaply. Venues have choices. Don’t let any Finance Manager, any board member, anyone in HR, tell you otherwise.
Why aren’t there more annualised hours contracts operating in arts venues? If your recruitment process is robust then you should be retaining your staff, making it worthwhile. Recruit in late August and the autumn season will mean your staff put hours ‘in the bank’ that they can redeem in a quiet January and August, and, importantly, if they want to leave in November you balance the books on their final payday, rather than realising you’ve paid for work they haven’t done.
Why aren’t small venues in a similar locale forming consortiums to give front-of-house staff more regular shifts? This would certainly work in London, when all it would take is the addition of a pop-up outdoor cinema screen and a weekend festival or two to provide summer shifts when the theatres go dark. Yes, it’s a bit like running an agency, but certainly one with big cost savings too. One person doing the rotas for 6 venues? The pound signs are actually spinning backwards under my eyelids.
Why aren’t producing venues offering training to their front-of-house teams? That way, when theatres go dark for the summer their ushers can relieve box office staff who are on holiday, or assist the maintenance team while they PAT-test, or repaint the toilets, or deep-clean the kitchen, or, y’know, anything that gives them a greater insight into the arts landscape and venue operations and - heaven forbid - a greater pride in their venue.
You should already be paying your zero hours staff holiday pay, and contributing to NI. An annualised hours system would help regulate your expenditure over the year. A consortium system would require a little management, but perhaps by a single position over a number of organisations, relieving several of FOH Managers to implement some of those sales initiatives that they’ve been wanting to try since 2010 but haven’t had the time for. Training your staff to do other things in quiet periods will help to save… ohmygod do I have to explain the benefit of that to you as well?
Can’t you see? Can’t you seeeeeeee?????
*bangs head against wall*
My first boyfriend was a skater. In Macclesfield, where we grew up, there wasn’t really anywhere for him and his mates to go. Nowhere to go and to be challenged and to get better at their sport and to up their game. There was a solitary half-pipe in West Park which a teenage boy quickly outgrew, some open space with a few nice kerbs and benches outside the Town Hall, until somebody with a lanyard came outside and moved you on. There was a skate park in Stockport which was amazing, but dangerously crowded outside of school hours. After we broke up, I heard that Kieran moved out to Barcelona for a while. A mate of his had found a squat, and for one long summer they all cruised around the city and skated in the sunshine.
Skating is a pasttime that keeps people fit, healthy, active. It encourages the quest for perfection, the days on end spent with the same square metre of concrete, doing the same trick again and again and again and again until you land it. One of Kieran’s friends became their designated camera man. I remember when he was saving hard for a fish-eye lens. When he finally bought it the bunch of them were so excited. (I teased them about how it wasn’t going to make their skating any better.) Last I heard, TJ was running street art and film-making workshops with other young people in and around our arse end of Cheshire.
London is my home now, and even before I moved here, the South Bank was a regular destination for me. I hadn’t seen Kieran for years, but thought of him every single time I walked past the Undercroft on the way to see a play, see some art. I thought to myself, “Man, if they’d have had somewhere like this in Macclesfield…”
If the current plans for the development of the Southbank Centre go ahead, the skaters in the Undercroft will be moved to underneath a nearby bridge. Granted, not a million miles away. Granted, a real, purpose-built area for skating, designed in collaboration with the skaters. But nicely tucked out of sight. Taking up a cheaper bit of land so that the Undercroft can pay its way, churning out 100 covers an hour in restaurant franchises. Moved into the wings, because the cultural value of a sport that emerged from the streets is significantly less important than Jude Kelly’s budget shortfall. They want to re-house the skaters from the Undercroft so they can protect the programming of Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery. Now, I believe in the art hosted by those venues. The Hayward might actually be my favourite gallery in the whole of London. But let’s not pretend that Jude Kelly isn’t just another person with a lanyard, coming out of her ivory tower to move people on. Let’s not pretend there isn’t a clear message being sent.
"Our culture is more important than yours."
Visit Long Live Southbank and sign the petition. I did it for Kieran, and for Macclesfield, and because Gourmet Burger Kitchen won’t save the arts.
Lots to say and no time to say it. Finished my dissertation yesterday, had my MA interview in Brighton today (got in), decided to dye my hair brown because the bleach is making it fall out.
At the same time, loads of brilliant critics and bloggers have been talking about what they do and how they’re going to do it better. Jake from AYT is going to consider his responses differently; Jake, Maddy Costa and Andrew from Postcards are working on ‘embedding’ themselves in long-runs and rehearsal processes; Dan Bye has offered to ‘embed’ somebody himself, and; Diana, Daniel and Natasha at Exeunt have written a manifesto, which is BRILLIANT. Jake’s doing one too. As have I, although mine was drafted on my phone and has been given little in-depth consideration. Still, since my manifesto could easily just read “consideration is for losers”, I doubt that really matters.
I’m going to duplicate this on some sort of fancy menu option up near the top somewhere, and will probably add to it over time. It is both a manifesto for criticism and a manifesto for this specific blog, so we’ll see how it develops.
There is no such thing as objectivity.
Sensory reaction is the most valid form of judgement.
Humour is the most valid form of criticism.
Acceptance of my subjectivity means that my critical judgements are always 100% correct. As are yours.
Synonyms For Churlish reflects the wonderful expansiveness of all my many fascinating and stimulating interests. It is undemocratic and infinitely inclusive.
Discourse will not be restricted by socially-contrived ideas about form, structure, or swearing.
Comments on blogs are the worst thing to ever happen to the internet and will not be tolerated.
Right-of-reply is granted without exception and (with permission) responses are published in full. Always.
Tickets given in exchange for words are not free and will not be accepted.
Financial remuneration in exchange for words compromises my right to a lack of opinion and will not be accepted.
to be continued…
A blog post by Andrew Haydon has been kicking around Twitter today. In reacting to Lyn Gardner’s recent review/preview/whatever of Forest Fringe’s residency at The Gate, he is covering several of the arguments in the critics vs bloggers debate. While I am making this something of a pet subject in my (nearly finished!) uni dissertation, it was something slightly different in Haydon’s post that caught my eye this time.
"The first thing I’m interested by is the way in which Gardner configures the Gate as somewhere:
'where, for all its many possible configurations, the relationship between audience and stage remains one of spectator and performer.'
As a basic point, I’ll take that. At least, as far as Monday night went, there was a certain authority-of-the-stage going on. That said, it’s a pity that Gardner didn’t stick around for the quiz, as she’d have seen just how flimsy that sense of “authority” can be and just how quickly a space can lose its spectator/performer dynamic.”
I’ve never been to Forest Fringe in its Edinburgh incarnation. I had a ticket for something there last year but then Alvin Sputnik came up. I remember Hannah saying that most of the shows she saw outside of the Forest were a bit disappointing, and really she should have just stayed there for her whole trip, which is high praise indeed for something that takes place in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe. High praise just coming from my friend Hannah.
I think that the main strength of Forest Fringe is that it is a friendly and nurturing environment for creative people to try out creative things. In providing space for that, it has attracted a community of said creatives who will sing its praises. When they’re not performing new work in front of a supportive audience, they can become that supportive audience. There is no door charge, so the cash-poor artists remain in their friendly, nurturing environment while the evil profit-mongering capitalists scurry across the rest of the city LIKE PLAGUE-RIDDEN RATS. Or like student theatre groups. Whichever.
(I can feel myself waffling on a bit already. My boiler’s just been fixed and throwing off my jumpers has created more than a bit of nervous energy. Will cut to the chase.)
I am entirely the wrong person to be making this point, since a) I have never been to Forest Fringe, b) I have got to know some people who make theatre on a shoestring and c) I like them, but no audience member wants to walk into a room (be it a deconsecrated church-cum-veggie cafe, or an auditorium where “the relationship between audience and stage remains one of spectator and performer”) to find themselves in the midst of a party where everyone knows everyone else except them. Of course the benefits of being able to share works-in-progress within a wide circle of similarly-minded artists vastly outweigh the discomfort of some poor friendless bastard who just wants a quiet night with a fourth wall, but if we want to attract adventurous audiences to adventurous work, we have to be aware that not everyone understands our in-jokes. Not everyone’s confident enough to take part in a quiz with people they’ve never met before.
I’m going to Forest Fringe at The Gate next Thursday. I’d put money on me knowing 3 or 4 people there, if only through Twitter. I don’t have a problem asking checkout assistants to get semi-undressed if I see an interesting tattoo poking out of a shirt collar, so a post-show quiz sounds like a fucking brilliant idea. But I’d be interested to know how many audience members attend the residency at The Gate with no connection to the community it plays host to, and how many of those felt like they (for want of a better expression) ‘fitted in’.
UPDATE 13/04/12: Andy Field has written a brilliant response to this, and calls me out on a load of stuff I’ve misunderstood/got completely wrong. I’ve published it here.
A few weeks ago my mate Hannah asked me if I’d like to be one of nine arts-types live-blogging ACE’s annual conference in Manchester next month. It’s all officially-sanctioned and everything. I’m even getting a night in a hotel and my train fare reimbursed.
I finally managed to stop laughing hysterically at all the possible worst-case scenarios in accepting such a responsibility at about 10 o’clock this morning, just in time for the launch of the live-blog mini-site thingy. It’s here: http://sotablog.artscouncil.org.uk/
If you want a real piss-your-pants belly laugh, click on “Who’s Who?” at the top and compare my biog to everyone else’s. WHAT CAN POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Frankly, if anyone in the arts world votes Tory this year, they might as well post themselves their own redundancy notice on the same day.Aleks Sierz.
If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.Yann Martel, author.