Low Pay, No Way

Low Pay, No Way

Luke John Emmett

I was scanning through adverts for jobs in the theatre and I came across a post for Front of House staff at a big regional theatre in the UK. Out of curiosity, I clicked on it. It took me through to a listing on the theatre’s website. The job was paid at minimum wage (£7.50 in the UK) and was on a zero hours contract. No guarantee of shifts but the possibility of two per week. I was quite shocked by this and took to Facebook to vent which led to a massive debate about pay in the industry, what level the jobs were within the organisation, the responsibilities etc and it started to get quite heated. So I thought I would write a quick blog post to share some of the views expressed and my thoughts on the whole situation.

Firstly, I do not agree with zero hour contracts. I think they are a way for businesses to exploit those who work for them. However, there is an argument to say that the flexibility offered by being on a zero hours contract works well for actors who wish to go for auditions and book time off to do so. This argument works to a certain degree but let us look at the reality. Most auditions happen during the day so chances are the staff would not be working then anyway as theatre shows tend to be evenings with perhaps three matinees a week on the bigger productions. So you could argue that there is plenty of time for actors to audition around Front of House jobs – it depends when the auditions are I guess. However, because these jobs are on minimum wage for anybody to survive they would have to subsidise these wages by having a second job during the day. Especially somewhere like London where the price of living is generally higher than the rest of the country (although other areas are quickly catching up now). So you end up in a bit of a stalemate situation (unless of course your other job also happens to be a “flexible”, zero-hours contract as well.

I did a search for other Front of House jobs and I am sorry to say that generally they are all at minimum wage give or take a few pounds here and there. I think that theatres are doing a massive disservice to Front of House staff by treating them in this way. In my mind they are frontline staff. They are the first people the audience meet when they arrive at the theatre. They are responsible for ensuring the theatre is tidy and the bars well stocked. They are the first point of contact in an emergency and often responsible for thousands of lives during evacuations of buildings. More often than not they are responsible for administering first aid should the need arise. There have been many times when Front of House staff have been first responders to people having heart attacks or perhaps ladies even going into labour. With the heightened security after the recent Manchester attacks a lot of theatres are now reliant on Front of House staff to carry out bag searches on audience members and I am sorry to say that a lot of them do not seem to be receiving the support or training to do this.

Generally, extra members of staff are not recruited so it is an extra thing that is expected of them for the same amount of money. And we all know how difficult audience members can be – if something goes wrong FOH also bear the brunt of the general public’s grievances. They have a massive amount of responsibility and they deserve full respect and to be paid in recognition of all that they do and all they are responsible for. Front of House staff I salute you!

One friend who loves to play devil’s advocate and stir up debate commented that: “It honestly wouldn't make a difference to my experience. I couldn't care less if I'm greeted rudely or not, I'm there to see a performance on stage and I go to shows based on the play that's on, not on how the theatre staff greet me upon my arrival.”

And to a certain degree I understand his point but to my mind having good Front of House staff can make or break a theatre or production. If you do not have welcoming, friendly staff who are passionate and good at their jobs it impacts your experience of the evening and whether or not you will want to return to that particular venue again or not. I have spent the last thirteen years working in numerous roles but primarily backstage. For me, the biggest compliment I can get is that people do not know I’m there. That means that I’m doing my job properly. If the Front of House team are good then they are there but perhaps not given enough credit for how smoothly they make things run. But they are a massively important cog in the theatre machine. One friend was at the performance at the Old Vic theatre when they had the bomb scare and she commented: “The Front of House staff were the ones to keep us calm and up-to-date with what was going on. They were absolutely brilliant and stopped a very scary situation from turning into chaos.” When you need them they are there and they are bloody brilliant – when you don’t they are still there but perhaps you don’t notice them as much as you should.

The argument continued and started focusing on the skills needed to work Front of House. Several points were raised about how “anyone could do the job without any training”. Again, not true and certainly not what I’ve seen or witnessed personally. I think perhaps we are lucky that so many actors do take jobs up Front of House. They have a natural ability to perform and act a role. They can be pleasant to even the most difficult of customer and are used to being under pressure. But I also know people who genuinely do want to have careers working Front of House. They enjoy the work and that is the side of theatre they wish to be employed in. So why shouldn’t they be able to make a career out of it? Of course there are some perks – complimentary tickets to shows, chance to meet some of the stars etc and that is welcome but it doesn’t put food on the table.

In theatre, as in society, there is a massive wealth gap between the highest earners in the organisation and the “service” staff. Most directors of UK theatre are on £100k plus. And I’m not for one moment saying that FOH staff should get that much but they should be respected and paid fairly for the roles that they perform.

Working backstage we are lucky to get good rates of pay for show get-outs which help subsidise the show rate (which is 20 something pounds a show). Most theatres work in blocks of four hours minimum. Whilst working at a large regional touring house that premiered productions prior to taking them into town we also got the BECTU/TMA rate for get-ins as well. There also used to be what they called the long-show-bonus. Essentially if you worked the full run of a show that was in over several months you got an extra bonus on top of that. Those types of incentives have unfortunately been reduced or taken away in recent years. Front of House staff are not as lucky as those backstage and they should be.

If a show has low ticket sales then shifts can be cancelled, and the staff go unpaid – it creates much instability for those working in these conditions and it’s not acceptable. Essentially what it boils down to in my mind is that large-scale organisations should not undervalue their staff. As an industry we need to stop accepting this low pay culture and stop being exploited for doing what we love.

A friend who is a writer recently Tweeted “Actors. Writers. Five words of power we should never be afraid to use… Is this a paid opportunity?” He is absolutely right. We need to stand up to organisations exploiting those of us who love working in the arts. We need to back unions such as Equity who are fighting the low pay culture and we need to not be afraid to question why theatres that are successful are not sharing that success with other workers within their organisations. If they are not successful then they need to look at new ways of working to adapt to the ever-changing environment. To sit back and do nothing or do things “the way they’ve always done them”, is simply just poor management and an inability to deal with change.

There needs to be a massive shift in the culture and ultimately in how much we respect ourselves and our abilities. And if the larger organisations cannot afford to pay their workers fairly and properly then they need to start looking closer at how they are being run and the business models they are using. Exploiting love and passion is not okay. They are admirable qualities but at the end of the day love and passion will not pay your bills and will not put food up on your table. Respect your staff and they will respect you. But most importantly have respect for yourselves. You deserve better.

Next time you visit a venue please say thank you to the Front of House staff – they are brilliant and we simply could not survive without them.

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This is an article based on UK experiences – I would love to hear what the situation is like in other countries as well. Please do share your experiences and thoughts.

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