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Theatre 2021: back soon, back better

By September 28, 2020October 14th, 2021Read
The Stage

READ I see an opportunity to restructure work in the theatre, building in flexible working to retain parents and carers whose voices will otherwise be lost to the industry.

As theatres remain closed with little prospect of returning to business as usual, The Stage asked changemakers across the industry how the sector can remake its future.  Sarah Jackson is Chair of PiPA (Parents and Carers in Performing Arts).

One of the many parents and carers who shared their anguish with Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (PIPA) said: “We realise how alone we are when something goes wrong; the arts were fine when we were only putting our own security at risk but when it affects our children it feels selfish.”

From the manageable uncertainty accepted in the industry to the terrible realisation there is too much risk to their family: two-thirds of those who spoke to us for our submission to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 in June said they were not confident they could stay in the profession.

The collateral damage of this crisis must not be a whole generation of those with children or other care responsibilities. Caring is a frequently unacknowledged diversity issue, disproportionately affecting women, single parents, people with disabilities, working-class people or anybody without the social capital to hang on and ride it out when times are harder.

Performing arts companies must use this time to take stock, think and reset to become more inclusive as an employer of parents and carers, especially freelancers.

Almost 40 years ago I started out in theatre administration, before becoming the campaigner I am today. For the past 25 years my focus has been on family-friendly and flexible working. I have helped organisations in every kind of business sector to support and retain parents and carers.

I hope one day to become a theatrical grandmother – my daughter and her partner are both actors. And I see much good practice to encourage my hope. PIPA partners such as Stellar Quines, Theatr Clwyd and Hull Truck already show what’s possible.

It’s time to change how things have always been done. Be creative with flexible working, not just for office-based teams – this can and should include backstage staff and creatives. Think not just about how to bring people back, but how to bring back those who do not find it so easy to fit in.

Companies will be making cuts, so it’s important also to look after those who remain. We’ve embraced flexible working during the crisis without any real understanding of how to do it. Now we have the chance to transform this experience into a sustainable way of working, one that will enable the industry and those within it not just to weather the present storm but to come back with genuine equality of opportunity at the heart of what we do.

Recognising the demands of people’s lives outside work, developing respectful adult relationships, offering greater control over how people use their time: all contribute to increased engagement and performance. Smaller teams will soon be facing the challenge of doing more with less. So respect and inclusivity will never have been more important.

Out of this crisis comes an opportunity to restructure the way we work, treat our workforce and support freelancers. We need to act now and send out a clear message, otherwise many voices won’t be in the room when we call on them in months to come.

First published in The Stage on 28th September 2020