Last Thursday, I was having a wig fitting for the role of the Queen in Cinderella, ready to begin rehearsing next month. The part, which I signed up for six weeks ago, promised a year-long contract – and with it, a rare level of stability.
Three days later, I received a text from a friend offering her sympathy that the production was closing, and saying she was sure I would get another role soon. I had no idea what she was talking about, so she sent me a link to an online article. I felt my stomach drop.
My agent didn’t know anything about it either, until he checked his email and saw he’d received a message less than half an hour before – just after 6pm on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend – to say the show was closing and I no longer had a contract. My initial reaction was one of shock and disbelief, made worse than by telling us in this way, the people in charge – headed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Really Useful Group (RUG) production company – seemed to be showing a complete lack of humanity towards their workers.
The theater industry has suffered immensely in the last couple of years. For many of us, this has meant disappearing incomes and a struggle to make ends meet in an industry that is known for its precariousness at the best of times. Actors may be the most visible side, but the pandemic has affected everyone from lighting and sound technicians to stage managers, costume designers and front-of-house staff. Even though our industry raises £1.3bn a year in ticket sales alone, and is a significant contributor to the UK economy – as well as providing the incalculable joy and important conversations that a good show can inspire – theater salaries are not high, and 70 % of the workforce are self-employed contractors with little security. For every star earning thousands a week, there are hundreds of ensemble cast members, craftspeople and technicians earning a fraction of that. If a year-long contract suddenly disappears, it can have a huge effect. This role had meant my bills would be paid for a year. It felt like having the rug pulled out from under me (no pun intended).
Theater is a vocational profession, which can mean many of us simply feel grateful to even earn a living, and everyone is, to a certain degree, made to feel disposable. Like any industry with a big power imbalance, it is the workers who suffer – all too often we accept low wages and poor conditions because it has always been this way – and I would like to see more theater workers joining their unions. Theater cannot be an industry where only the wealthy can work. I’d also like those with the power to treat the workers who create the product that they’re selling with humanity.
Many creative professions are precarious, and I’m not naive about the nature of our industry. Cinderella was an established musical with good reviews, and so I did feel – mistakenly – a sense of security that comes with that and, in Lloyd Webber, the backing of such a big name in the industry. But you also know when you sign up for most new productions that there’s a possibility they could close within the month. What was particularly painful about Cinderella was how the news was delivered. It’s not acceptable to email agents on a Sunday evening, surely knowing most wouldn’t see it, then announce the news to the world very shortly afterwards. I would like everyone who is affected to receive an apology for the way it was handled, and a guarantee that it won’t happen again. Nobody should find out they’re losing their job this way.
I spent a day in tears, and then I decided I needed to speak out. It does feel frightening, because there is a fear instilled in many theater workers that if they do speak up, word will get around the small pool of people in power, and they’ll be blacklisted. So many people are just grateful that they are surviving in an industry that can be so brutal, they’re reluctant to openly criticize it.
I don’t know what’s next for me in terms of work. I feel that, by speaking out, I am putting myself in a precarious situation within the theater community, but I hope that’s not the case. Theater is full of passionate, hardworking people. It’s a job we feel privileged to do, but that doesn’t mean we’re dispensable. I live in hope that by highlighting unjust and inhumane employment practices, no matter what industry we’re in, it can improve life for all of us.