“We’ve a responsibility to widen the net”

NSA_ 0071 Image provided by Creative & Cultural Skills © Briony Campbell

Originally written for The Stage.

In 2011, following years of debate around the growing culture of internships in the arts sector, Arts Council England issued a set of guidelines for employers taking on interns. This document outlined the Arts Council’s determination “to open employment opportunities in the arts to all” and made it clear that interns should be paid the national minimum wage. But has anything actually changed?

On the one hand, it would appear that little has shifted. Once again it is that time of year when those hoping to break into the arts look to the Edinburgh Fringe, which promises a cornucopia of opportunities but little by way of payment. While the Festival Fringe Society does pay its staff, as do a number of the commercial venues such as Underbelly and the Assembly Rooms, many more rely on voluntary or poorly paid labour. C Venues, for instance, hires staff on a “semi-voluntary” basis, offering accommodation and an unspecified “minimal freelance fee”, while even the Traverse Theatre has advertised for unpaid festival placements.

Of course, it is not just on the Fringe that interns receive a raw deal. Many theatres across the country operate unpaid internships the whole year round, often for understandable reasons. For some organisations it is the only economically viable model available to them if they want to stay open, and for interns it can provide opportunities that might not otherwise be available to them. Internships also remain something of a grey area, with the Arts Council’s guidelines admitting that “there is no formal, legal definition of an internship”.

There is, however, a new scheme that seeks to address some of these difficulties. The Creative Employment Programme, funded by a £15 million grant from the Arts Council and delivered by Creative & Cultural Skills, hopes to widen access to careers in the arts by supporting paid opportunities for unemployed people aged between 16 and 24. The programme is offering internships and apprenticeships for both graduates and non-graduates over the next two years.

“The aims are to address youth unemployment as best we can, encourage people into the arts through different and fair access routes, and hopefully to change some of the recruitment practices that are in our sector,” explains Paul Marijetic, head of apprenticeships at Creative & Cultural Skills. He recognises that those who currently enter the industry tend to come from a “small demographic”, so one of the key goals is to widen this pool of recruits.

Through this new initiative, organisations looking to establish paid internships or apprenticeships can apply to the Creative Employment Programme for part wage grants, either as individual institutions or as consortia. In keeping with the aim of widening access, successful employers must then sign up to a Fair Access Principle and advertise the positions through the Job Centre Plus.

“With this programme we wanted to meet people who we don’t normally meet when we recruit,” says Emma Rees of the London Theatre Consortium (LTC), one of the first networks to benefit from the scheme. This group of 13 theatres, including the Royal Court, the Lyric Hammersmith and the Donmar Warehouse, is offering 38 apprenticeships across the two years. “We didn’t advertise through the normal channels,” Rees continues. “We thought about how to find people.”

Another early bid to successfully receive funding was from House, a consortium of theatres across South East and Eastern England which will be offering 16 internships in 11 venues. Gavin Stride, director of Farnham Maltings and one of the key figures behind the consortium, stresses that “we have got a responsibility to try and widen the net in terms of the ways people engage in the sector”, adding that “sometimes you need to be ambitious to make things different”.

Marijetic is keen for others to follow the lead of LTC and House, making it clear that the Creative Employment Programme is welcoming consortium bids. By working together in this way, groups of theatres can offer much more valuable opportunities for interns and apprentices, as well as providing them with a broader overview of the industry. The LTC, for example, will offer apprentices a glimpse at the inner workings of all 13 theatres, leaving them with “a really strong grasp of the broader ecology of London theatre”, while Stride says that he can see interns moving between the different House venues depending on their skills and interests.

There is also the possibility that consortia could offer a sustainable model to take forward after this two-year programme concludes. As Marijetic explains, there is other funding available from government agencies to support these opportunities, but the money is often closed off to smaller organisations. He recognises that funding is going to be vital in sustaining these kinds of initiatives in the long term, describing the Creative Employment Programme as “the catalyst, the financial push to enable [organisations] to make that change”.

The organisations themselves seem equally committed to creating long term change. “We’re really, really keen for this scheme to develop into a viable alternative to university,” explains Rees, “not just reaching those people who might otherwise go to university, but reaching those people who most certainly wouldn’t.” Once again, however, money is the stumbling block. “The will is usually really strong, but this kind of work does need financial investment,” she admits.

If such opportunities are able to continue, there is even the suggestion that they could spark more widespread change. Stride argues that perhaps the most important thing about the Creative Employment Programme is that it will bring in “people who think differently” and who might be able to breathe fresh air into theatre organisations. “We need to be looking outwards, not inwards,” Stride insists. “We’ve got to take down the barricades, because actually they’re not defending us, they’re killing us.”

Photo: Briony Campbell for Creative & Cultural Skills.

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