“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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Touring theatre: a risky business for audiences too?

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Originally written for the Guardian Culture Professionals Network.

Risk is a word that regularly gets aired in arguments about the arts. We talk a lot about risky work, about venues and companies taking risks, about the current economic environment making many organisations risk averse – but it’s rare that this vocabulary is used in discussions aboutaudiences. At a time of punishing austerity and squeezed budgets, what do theatremakers ask audiences to risk when persuading them to buy tickets to their shows?

This question is particularly pertinent for touring companies, many of whom are struggling to reach and engage with audiences through the current touring model. As lots of these theatremakers recognise, touring is challenging, not least because of the limited time spent in each of the areas they visit. Without the time and resources to build a deeper engagement with local audiences, touring companies demand even more risk on the part of the audience than their building-based counterparts.

However, as a number of new initiatives funded by Arts Council England’s strategic touring programme are exploring, there might be ways for these companies to reduce the risk involved for their audiences without having to become artistically conservative.

One method is that of the tried and tested. “The things that are doing well anecdotally are things which have known writers and known faces,” explains Caroline Dyott, associate producer at English Touring Theatre (ETT), who also notes that audiences are “booking later so that they can take less of a risk on something”.

Picking up on this trend, what ETT hopes to do through its National Touring Group is to offer audiences large-scale, ambitious work that has already been successful elsewhere. Instead of offering famous names, it is saying to audiences: “Look at all these quotes and star reviews; this is taking away this element of risk for you.”

There is also room for improvement in the ways in which theatremakers connect and communicate with their audiences. This can be as simple as ensuring that the work is being taken to the right people. Ed Collier, a producer at China Plate, says that “touring and making for us are always completely intertwined … right from the start of the making process we’re already thinking about the audience and how we’ll reach them, through whatever dissemination or touring model that might be.”

As well as targeting appropriate audiences, another way of breaking down the sense of risk is to adjust the way in which work is discussed and marketed. “There are some pretty simple things we can do, like looking at the language we use,” suggests Gavin Stride, director ofFarnham Maltings and a key figure behind touring consortium House. “What [companies] might think makes their show sound esoteric and clever in their world isn’t necessarily the same language that needs to be used to get a show to an audience.”

Reducing perceived risk for audiences can be as simple as building familiarity through return visits. “Most of the venues that we talked to said that returning companies do better,” notes Hanna Streeter, an assistant producer with touring company Paines Plough. “It’s about building that relationship up with the audience and returning, which is what we’re trying to do.”

Taking this one step further, Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is reaching out to form deeper connections with each of the areas it visits. The idea is to establish a relationship with the producers, allowing audiences to take risks on new work because they trust that Fuel will give them a good night at the theatre.

As co-director Louise Blackwell explains: “When we return to each of these places, we hope that people there will have made a connection and will maybe have been to see one of the shows and say, ‘that’s by Fuel, I don’t know this new artist that they’re bringing, but I’m going to go because it’s a Fuel produced event’.”

The approaches differ, but it is all about building a sustainable audience base for future work. “It’s got to be about audiences,” says Collier, “so it’s got to be about finding ways of making theatre more popular.” Streeter stresses that Paines Plough’s work is essentially about “trying to develop audiences’ taste for new work”, while Dyott agrees that ETT’s key aim is to create an audience that will outlive the length of this project.

As Fuel is keen to emphasise, the fruits of this labour could offer benefits for the whole theatre ecology. Speaking about the company’s aim to grow a wide community of audiences who trust and return to the Fuel brand, Blackwell adds: “We hope that by having a deeper engagement with the people that live in these places that will be possible, not only for what we produce, but for the wider theatre landscape.”