Mind yourself, mind each other, change the world.

At the end of 2018, Theatre Forum carried out a survey on pay and working conditions in the performing arts. The results of the survey were accompanied by testimonials from artists who spoke candidly about their financial struggles. These were well-known theatre and dance artists, artists who make a new show every year, who have won awards for their work and toured internationally. They are so obviously successful in their chosen careers that it’s natural to assume that they would also be making a good living but despite appearances, their livelihoods still felt precarious. The results of the survey proved that this was more than just a feeling. According to the 144 artists and creative practitioners and 97 arts organisations who responded, average weekly earnings in the arts in 2018 were 30% lower that the average across all sectors (€494.98 compared to €740.32). As well as low wages, the precarious nature of the work means a lack of financial stability, as well as difficulty keeping up with PRSI contributions. There’s also the fact that most arts organisations do not make employer pension contributions or provide a top up to state maternity benefit.

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People don’t go into the arts for the money. Jobs in theatre in particular are not sought after for their earning potential. As a result, theatre artists tend to be resourceful and good at surviving on low wages. When they turn around and say that this is no longer sustainable, it’s a clear indication that we have reached a crisis point in the industry. Not only are wages falling while inflation rises, there is also a lack of opportunity for career advancement. The possibility of getting to a point where you can earn higher wages, or have the security of regular work is becoming more and more distant. Theatre and the arts are not the only careers where career progression is slow and sometimes seems impossible. The idea of spending your entire working life with one company is becoming more and more unlikely but now even permanent jobs are becoming harder to find. Temporary contracts are becoming the norm, as well as freelancers being hired for jobs that 5-10 years ago would have been full-time, in-house roles. A lot of jobs are precarious nowadays, and job insecurity, especially when it is combined with financially insecurity, can really mess with your head.

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work

How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation is a Buzzfeed essay that went viral last January. In it, Anne Helen Peterson writes about how people now in their twenties and thirties, entered the job market during in a recession which meant they were competing with a larger number of applicants for a reduced number of jobs. She talks about how these workers learnt to be the most efficient worker bees possible, optimising their leisure time so they could do more work and spending their free time “curating” their social media feeds to make themselves standout and be more attractive to future employers. But all that optimisation didn’t have the expected result. Peterson writes;

“Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. We internalize that we are not striving hard enough.”

The essay goes on to describe how this always on, always striving way of life almost inevitably leads to burnout.

Burnout can be described as emotional depletion caused by too much responsibility with too little authority. Burnout feels like the constant fluttery panic that you’ve forgotten something. Burnout makes you forget things. It disturbs your sleep because your brain can’t switch off. It keeps you hopping from task to task because your attention-span is shot to hell. It has you on the verge of tears when someone asked “how are you?”; because you don’t have the words to describe how you are but you know you’re not ok. Burnout is insidious. It creeps in slowly, like the lobster in the pot of water slowly being boiled alive. It’s hard to feel the water heating up because the idea of working all the time has been normalised. It’s worse than normal – it’s held up as the best possible way to get what you want and be successful. After all, everybody else is doing it and they seems fine so if you’re struggling, then you must be the problem.

This is the other thing that makes it really hard to spot burnout – you’re too busy blaming yourself. You’re not working hard enough; if you just get through this week, or this project, or this year, then you’ll catch your breath, get organised and it will all be fine again. Or maybe you need to try harder to have a good work/life balance, maybe you should try meditation or exercise or a self-care bubble bath. But these are just more things to fit into your day and none of it makes you feel better. You’re chasing something that’s impossible to catch, like the hamster on a wheel, running all the time and getting nowhere. It’s not even any fun anymore – the running, the projects, the work. That should be a red flag – when you stop enjoying things. If you’re not getting any joy or job satisfaction when you complete a project, when good news doesn’t feel like something to celebrate because it’s just another thing to stress about; then something has to change. The work isn’t going to get easier, you can’t work hard enough to fix it; you’re not broken, the situation is.

Anne Helen Peterson describes burnout as the base temperature for millennials, that it helps to recognise it but there’s not a whole lot we can do about it because it’s the way that the world is set up. She’s right – burnout can’t be fixed with self-care rituals or a life-hack. We have to change how the world is set up. We need to stop worrying about self-care and start dismantling the system.

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Most improvements to labors laws happened as a result of trade union activism. Things that seemed radical at the time like weekends and paid overtime and holiday pay (things that arts workers still don’t always get) happened because of pressure from workers and their unions. Artists often aren’t considered workers in the same way as bus drivers or teachers. They’re told that they are “lucky to do something they love” and are always in danger of having their work treated as a hobby. But artists are workers – they are doing a job and trying to make a living – and they should be entitled to the same rights and conditions as other workers. Art workers also struggle with the same things that cause hardship for other workers, things like the high cost of rent and child-care. As well as working to improving conditions within a workplace, unions also work to improve the conditions of the society we live in.

The only time I was a member of a union was when I worked for a trade union. It wasn’t compulsory but it was encouraged. There were union reps on staff and every now and then an email would go round asking if anyone wanted to join. Joining was easy – you just filled out a form and the subscriptions would be deducted from your salary. There were also semi-regular meetings which you got time off to attend. This meant the union felt active, even though we didn’t have any big disputes while I was there. This also meant I got to see the “business as usual” work of a union. Unions bring people together – nothing bonds people quicker than a common enemy – but at union meetings the bitching about the bosses that happens in quiet corners around the office, start happening around the table with everybody. It’s taken seriously and instead of just venting, you get to decide what action you want to take. There was often discussions around pensions and wages; unions are really helpful to bring money issues into the open. Concerns and complaints can be raised by “the staff” so no one person has to worry about repercussions or drawing attention to themselves. A company responds different to the union. That collective bargaining is pretty radical stuff.

EquityNCFA   TheatreForum

At Theatre Forum’s annual conference in June 2019, there was a panel called Valuing Artists that looked at a lot of these issues. One of the speakers was Ann Russell from Irish Equity. They are a trade union that represents actors, theatre directors, stage and set designers in Ireland and are part of SIPTU. She put the membership at 600 members which I felt was surprisingly low compared to the number of people working in theatre in Ireland but at the same time, Equity doesn’t have a very visible presence here. The workers that Equity represent are often freelance artists so they are not in a workplace where everyone’s a member of the union and joining is just the done things to do. It is harder for freelance artists to get involved in a union but it is worth doing. Equity has had some recent wins on behalf of its members; they got the welfare system for actors extended (often referred to as the artist’s dole) last year and they are also working on getting a three year tax assessments for artists. The strength of a union is in numbers. Equity membership costs less than €2 a week. (That figure is from an Equity spokesperson at another Theatre Forum event in December, I can’t find a breakdown of subscriptions on their website.) Being part of a union gives you somewhere to go with complaints and grievances, whether they are about unfair work practices or bullying and harassment.

Having a strong, collective voice is a vital part of improving working conditions in any sector but it can be hard to find that voice in an industry that’s made up predominately of freelancers. Trade unions and member organisations like Theatre Forum help their members make their voices heard because they speak louder because they speak together. Another organisation that shares this aim is the NCFA.

NCFA (National Campaign for the Arts) is a volunteer-led, grassroots movement that makes the case for the Arts in Ireland. It was formed in 2009, during the last recession and seeks to ensure that the arts are recognised as a vital part of contemporary Irish life. Often this means asking the government for more arts funding and suggesting better ways of distributing that money. In Budget 2020, the arts received just under €193 million. This is still a long way off the pre-recession, 2008 arts budget of €245 million. Of course there are many under-funded services across the state but the choice doesn’t have to be to fund a hospital or fund the arts. Trump’s visit last year cost the tax payer more than €10 million. The Papal visit in 2018 cost €18 million. These are two events only that took place over a couple of days. The Arts Council received €80 million in the most recent budget and that’s for the entire year.

Arts funding is not about giving artists money to make stuff, it’s about enabling artists to share their work with audiences and making the work accessible to as many people as possible. By funding the arts properly, a government not only demonstrates that it believes art is important, it also shows that it values its citizens and believes they deserve to have art in their lives. Supporting artists is important because art is a valuable, necessary part of life. We need stories and new ways of seeing things. Art is a way of keeping the darkness at bay. It can be a place of refuge when you are feeling burntout and empty. The value and importance of art is what the NCFA is trying to get across to the government. You can find out how to help on their website. You don’t have to work in the arts to support the NCFA, you just have to think that art is valuable. They are currently running a survey to find out what is most important to people when it comes to the arts. You can fill that out here and you can also sign up to help campaign in the upcoming General Election and make sure the arts is on the political agenda.

If you're up for helping out with the NCFA campaign in your local area, email us at info@ncfa.ie right now with your contact details and which constituency you live and vote in, and we'll get back to you very soon

Getting involved in organisations like NCFA is a good way to help bring about change but it can have more immediate benefits as well. On the same Valuing Artists panel at the Theatre Forum conference in Wexford, theatre director and NCFA steering committee member Eoghan Carrick said that getting involved with the NCFA was beneficial for his mental health because it meant he felt better informed about what was being done or not being done. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Generally, the more in control of your life you feel, the happier you are. Getting informed and involved helps you take some control. It’s the opposite of the feeling of too little authority that contributes to burnout.

The way the world of work is currently set up is not good for us. Work isn’t meant to feel like an endless slog that drains the joy from every other aspect of your life. Hoping that it will get easier or that you’ll get better at coping isn’t going to work. If you’re feeling burnt-out, recognise it, name it and try not to blame yourself. You’re not the one that’s broken. At the same time, try not to indulge in burnout behaviour or expect it from others. Take time away from work, don’t say yes to too many tasks, get a hobby. It can be an indulgence because being busy feels good, as Emilie Pine articulates beautifully in her article about the pleasure of overworking – When Burnout Becomes a Badge of Honour. This is another reason why it’s hard to make changes on your own and why we need to change the system that encourages and rewards this destructive behaviour. So mind yourself but also join a union, get involved politically and help create the world you want to live in.

"We close to return with more energy/Cerramos para volver con + energia"
A sign outside a restaurant in Spain. May we all take a break so we can return with more energy.

A Look Back at 2018

I’m a little late with this but I believe in celebrating the full Twelve Days of Christmas, and this is a Christmassy activity so I feel it’s ok to do it up until Jan 6th. (And yes, maybe I’m just making excuses. My next piece is about new year’s resolutions and I probably won’t get that one online until February. And then I’ll tell you that January doesn’t really count and all sensible people start their new year’s resolutions a month late.)

This is not a year in review post, or an attempt at a Best of. It’s a personal look back at the last year and the art, events and moments that I enjoyed.

Continue reading “A Look Back at 2018”

Gender Policies: An annoying necessity or fair and forward-thinking?

This month marks three years since the beginning of #WakingTheFeminists and the movement is still going strong. In July Irish ten theatre organisations, in collaboration with #WakingTheFeminists, launched their Gender Equality Policies. These organisations worked together to comply with individual policies that were tailored to the work they do. They have all committed to regular reviews and reporting of the results of these reviews.

Continue reading “Gender Policies: An annoying necessity or fair and forward-thinking?”

Tremble Tremble at Project Arts Centre

Since the beginning of June, Project Arts Centre’s Space Upstairs has been occupied by Jesse Jones: Tremble Tremble. This visual arts piece was Ireland’s entry into last year’s Venice Biennale. I wasn’t aware of the Venice Biennale before last year, but I became more and more intrigued by Tremble Tremble, the more I heard about it.

Continue reading “Tremble Tremble at Project Arts Centre”

THISISPOPBABY’s Where We Live, Mar 6-18

For the last couple of months THISISPOPBABY’s glorious Riot has been on tour in Australia and New York and seeing all the photos and tweets gave me major FOMO. I loved that show! I really want to see it again. (I would also have loved to sit with the audience in Sydney or Melbourne or New York and see how they reacted to this very Irish show.) I want it to be on every year, like how Riverdance is on for two months in the Gaiety every summer. If Riot did that I would go and see it every year and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

But until that dream becomes a reality, we have THISISPOPBABY’s Where We Live festival to get excited about. It’s a festival within a festival because it’s presented as part of the St. Patrick’s Festival. It starts next week, March 6th to the 18th in the Complex on Little Green Street, which is just off Capel Street.
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The programme includes theatre, film, music, visual arts and panel discussions. In my mind St. Patrick’s Day entertainment can be a bit backwards-looking and overly concerned with traditional Irishness, but the work on offer here is all very contemporary. It’s still Irish but it’s about what’s going on in the country now. There are also no old reliables here, it’s a lot of brand new work being shown for the first time. I’m very excited about the work on offer and I think it’s great to see Irish work like this as part of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland. Usually you see Irish artists going abroad to be part of Irish festivals or festivals of Irish work at this time of year, and it’s get some of that at home.

Unsurprisingly, I am most excited by the theatre on offer. I’ve already written about Tara Flynn’s show Not A Funny Word in my recommendations for this year. (It will also be on in the Everyman in Cork on the 26th April. Please see it if you get a chance, it’s a very funny, very moving show.)

Money is a show about the 2008 Irish bail-out. It is written and performed by actor and accountant Peter Daly. If anyone can make sense of that turbulent time in Irish history, it’s him. I am certainly hoping to leave with a better understanding of the whole financial crisis.

Veronica Dyas’s Here & Now is about becoming an accidental landlord when the financial crash put her into negative equity. It’s about the housing crisis and homelessness, and asks what we really need to live.

The Mouth Of A Shark, a new show from Change of Address, will present the real-life stories of asylum seekers and Irish emigrants. Change of Address brought the wonderful story-telling show Trophy to Barnardo Square during last year’s Fringe Festival which I enjoyed immensely.

There’s also a very new, work-in-progress showing of a spoken word piece by Clare Dunne. Sure Look It, Fuck It is about a returning emigrant. Clare was fantastic in Tribes at the Gate as part of last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival and is currently on stage at there in Look Back in Anger. I think she’s a fantastic performer and I’m looking forward to this.

As well as all that theatre, there’s the Townhall Sessions  series of talks about life in the city. There’s lots more details here, including videos from the speakers. These sessions are €6 each.

On St. Patrick’s night, there’s the WERKHouse party which will probably have a few Riot-like short performances. The next day, there’s a programme of films about people on the edges of society, including Adam & Paul which will be introduced by its Oscar Nominated director Lenny Abrahamson and writer and lead actor Mark O’Halloran.

An exhibition/installation, Made in Dublin will also take place in the Complex for the two weeks of the festivals. There’s also a performance from the High Hopes Choir.

Katie Roche and the new guys at the Abbey

Have you seen Katie Roche at the Abbey yet? It’s very good. I recommend it. It feels very modern. I don’t know if it’s the writing or the production; probably a bit of both. The character of Katie feels modern, she is opinionated and ambitious and fun. The play shows that modern, free woman trying to fit into the restrictive, hyper-patriarchal Ireland of the 1930s, a time that had very set ideas about how women should be. Katie Roche illustrates how harmful those ideas were, and how harmful it can be to be a round peg trying to fix into a square hole. It’s also a wonderful visual show, with a magnificent performance by Caoilfhionn Dunne.

Katie Roche was the sixth show I’ve seen in the Abbey so far this year and I’ve enjoyed them all immensely. I loved revisiting old favourites such as Dublin by Lamplight (which was so beautiful on that stage) and Ballyturk (where I enjoyed the addition of Olwen Fouéré), I loved getting a chance to see Druid’s magnificent production of Waiting for Godot after I missed it in Galway. I enjoyed Room which was a very different show for the Abbey, and I adored Jimmy’s Hall. I have more to say about Jimmy’s Hall but I will save it for another post!

I like what the new guys at the Abbey have done so far. I haven’t been organised enough to get to one of the free previews yet, but I think it’s a great idea. I also went to a couple of the Peacock work in progresses – A Whisper Anywhere Else by Jimmy Fay and Not A Funny Word by Tara Flynn. Plays that take a clear stand against the church, the police force, the state – things that feel a little subversive to be discussing in the Abbey Theatre. I love that Jimmy’s Hall opened in Leitrim and that Two Pints toured to pubs around the country. I think the new directors are doing what they set out to do by taking the Abbey out of Dublin and making it a nationwide National Theatre. There have also been day-long working sessions on gender and new writing and I’m interested to see what comes out of those.

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So get to Katie Roche if you can. It closes on Saturday so there are only three shows left and I know it’s hard to ignore all the Fringe goodies, but try and make some time to see this show too, if you get a change.