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.

ArtistPayPresentation

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.

BurntLightBulb

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.

Reduce the plastic mountain

The Theatre Forum-TheatreNI conference starts today in the beautiful Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The title of the conference is Intersections and there will be discussions on borders, gender equality and arts policy. There’s also a Fun Palaces workshop with Stella Duffy for community groups, after the conference ends on Thursday. I’m a big fan of Fun Palaces – I wrote about it here – and would love to see one in Dublin. You can find the full Conference Programme here.

There’s also a session on climate change, another topic close to my heart. In order to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk the organisers are working to reduce the waste produced by the conference. This means less conference materials, proper dishes used for the catering and instead of a conference bag and printed material, each delegate will get a reusable take-away glass Keep Cup. I love this idea. Waste reduction is so important, particularly plastic which does not decompose for thousands of years. The way we use plastic now – bags, take-away cups, straws, fruit in plastic trays – is learned behaviour, which means that we can unlearn it and start doing things differently. There has been a shift in attitude towards plastic waste this year with things like the Shop & Drop event in April when shoppers were encouraged to leave all their waste behind at the supermarket and the recent EU’s proposal to ban single-use plastic.

It’s not going to be easy – once you start looking, you realise plastic is everywhere – but it’s not impossible. Here are some of the things I’ve been doing to use less plastic this year.

1. I don’t have a Keep Cup because I don’t drink much takeaway coffee, but I do have a fancy glass water bottle. It’s a bit heavier than plastic but I don’t have to worry that chemicals are leaching out of the plastic and into my water! Emboldened by the Refill Project, I’ve often asked staff in bars and restaurants to refill it for me and they’ve always obliged. (These weren’t places on the Refill map, the project just made me feel more comfortable about asking for free water.)

The only place I don’t take it is the airport because I don’t think they’d let me bring glass on the plane. However I have learnt that you are allowed bring empty bottle through security and fill them up at the water fountains on the other side.

2. I switched from hand-wash to solid soap. It instantly cuts down on the amount of plastic coming into the house and ending up in the sea. Bí Urban on Manor Street in Stonybatter do a nice soap which they make using oils discarded in local food production, which is just a little bit Fight Club. It’s a real feel good soap because it’s zero waste and it’s locally made.

3. I started using a bamboo toothbrush. This will make you feel like a bit of a hippy but it’s also a very easy way to reduce plastic and you stop noticing the difference after a few days. (It does feel a bit weird at first!) I got mine in Bí Urban but they are available online as well.

4. I’ve been using more Lush products in their reuseable plastic pots. Some people are very anti-Lush. The strong smell, the bright colours and the overly enthusiastic staff are all too much for them. I have never bought a bath-bomb in my life but I love Lush for their reusable pots. For that it’s worth letting them bombard my senses for a few minutes. They take the pots back off you and reuse them again and again. If you bring back five, you can swap them for a free face mask.

5. I originally started buying stuff from Lush because you can take their solid face-wash and shampoo bars in your hand-luggage when you fly. They also have zero packaging. I love their Angels on Bare Skin face wash and I’ve used Godiva shampoo as well; the jasmine smell is really lovely. I also restarted started using a solid deodorant, I’m not sure how effective it is but it does involve zero plastic!

6. Away from the personal hygiene plastics, there’s the food plastic. I think supermarkets are slowly coming around to the idea that everything doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic and you can get loose fruit and veg in most shops now. Just because they little plastic bags there, doesn’t mean you have to use them. You can just put six oranges and four apples and a couple of potatoes into your basket! There are also some places like Small Changes in Drumcondra and the Dublin Co-op in The Liberties that are cutting out the plastic used for things like raisins and lentils and pasta. They ask you to bring your own containers and just fill ’em up.

7. Most of these alternatives do cost a bit more than the plastic-wrapped version. I think costs will come down as it becomes more common to ditch plastic, but if you don’t have the extra cash there are still ways to cut down on your plastic just by being generally more aware of what you’re buy. Bring a bag with you, avoid straws and plastic cutlery if you can, avoid things with an excess of plastic like ready meals or salads in giant plastic bowls.

Christmas Theatre Events

There are a few Christmassy theatre things happening next week that could be described as “networking events”. For better or worse, you get a lot of the work in theatre through who you know so networking is fairly important for a career in theatre. This is not necessarily in a cronyism kind of way, but simply because nobody can hire you if they don’t know you exist or they don’t know what you do.

I am not one of life’s natural networkers and that’s ok – it’s not something I aspire to. In my mind, a good networker is a smooth-talking American business man, bullshitting everyone about how amazing he is and handing out business cards to anyone who looks in his general direction. I’m Irish and I’m a woman – two things that conspire to make me unlikely and unwilling to talk about how great I am. The idea of it makes me cringe.

networking

Through Cultural Freelancers, I found out that I’m not the only who feels like this. I lot of people want to run and hide at the idea of networking. I also discovered that networking doesn’t have to be an ordeal and doesn’t have to involve talking shite about how great you are. It can be about talking to people honestly about what you do and about what they do. I’ve found a new way of thinking about it – instead of “networking”, my aim is to make connections.

Where networking is all about selling yourself, connecting with people is more of a two-way street. Making connections is about finding people you have something in common with, people you get on with and who are interesting to you. It’s just having conversations. You don’t have to talk yourself up but don’t talk yourself down either. Another tip from Cultural Freelancers is to practice your elevator pitch – describing your work in two or three sentences. No bullshit, just who you are and what you do, said in a positive way with no apologising for your own success or down-playing your achievements.

Thinking about it like this makes networking less horrendous. It might help you get work in the future but that’s not it’s sole function. It’s just the social side of business. If we all worked in offices it would be the conversations at break or while you’re waiting for the lift, but because theatre is full of freelancers, we have to go to events to have those chats.

Here are some events to connect at!

TODAY: December 12th – Fringe Elevenses in Fringe Lab at 11am
A general gathering with cake. I’ve been to a few of these and they are well attended, chatty, informal mornings with treats. It lasts about an hour and you can drop in at anytime.

December 15th – Cultural Freelancers – Festive Get Together in Irish Theatre Institute at 11am
This is not a usual CFI meeting with provocations and themes, just food, drink and chats. It’s a nice one to attend as an introduction to Cultural Freelancers or if you just want to talk theatre on Monday morning.

December 15th – Fringe Fuse and Christmas drinks at Fringe Lab, Fringe Fuse starts at 7.30pm and the drinks happen after at 9.30pm
This is a scratch night as well as an opportunity to make connections. It’s also a nice one for those of us who don’t have an office Christmas party to attend. This is the freelancers Christmas party!

December 18th – Theatre Forum’s Tell a Good Story Event at Project Arts Centre, 4pm
I missed last year’s Tell A Good Story so I’m really looking forward to this on Thursday. It’s a really nice way to spend an afternoon because it celebrates the successes in theatre throughout the year, with a wide definition of success. It’s a different crowd as well, usually it’s more companies and less freelancers at Theatre Forum events.

You do have to be a Theatre Forum member to attend but it’s only €25 for a year’s membership as an individual and if you join now, you will be paid up until the end of 2015.

It’s well worth the money. Apart from the annual conference, the other big event is the funding meeting at the beginning of the year which is a great insight into where the Arts Council money is going – it’s a big chunk of information presented in a meaningful way. They also run sessions on tax and being self-employed and it’s another good way to connect with the theatre community.

Mark Ravenhill in conversation

I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the Royal Irish Academy when Mark Ravenhill came to speak in Dublin last month. The event was organised by Dublin Theatre Festival and Theatre Forum and the interview is now available on YouTube. Ravenhill was very open about his own career and the challenges facing artists today. He also gave some great tips on playwriting.

He recently wrote a libretto for the Norwegian National Opera (and admits that he had to ask the stupid question and make sure he wasn’t expected to write it in Norwegian) and says that in opera, the writing has to be pared back – “every single vowel sound has to earn its right to be there”. Looking back on his own plays afterwards, he felt they were over-written because he’d got into the habit of interrogating every word in the text.

He also talks about working with the RSC on a version of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo. The very start of the play deals with the tension between the art of science and doing work to pay the rent. This is a topic that has interested and agitated Ravenhill in the past, as seen in his speech at the opening of last year’s Edinburgh Festival. He talks about how the arts are valued economically, and the different ways that artists have to justify themselves to governments and other funding bodies. He recognises that the cost of being a human being has gone up year after year, making it more difficult to take time to make work that you might not get paid for.

Talking about his own career, he says that he is best known as a playwright because it is what people pay him to do. At the beginning of his career he wrote things because he wanted something to perform or direct himself. He says he would like to do more directing, but does feel that he’s very good at it, mostly because he hasn’t done it enough. Directing is something that you have to be allowed to do, you need resources to get good at it. Writing, on the other hand, you can do on your own at the kitchen table.

His advice to playwrights included the idea of writing the first draft very quickly, as if you were improvising on the page. He also said to write about things that you don’t have the answer to. He says that Brecht gives his characters great ethical choices. He criticises post-modernism because it does away with ethics, and a sense of good or bad, right or wrong. We have an ethical responsibility to attempt to make connections. It’s too bleak to say nothing is connected and everything is random.

Dr. Emilie Pine is a great interviewer and there’s some good questions from the audience at the end. Definitely worth a watch if you have an hour to fill over the long weekend!

Theatrical New Year’s Resolutions

  1. See more dance
  2. I’m not sure if I saw any dance theatre this year but I heard wonderful things about junk ensemble’s Dusk Ahead and Cois Ceim’s Missing and I was sorry I’d missed them. This year I will make an effort to see more dance shows. I’ve chosen a good time to do it too as Dublin Dances into Spring is starting at the end of this month. This is a collaboration between Irish Modern Dance Theatre, Liz Roche Company and CoisCéim Dance Theatre and involves lots of performances happening in venues around Dublin between January 25th and March 22nd.

  3. See theatre in new places
  4. I would love this to include festivals and venues outside Dublin, such as the Limerick City of Culture performances and the Happy Days festival in Enniskillen but I’d settle for visiting a few new Dublin venues too. I only seem to go to The New Theatre during festivals so I like see more productions there and also at Theatre Upstairs. I’m also hoping to get down to The Lir to see a few of their student productions.

  5. Go to more than just performances.
  6. Working with Theatre Forum, I attended members meetings and Open Space events and really enjoyed seeing the performing arts community coming together to share information and talk about difficulties in the sector. Community is important and useful. Even knowing other people are having the same problems are you can help sometimes. I always learnt something new at these events and came away with a new perspective on some part of the arts world. And as the commemorative year of the Lock-Out ends, it’s worth remembering that there is strength in numbers and we need to stick together!

    This year I also enjoyed the Gate’s World Actors Forum, IETM and coffee mornings in the Fringe offices. They were all good for meeting theatre types informally and see that they’re not so scary after all. The theatre world has a reputation for being a bit clique-y and but generally most people are very friendly and willing to chat. Seriously, I am terrible at networking but even I managed to make a few new friends at events this year.

    On a more intimate scale, I started attending the Cultural Freelancers Meetings at the end of September and found them really useful and invigorating. They are designed to give freelancers a chance to talk about their work and the problems they’re facing with a small group of like-minded individuals.

    All of these meetings helped keep me motivated about working in the arts this year. Often they were also great social events! I intend to go to lots more meetings and gatherings of like-minded souls in 2014.

Irish Theatre Awards

On Jaunary 12, the Irish Times announced the short-list for the Irish Theatre Awards. You can see the full list here (scroll down about half the page for the nominees, though the article is also worth reading).

A couple of days later, Caomhan Keane on entertainment.ie wrote his reaction to the nominees, particularly talking about the people who were missing from the list.

And on the Theatre Forum website you can cast your vote and pick the nominations that you think the Irish Times judges should have included.