Should the theatre industry take more responsibility for the pastoral needs of visiting freelancers?
I recently got back from my first theatre job since COVID struck and it was such a joy to be back in the room with amazing people rehearsing an important play, but something felt different this year. Somehow this year I became aware of, what I now consider, to be an industry wide problem. That is, a theatre industry wide problem.
Now, I used to love working away from home, especially on those jobs when you got booked Premier Inns, and driven around in a van, it used to feel like an adventure, like you’d been set free to wander the UK as a nomad, with nothing but a suitcase weighing you down. But something changed this time, or did it? Was it just me that had changed? Perhaps after a COVID year of staying at home and reflecting, I’m looking at work through a different lens, and realising there is a change needed.
I have come to believe that more care needs to be taken when it comes to the pastoral needs of the actors and crew working on theatre jobs miles away from home. This is the conclusion that I came to from this experience but the more I think about it, the more I realise that it has always been this way, that nothing has changed in all my years of touring, and at a time when the narrative is all about building back better, are we actually doing that for the freelancers?
Let’s go back to the beginning. You’re a freelance actor or crew member and you book a great job, working with fab people, in a well-known theatre. Exciting? Hell yes! The thoughts of how it will influence your career, how it will help you grow as a professional and how happy your agent will be, flood your mind. Do I want to live in a strange person’s house, in a strange town, miles from home for 10 weeks? Or can I bear living out of a suitcase in a new town every two days? Are not your first thoughts, but maybe they should be.
Because, maybe it’s time that we acknowledge that where you are living and under what circumstances plays a huge part in your well-being, mental health and surely therefore how well you are able to do your job, day to day. So why do I get the feeling that so long as you turn up on time, no one cares from where you’ve come or what awaits you when you get back to your digs. It feels very much that the theatre’s investment in you ends when you step out of the building.
This year, I proudly announced, “I’m going to get a nice little Airbnb flat to myself, I’m too old for digs!”. In order to feel better about my living arrangements, I decided I would happily top up my subs a little to afford my own space to feel calm, quiet and safe in. This was not to be, there was no way my subs and even a large top up from my wages was going to afford me the luxury of my own space. So back I went to the digs list with my tail between my legs, and scoured the listings. Now let me not get distracted by how mammoth the job is of enquiry and finally booking digs, and the logistical nightmare this is when you are touring to a new city every few days, this is a piece about well-being after all!
Perhaps because there were vulnerable people working on our show, or perhaps through experience, I became all too aware that the digs list is a gamble. When you are booking accommodation in a town you may never have even visited before, how do you know what areas are safe to walk through at night? The listings says it’s a 20min walk to the theatre, great, but how do you know that that walk is down a busy dual carriage way, or through a rough neighbourhood or lonely industrial estate? Google maps can tell you so much, but until you arrive, really the location is a mystery to you.
Then there’s the house itself, this is even more of a mystery, because no one is going to say in their own write up, my dog is vicious, my kitchen is filthy and the room is in the attic! I remember one year arriving with another female member of the cast at a digs, very late at night, after a show and get-out, to find a hammer house of horrors waiting for us complete with long spooky corridors and cobwebs! Tired and cold we were shown around a huge building adjoining the land lord’s house, full of small rooms, dirty carpets and sticky floors, and taken to our rooms at either end of said huge building. When there was a knock at my door 15 mins later I was still standing bolt upright in the middle of the room, bag in hand afraid of touching anything, afraid of venturing out, afraid for my safety. The cast member peeped round the door “shall we book a hotel”? The next day we called the theatre and advised them to take the hammer house of horrors of the list, but it begged the question, who is checking the digs list? Who is, dare I suggest it, doing a site visit? Who cares where their freelances are staying?
Then, there’s the landlady or landlord themselves, now the people I’ve stayed with have mostly been lovely, friendly folk, but may I just ask? Who is DBS checking these people? Or for that matter the other people who may be staying in the same house. Whilst I was in digs this time, there was a total or four other lodgers who came and went, three of whom were men, and on three occasions my land lady went away for the weekend leaving me alone in the house with a man I’d never met and as a deaf person, most of the time I wasn’t sure if they were in the house with me or not! I was not so rested when I arrived those Monday mornings I can tell you.
And of course, it doesn’t matter how lovely the other people in your digs are it will never take away from the fact for several weeks you are existing in someone else’s home, you can never quite relax, there is no switch off.
Of course, in this brave new world of touring in COVID times, there is the added concern of not catching COVID and losing your job or being responsible for passing it on to the rest of the cast. When we raised the question of what happens if someone else in your digs gets COVID at the obligatory sit in a circle Equity meeting, the visiting rep stared blankly, as if he couldn’t understand how such a thing would happen. Good job we asked because when this very thing happened 2 weeks later and a member of the cast had to find new digs with immediate effect, we were able to call to mind Equity’s solution.. oh wait there wasn’t one.
So again, who’s checking the digs list? Who’s asking where we are staying? Who knows our route home if anything happens to us? Who would know where to find us if we didn’t come in to work?
Before writing this, of course, I did extensive ish research asking how other industries would behave when asking their staff to work away from home. I have discovered, companies paying for hotels for their staff or paying for self-contained apartments or Airbnb flats, so far I have not heard of any other industry emailing out a list of unchecked, unverified people with spare rooms miles away from the place of work!
So how can theatres safeguard their visiting freelancers? I happen to know that in the city I was last in there were large blocks of serviced self-contained apartments rented out to visiting business people, of course when I checked there was no way I could afford it. But what if the theatre had rented some in bulk at a discounted rate, for us to stay in? What if theatres went out to foster these relationships with good quality housing in their local area? Of course doing this will cost the industry more money, but it does cost money to look after your staff, even if they are just visiting, and after a year of us all spending time in our homes, will it take more to get artists to leave those comforts behind?