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A Federal Theatre Project for the 21st Century

In the 1930s, the New Deal effort to pull the United States out of depression included a Federal Theater Project. As Covid-19 destroys the jobs of low-income arts workers, we need the same ambition.

“The theatre must grow up!” These were the words of Hallie Flannagan, the director of the New Deal-era Federal Theatre Project, a sweeping job creation programme for theatre workers in the aftermath of the Great Depression. This was a rallying cry to theatre makers, to “be the yeast which makes the bread rise” rather than the “frosting on the cake.” The call to action bears repeating today. Earnest open letters from well-salaried artistic directors and established fine artists are rightly sounding the alarm about the uncertain future of the cultural sector after Covid-19; but missing from these treatises are the voices of the army of low-waged workers who hoovered carpets, scrubbed toilets, tore tickets and pulled pints while the doors were open. 

It’s almost as if art venues ran themselves. One employer I worked for wondered out loud if the venue could be run without any ushers or box office staff. The venue was whittled down to a skeleton staff with one manager doubling up as a projectionist, usher and pop-corn vendor. He hurtled, Buster Keaton-like, from one machine  to the other. We need art, but that doesn’t detract that from the fact that the people who sustain it need livelihoods. I have worked a string of casual roles in arts venues throughout my adult life. I have seen the  cognitive dissonance that allows publicly funded theatres to project a ‘woke’ image while relying on an exploited casualised workforce to keep the shows running. 

One of my employers is the National Theatre. They boast an increasingly diverse programme and eschew plastic cups. Their progressive politics and right-on gestures however were always wildly at odds with their practice of relying on zero-hour contracts. The artistic director, Rufus Norris, a man who described the building as a ‘community centre,’ takes home a salary of around £200,000 a year. My colleagues and I understood the implications of employing a workforce without basic protections before the crisis hit. I knew it when I saw a colleague doubled over in pain on a shift, chronically ill bu having forced herself into work, afraid to lose pay; and when another co-worker admitted he was sleeping on public transport, when another described having a panic attack in a supermarket when he realised he couldn’t afford to eat. 

Covid-19 has exposed a rigid tw0-tier system in arts venue workers – it has made stark the divide between those with protections and those without. The National lockdown was sudden. Communication from management was shambolic, bewildered staff members had to read about the theatre closing its doors on twitter. Chaotic communication about miscalculated furlough payments have left staff  members further disillusioned. Much of the blame lies with government incompetence, but it also reflects the order of our employers’ priorities. Casuals don’t feature high on their list. 

The National’s rigid divide between front of house and creatives was further exemplified by the decision to pay a ‘nominal fee’ to ‘all artists and creatives’ involved in the productions currently being streamed online. While it is important to recognise that many creatives have little to no support through this crisis, recipients of this payment include Gillian Anderson, Tom Hiddleston and James Corden. Meanwhile, waiters at the theatre are existing off furlough payments of 80 per cent of the National Minimum wage, as they cannot claim service charge. 

On May 21st, preempting the gradual dismantlement of the furlough scheme, the National announced it would be making 20-30% of its workforce redundant. While Norris and executive director Lisa Burger have taken a voluntary pay cut of 25 per cent (still leaving him with around £150,000 a year), logic dictated casuals were going to bear the brunt of these redundancies. On May 28th, via a live streamed briefing, casuals were informed they would not be supported by the theatre beyond July 30th. BECTU is asking to see the financial justification for the redundancies and is demanding that more options are explored to avoid them. In the same briefing, management alluded to a need to ‘restructure’ the theatre – a cursory look at the wave of privatisation and casualisation sweeping the cultural sector indicates these changes are not going to benefit their lowest paid workers.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In order for our art institutions to survive we will need to abandon the pre-pandemic logic that treated huge swathes of our workforce as expendable. It is important to note that this problem is not unique to the National. They are by no means the worst employers in the arts. But with their platform and resources, and as an institution that claims to be ‘values led,’  they should show leadership in the industry and look after the people that work for them. In the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, the theatre tweeted a statement of support: “we believe the National Theatre must a home for all communities and their stories… our doors may be currently closed, but we renew that commitment for the future.”

BME representation across the cultural sector is low – a 2013 Arts Council study revealed across the cultural workforce 7% of employees are from a black and minority ethnic background,and within the 2012-2015 Arts Council National portfolio organisations less than 1 in 10 managers were from a BME background. 15.5% of the NT staff is BME – the most senior staff  members from BME backgrounds are in middle management. A survey conducted by a staff member revealed that within the Front of House team, there’s a higher concentration of workers from BME backgrounds on casual contracts. This makes the theatre’s claim that they are “standing with their black colleagues” empty, cutting from the bottom and increasing casualisation is going to hit their BME staff members hardest.

In a 2017 interview with the Guardian, Norris deplored what he termed “the selfishness” and “career-driven nature” of politics. “Everybody is fed up with their communities being broken apart, the breakdown of the NHS, the wealth imbalance in this country.” In a recent Guardian interview, his tone was more conciliatory. He chalked the government’s catastrophic handling of lockdown to “clumsiness” rather than a “deliberate act not to take responsibility.” Citing the sector’s contribution to GDP, Norris warned ”The damage that will be done if we are not supported in this time is impossible to make up.” He is right. However, The ‘damage’ he describes is not to the lives of his workers.

A burgeoning unemployment crisis as a result of the pandemic has reinforced the case for a Green New Deal. Proponents of this programme are rightly drawing the links between this public health crisis and looming mass unemployment and climate breakdown. However  the role of the arts in this vision of a greener, fairer economy is rarely touched on. This is a blind spot. Art work is low carbon work, but it is also a powerful political tool, one that was instrumental in realising Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

The Federal Art Project, the cultural arm of the New Deal was an ambitious program to employ artists, musicians and actors. An integral part of this scheme was the Federal Theatre Project, helmed by Hallie Flanagan. Intended as a relief measure to re-employ and retrain theatre workers, its longer term purpose was to wrest art from elite audiences, making it accessible to all, and fundamentally, to inspire democratic participation. Theatre is not a luxury, it is a necessity, declared Flanagan, because in order for democracy to work, “people must increasingly participate; they can’t participate unless they understand; and the theatre is one of the great mediums of understanding.” 

A green transition must not just transform the economy, but the public imagination; art is instrumental in redefining what is possible. This crisis has shown us that the radical social changes that we were told were impossible to enact a just transition, are indeed possible. Art can play a key role in amplifying these possibilities and restating the case that our ‘green dreams’ can become reality. The writer Arundhati Roy aptly described the pandemic as a “portal” forcing humans to “break with the past and imagine the world anew.” Just as the Federal Art Project excavated a utopian vision of a transformed society from the rubble of the Great Depression, our art institutions will be instrumental in guiding our passage through this gateway.

Mayors from many of the world’s leading cities have declared a statement of principles that rules out a return to “business as usual.” “Half-measures that maintain the status quo won’t move the needle or protect us from the next crisis.” said New York mayor, Bill de Blasio; “We need a new deal for these times – a massive transformation that rebuilds lives, promotes equality and prevents the next economic, health or climate crisis.” Like the artistic engineers of the New Deal, creative workers will be instrumental in delivering this massive transformation. Not just in the art they produce, but in how they treat the workforce that produces it.

In order for art to genuinely be a part of changing society, pluralism needs to be achieved in the workplaces that produce it. Beyond employing staff on contracts that guarantee a stable income, this could involve retraining schemes in production roles for ushers, bartenders and cleaners, dissolving the rigid divide between those who tear the tickets and those who make the art. The majority of the National’s front of house employees are theatre makers in their own right. Why not seek their input to create art that is collectively produced and genuinely reflects a pluralism of voices? Failing that, just pay them an income they can live off so they can make their own. As Works Progress Administration administrator, and FDR’s closest New Deal advisor, Harry Hopkins famously put it, “hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”

The future of the arts sector looks bleak – without government funding, many institutions are not likely to survive. Rufus Norris is right to sound the alarm, he is also right in his implicit blame of the government for the plight of our cultural institutions. But in order to save the cultural sector, he’ll need to fight first and foremost for his most vulnerable workers and let their voices be heard. He should heed the words of Hallie Flanagan and be the yeast, not the icing on the cake.