Setting the stage for change: D&I and family-friendly working at the National

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The National Theatre’s HRD Tony Peers and chair of PiPA Sarah Jackson
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The National Theatre and the performing arts have some insightful learnings to share on D&I and flexible working. But the sector also has issues to overcome

Actor Adam Gillen jumping on top of his harpsichord as punk-Mozart in Amadeus… Intricate horse puppets expertly brought to life in War Horse… Benedict Cumberbatch as we’d never seen him before lumbering across the stage as Frankenstein’s monster…

The world of the National Theatre seems light years away from that of other employers. Yet the organisation, and the performing arts industry more broadly, offers valuable lessons for all on flexible and family-friendly working and diversity and inclusion, feels Sarah Jackson, chair of Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (PiPA).

HR magazine catches up with Jackson and the National’s director of HR Tony Peers at the theatre’s brilliantly brutalist home on London’s South Bank. It moved here in 1977 from The Old Vic where it had been based since its inception in 1963. Jackson has just joined PiPA from charity Working Families, where she was chief executive for 24 years. And she’s incredibly excited by the opportunity her new role presents.

PiPA was founded in 2016, by actor Cassie Raine and director Anna Ehnold-Danailov, to raise awareness about the lack of support and provision for carers in the industry. Led by The Old Vic, it has brought together a network of bodies including Actors’ Children’s Trust, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, the National Theatre of Scotland and Spotlight.

Small but mighty

“What I’m seeing is an industry where there are far more smaller organisations than large. The National must be one of the biggest if not the biggest… In many ways it mirrors the UK better than, say, the City does because we’re a nation of SMEs,” says Jackson.

“I see a parallel with what’s going on in Scotland with the family-friendly working campaign where the diversity of organisations is striking,” she adds. “It’s so different from the way the agenda’s being driven in the UK as a whole by the corporate sector and the large public sector players.”

Jackson explains that the most obvious area the performing arts are ahead of the game, is on embracing unconventional working patterns and networks of freelancers.

“The large number of freelancers in the sector will give us the opportunity to develop best practice, which is going to be really useful for the UK as a whole; because quite clearly the world of work is changing and we’re all going to have to find a different way of working,” she says.

Peers agrees that organisations in his sector are experts (necessarily by dint of what they do) at quickly building loyalty among staff who haven’t worked together or at a particular organisation before.

The National Theatre employs around 650 permanent staff divided roughly between the three areas of technical and production; enterprises, front of house and arts management; and support staff. But it also has around 300 to 400 fixed-term and casual production and front-of-house staff, as well as around 200 actors, 50 musicians and 20 writers, composers and directors (all also on fixed-term contracts) working with it at any given time.

“People being thrown together and creating a very open way of working and collaboration, then somehow meshing that with this building that’s full of permanent staff… that’s one of the magic pieces about theatre,” says Peers. “That’s one of the challenges HR talks about quite a lot. But that’s what we almost don’t think about because we do it all of the time.”

“I also think that the lack of cash in the industry makes it much more real to small businesses,” adds Jackson. “I’ve spent more than 20 years having that conversation with smaller organisations who say ‘we just don’t have the resources to do this’. Well this industry doesn’t have the resources.”

As such the sector also has much to offer in terms of lessons on inter-organisation collaboration, says Peers. “The lack of money means we’re collaborating all the time – it’s beg, borrow or steal,” he explains.

Jackson points to PiPA’s new charter, which took input from 22 organisations as evidence. Again the emphasis is on organisations “working at their own speed” and principles that don’t cost the earth, she adds.

“Actually the things you have to do are not difficult… You need to think very straightforwardly about your organisation coming down to a series of small teams, with each team knowing clearly what they’re there to deliver. That’s why I’ve always thought this is really about being better at managing.”

Jackson points to job sharing as an area where some notable success stories are emerging. The first on-stage job share in the West End was created last year in musical 42nd Street; 2018 also saw actor Florence Andrews set up an online forum for West End job shares.

“Also last year there was a job share on Motown in wigs and make-up. Then there’s a couple of guys at The New Vic doing a stage management job share,” reports Jackson.

Innate conservatism

Which isn’t to say – as the formation of PiPA two years ago attests – that the sector has got it sussed.

Peers points to anti-social hours and the irregularity and unpredictability of rehearsal schedules. “Yes people are used to thinking outside the box around what a conventional day looks like, but there is still an innate conservatism within the industry,” he says. “You see masses of innovation on stage, and yet some practices almost date back to the Ancient Greeks.

“People have always liked the traditions. Certainly when I joined the industry in 1999 (I had six months in mind so 20 years is a bit of a shock) people told war stories of overnights and so on,” he reports.

The type of performance makes a big difference, Peers explains: “In an opera you’re working with quite an established piece with a script. If you’re doing a collaborative piece you can get to two or three days out and it’s still not finished. And you can imagine how work happens then.”

Rehearsal schedules present the biggest obstacle to on-stage job sharing, he adds: “The challenge is you have to rehearse everybody. It’s not as simple as swapping them. It’s about building time into the whole process.”

But it’s a challenge the sector urgently needs to address, both agree. Jackson points to PiPA’s Balancing Act research, released in March. It found that 43% of those who’d left the industry cited parenting as the primary factor, and that 37% of those who hadn’t left had changed roles (44% of women versus 23% of men had changed their role because of caring responsibilities).

“So there’s a challenge for the industry around making the most of what people have been trained to do,” Jackson says.

This situation, while far from ideal and costly in the long term, has been workable until now because of this “being an industry that people desperately want to get into”, explains Peers.

But expectations are shifting: “Now we have a huge swathe of our workforce, particularly those coming through, who don’t want to work [long and anti-social hours]. We’re values-driven, which is what Millennials and Gen Z want, but we also have a bunch of stuff they don’t want.”

While anti-social and long hours are somewhat inevitable in production and front-of-house catering jobs the danger is this percolates into office roles, adds Peers. “It feels very odd to be going home at six o’clock when everyone else is starting work. You’ve got an organisation that’s busy from 10 in the morning to 11 at night, six days a week, so you get pulled into that.”

Making progress

Peers is encouraged by the strides his organisation is taking to tackle all of this though.

“One of the ways we benefit from the relationship with PiPA is straight away we set up a parents and carers network; because the organisation is too complex and individuals’ lives are too complex for us to sit in a control tower directing traffic. It’s got to come from the people,” he says.

He explains that back-office space is limited anyway, so more flexible and remote working is a case of ‘two birds one stone’.“There’s literally nowhere to sit in the rear of house. In Summer it’s too hot, in the Winter it’s too cold. So anything that gets people out of here nine to five is a good thing,” he says.

Peers adds that some progress has also been made on the trickier production side of things: “There are certainly protections we can push for when it comes to technical staff; at least around how much notice is given for a call and how predictable those are.

“On the managerial side there is actually a lot of innovation. In our senior management team at least two work compressed hours and that kind of filters through,” he adds, emphasising the importance of role-modelling here.

“I have an eight-year-old son and I do the school run so I don’t ever do nine o’clock meetings. I didn’t even think about that, but the number of people who came up to me and said ‘because you did that, and especially because you’re a man, it made it easier’.”

The National also announced a joint chief exec job share this year, with some successful job shares in stage management too.

“And last year we had the challenge of a director coming back to work only a few months into her maternity and so had to accommodate a breastfeeding mother in a technical setting full of people walking around in hard hats and toe-capped boots,” adds Peers.

“But if you’re constantly having to think about the designer or director’s latest madcap plan to have mud or an explosion on stage then actually turning this into a practical problem is probably where we’re at our best.”

Again there are synergies with other sectors, feels Jackson: “If you’re outside the industry you think it’s just people floating around on stage… But it’s very similar to a factory or industrial setting.”

Contending with the industrial nature of a theatre was a particular challenge when offering a week-long creative workshop for the children of those working on Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies last Summer. The theatre decided to offer this to regular staff as well as Follies company staff, with roughly 15 children attending.

“It was a largely female cast and it was the Summer holidays… and they just wanted an opportunity to have their children do something related to what they were doing,” reports Peers. “It meant they could save a couple of weeks of annual leave and see their children at either end of the day.”

The physical constraints of the building, such as rooms generally being windowless, means there are no plans to repeat the project at present, however. Shorter periods or different times of year might prove more suitable, reports Peers. But this was nonetheless a good catalyst for other discussions – for example a good practice document around children in the workplace.

Flexibility for all

But both Peers and Jackson agree that a flexible work/life balance-orientated approach is vital for all workers, not just parents and carers.

“Anyone that is a good employer of someone with caring responsibilities is a good employer,” says Jackson. “That’s why at Working Families I moved very swiftly from saying ‘we need flexible working for parents’ to ‘we need flexible working for everybody’. It’s important that it’s not a hierarchy of need.”

Peers is confident his organisation is making good progress on other areas of inclusion besides parents and carers. He admits the acting profession has historically suffered a lack of socio-economic diversity.

“There’s a startling lack of data on this,” he says, quipping that such data might be challenging to collect: “It’s not an industry where anyone wants to be anything but authentically working class.”

He adds: “It’s the vexed question of when do you stop being working class and become middle class? If you work in the arts you’re probably middle class by definition.”

Nonetheless the organisation has taken steps on this, including apprenticeship programmes and support for people to travel to London for these, and moving away from unpaid internships. The National also boasts a 40-strong learning department tasked with running outreach work with schools. This includes the Connection Festival, which enables schools to live-stream performances and access educational content.

The other notable D&I challenge confronting the organisation at the moment is inevitably sexual harassment and bullying – specifically the scandals that have rocked the sector over recent years, particularly in relation to Kevin Spacey and The Old Vic. Though The National wasn’t aware of any issues with harassment, the HR team couldn’t be complacent, says Peers.

“The moment of realisation for us was thinking ‘we know there’s a story somewhere we don’t know about, that’s just how it is’,” he says. “We met with our union which said ‘we don’t think you have a problem with harassment at the National, but you do with bullying’.

“So we’ve trained 350 managers in managing an inclusive workplace, which includes the law, unconscious bias training, privilege, circles of trust…”

The theatre has also embraced union Equity’s Safe Spaces campaign so that every person joining the theatre receives a meet and greet on the topic. “There’s this kind of myth in our industry about the lone creative with eccentric traits. But the best organisations bring out the best from a team without bullying. Bullying just shuts it all down,” comments Peers.

“Our industry is modernising and it’s doing so really quickly. And I think expectations are shifting”.

Jackson agrees: “That’s what makes it such an exciting industry, and why I think it’s going to be hugely influential.”

This piece appeared in the September print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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