Luna Williams considers the implications of Brexit for the theatre industry, and particularly its lack of working class representation.
With Brexit day (29th March, 2019) just around the corner, Theresa May and her cabinet appear to be struggling to strike up a deal with the EU which fulfills the promises they have outlined in their own Brexit plans. As well as struggles with trade, and the Irish border, May has also failed to liaise a clear EU-UK immigration plan with Brussels.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) released a report last month which pushed the importance of a new “open and controlled” system to replace free movement when it ends with Brexit. The report cited 18 key UK industries and sectors which would be negatively impacted by a Brexit which imposed harsh immigration restrictions on European nationals. The creative and entertainment industries are included in the list.
According to the report, 131,000 EU nationals work in the UK’s creative industries, accounting for approximately 7% of the workforce. Free movement has allowed these individuals to work in creative areas in range of roles: as actors, theatre-makers, technicians – the list goes on.
Historically, this has been fundamental to the way in which the British theatre industry functions today, with many European theatre practices forming the basis of today’s actor-training and theatre-making principles. Antonin Artaud, for example, French founder of the Theatre of Cruelty, remains one of the most influential theatre theorists of the 20th century. His ideas have influenced British theatre and film-makers like Peter Brook, who hosted a theatrical series in his honour at the RSC. Likewise, the principles of Jacques Lacoq, the Parisian physical theatre and mime practitioner, have trained and influenced various British actors including Complicite’s founder Simon McBurney and Peter Bramley, head of movement at Rose Bruford College.
Bertolt Brecht, from Germany, needs very little introduction; his dramatic theories and practices are taught as core modules in every theatre-related course across Britain, from Drama GCSE to Classical Acting drama school programs. These individuals (along with many others) have shaped the way that British performers and practitioners learn, practice and create drama to this day - and free movement has allowed this to happen.
Equally, free movement has also been incredibly beneficial to British theatre professionals over the years, and this is something which is commented on by the CBI. “Mobility of workers to and from Europe is also critical for the sector”, the report states, “and actors [and production crews] must be able to easily move between Europe and the UK [to rehearse, train and perform].”
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) released a White Paper in September at the request of the Government. This report intended to assess the importance of EEA migration in the UK and make recommendations accordingly. However, the report brushed away many of the concerns which had been raised by the CBI, instead suggesting that European migrants should be given no preferential treatment over non-EEA migrants after Brexit.
In a statement made at the beginning of this month, May said that she would be siding with the MAC in her continuing approach to negotiations: stating that Brexit will spell the end of free movement “once and for all” in an interview with BBC Radio 4 Today. According to May, the government will be taking a stance which means that EU nationals will need to apply for a skilled work visa (called a Tier 2 Visa) if they want to work in the UK after Brexit.
Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the CBI, responded by stating that these new proposals had "taken a wrong turn". "By dismissing the importance of [EU workers] to the UK economy”, she said, “the government risks harming businesses and living standards now and in the future."
Fairbairn went on to discuss the industries which would be most affected by these proposals, citing “care, hospitality and retail” as the most in danger. But many of the creative industries, such as the performing arts sector, would also be threatened by this system.
EU nationals contribute to filling several areas which are suffering from a national skills shortage. For example, the roles Classical Ballet Dancer and Contemporary Dancer are both listed on the UK Shortage Occupation List and have been for several years. This list is a resource used by the government to distinguish jobs which cannot be filled by residential talent alone. If preferential treatment is not given to European nationals who could fill these roles in the future, the skills deficit in the British dance industry could deepen and the UK could risk its present reputation as a “cultural superpower”.
Equally, other sub-sectors in the performing arts sector are also supplemented by European talent, such as sound and light tech, classical music and stage design. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that a survey conducted by the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) found that 96% of its members voted to remain in the EU. Of all the British industries, the creative and entertainment sectors are the most united in their stance to remain in the EU.
The appeal of a second referendum (and majority vote to remain) is not missed here, and the last few weeks have seen countrywide appeals and protests for a ‘people’s vote’ which would allow this to happen. However, one argument which is not often discussed is a Brexit driven by the left, or a ‘Lexit’ as some are calling it. While many on the left are staunch Remainers, there is also an argument for leaving the EU which aligns with a left-wing school of thought. This argument focuses on empowering the working-class, who have long been underpaid and underrepresented in many industries, including the performing arts.
The under-representation of working-class people in the performing arts
According to a report released by the charities Create London and Arts Emergency in April, the percentage of individuals from working-class backgrounds currently working in the performing arts sector is 18.2%. This is a significantly unfair representation when compared to British society as a whole, which is made up by a third of working-class people.
A Lexit promises to solidify worker’s rights, centering on the prospect that they are treated fairly and equally. This argument is largely powered by the prospect of an end to ‘social dumping’, which occurs when employers use the single market as a way to move their businesses (and employees) to other EU countries which have poorer working conditions and lower minimum salary requirements.
This is an important argument to factor in – a Lexit promises to ensure that elements like the minimum wage, working hours and breaks are respected and kept the same for all workers, no matter what industry they work in. This can be seen as a positive for performers in general, many of whom are self-employed and are therefore harder to regulate, particularly when it comes to working conditions and fair breaks.
However, whether a Lexit would necessarily improve the representation of working-class performers or theatre professionals is unclear. Even if the working conditions of actors were to be improved, this would not necessarily solve the overall issue of the underrepresentation of working-class actors in the British theatre industry.
Instead, an institutional change needs to take place. As it stands, many theatres are setting diversity quotas, which ensure underrepresented actors – women, minority ethnic groups, disabled actors – are given the same opportunities as everyone else. One possibility might be instilling these same quotas for working-class actors at casting calls. However, since the issue seems to run deeper than ‘who gets the part’, this may not entirely solve the problem.
Speaking at Working Class Heroes, an event intended to highlight and debate the struggles and successes of working-class actors, actress/writer Maxine Peake discussed the issues she and others face as working-class actors. “It’s not just about acting”, she told her interviewer, “it’s impossible if you haven’t got a private income”. Peake went on to talk about the various costs that went into pursuing acting as a career, including drama school. In August 2017, many leading British drama schools (including Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Rose Bruford College) opted to raise their annual fees to the maximum of £9,250 per year. While some drama school courses can be publicly funded, many (such as foundation or intensive postgraduate courses) cannot. This limits many aspiring actors in their first stages of pursuing the career and many either struggle through by taking out loans/multiple jobs or choose not to the follow the career path at all.
What’s more, drama school is only the tip of the financial iceberg. Once an actor has graduated from drama school, there are further costs – agents, workshops, audition expenses – not to mention general living costs to support them in between jobs. Even theatre ticket prices, which have risen on average by 10.6% since 2013, are unfeasibly expensive for someone with lower financial means, costing an average of £26 per ticket in the UK, and £46 in London.
For this reason, many working-class actors are either put off or at a severe disadvantage before they have even reached the audition room.
The need for change is obvious. But this must come from within the theatre industry. More must be done to encourage working-class representation in all areas of the performing arts. Bursaries and scholarships do exist for certain acting programmes, but these needs to become more accessible and commonplace.
Peake talked about feeling the “outsider effect” throughout much of her career as a working-class actress, and this is something which needs to challenged. Subsidised theatre tickets and workshops should be made available by established theatres to encourage early interest in drama for low-income families and communities.
Photo: Emil Charlaff
Equally, more working-class roles should be established in new writing. Many generically ‘northern’ working-class characters are existent in theatre but have a habit of being two-dimensional and built on stereotype. Rounded working-class characters and settings should be developed and conveyed in theatre, to allow relatable roles to be made available to actors and audience-members.
In many ways, the way that high-profile (such as West-End) theatre is run is also very discouraging for many working-class actors looking to break into the industry. For example, many theatre venues, production companies and show royalties tend to be owned by the same few middle-upper class moguls in the West End of London. These figures have both financial and artistic control of the majority of West End theatre and are able to manipulate this to their advantage. Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance, owns seven of London’s major theatre venues, including Her Majesty’s Theatre which has been running Webber’s own show The Phantom of the Opera for over 28 years. This means Webber generates income from the show tickets, as well as revenue taken in by the theatre itself (drink and food sales etc), not to mention the income he receives from royalties each time one of the songs is performed to the public.
The performing arts are entrenched in a culture of ‘it’s who you know’ – only who you know, in this case, directly correlates with class. As such, it is near impossible for actors from working class backgrounds to break into this inner circle, or as Arts Emergency call it, the “old boys’ network”.
No kind of Brexit, even that pushed by a left-wing government, promises to address the issue of working -class underrepresentation in the performing arts.
Instead, limiting the amount of foreign talent which can be part of the industry seems like a step backwards for the case of diversity. The ideal solution would therefore be to keep an open and controlled EU-UK immigration system after Brexit, in order to maximise the best use of the available talent and deliver high quality drama which continues to encourage diversity. At the same time, the theatre institution needs to take regulatory measures to tackle the lack of working-class representation in the theatre, both as actors and other creative workers, and as audiences.
Theatre should be opening its arms wider to underrepresented groups. Representing class diversity is just as crucial as representing diversity in race, culture, nationality, gender and body-type. But, rather than shutting out one underrepresented group to make way for another (as a hard Brexit threatens to do) the industry itself needs to make changes, in order to encourage a fair representation of modern British society.