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Theatre directors should reach out to themselves

The Volkskrant on 18 May this year carried a first on strikes and attrition among technical staff at the country's largest company: ITA. In Trouw read on the same day the united theatre directors (VSCD) sounded the alarm over the lack of technicians. In fact, it is so bad "that performances have to be cancelled". Two reasons in particular are cited: technicians have left the sector because there was no work in corona time, and there are too many performances, because much has been moved on.

This sounds very logical, but there is more to it than that. The current crisis certainly also has to do with the fact that many managements have contributed to it with their own policies. After all, the performing arts sector has been generously supported by the government. That was meant to ensure that the sector would stay alive and, above all, emerge from the crisis agile and resilient.

Positive balance, staff gone

The sector has indeed stayed alive, but agility and resilience have been poor. A lot of theatres chose to cancel and reschedule performances. So the work was at a standstill, the - often freelance - technicians sat at home unemployed. Even though they were sometimes compensated through special schemes, sitting at home unemployed does not suit the hard workers in the theatre, where sometimes working hours of 12 hours a day apply.

The income effect for artists was even greater. The result is well-known: theatres sometimes came out of the corona crisis with a sizeable positive balance. We observed a more than doubling of equity in the sector. In Dutch: het geld klotst tegen de plinten op.

Investment failed to materialise

The money has not been invested. There has been no innovation. The theatres have collectively locked up. There are positive exceptions, though. Utrecht's TivoliVredenburg, for instance, has been busy experimenting with new forms of programming,

Earlier, we also brought the story of the Wilminktheatre in Enschede, which has bet firmly on in-house productions. I myself, as director of Concordia, also in Enschede, have chosen to go fully digital. In the meantime, my successor is experimenting with making the livestreams that are compulsory at them interactive.

Learning from each other

If the other theatres had also gone ahead and explored innovative ways during the corona crisis, the sector as a whole would have been stronger and could have learned from each other.

Theatre technicians have now discovered that other sectors are waiting for them. If you have to choose between a boss where you were sent away when things seemed to be going against you and a boss where you were welcomed with open arms, it is not hard to predict what happens.

Directors should know better

The surplus supply now being fired at the public creates workload on top of that. It is also not audience-friendly. As a visitor, you don't know what to choose, and when you have chosen, the performance of your choice is already gone. Theatre has disappeared from your system. Audiences have found alternative ways to spend their time.

The theatre directors who hoarded their money thus signed their own certificate of inadequacy. The VSCD should know better. Past choices produce obvious effects in the future.

Preparing now is imperative

But it is not too late. We are, it is widely feared, not yet rid of the pandemic. There will be new corona waves. So use the hoarded money to really keep people working, figure out how to innovate and engage audiences with new ways of telling stories.

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4 thoughts on “Theaterdirecteuren zouden hand in eigen boezem moeten steken”

  1. Wolter Lommerde

    It is nice to see that there are a few white ravens who did keep technicians and zzp-ers employed, but my own observation is that venues and also producers massively put zzp-ers and (stupid, stupid, stupid) also permanent staff on the street, and then did take all kinds of compensation.
    The sector is totally sick and has been hanging on from subsidy mazes for years.
    And after two years of forced navel plucking, we simply carry on the same way: book as many shows as possible and pass on the bill for the too-empty venues like a hot potato to the supplying or buying 'partner in business'.
    When are we going to roll up our sleeves to solve this common systemic problem (yes, it is, no challenge, no occasional headwind, no external extremity) ourselves ?

  2. Hello Ineke and Angelique

    Thanks for your responses; the world is indeed nuanced.

    Recruiting and retaining staff has to do with appreciation, perspective, working atmosphere, development opportunities, living environment (try Twente ;-)) and, to some extent, with remuneration. The latter alone will not solve the problems.

    Competition within the sector is killing and does not do justice to the public function and funding of the cultural sector.

    ITA has indeed invested heavily, but refuses to really share this knowledge.

    Sloshing is a not narrowly defined term, but Theatre Zuidplein has also seen its assets grow in 2020, by around 400K (see ). Very good that you were able to keep the technicians employed.

    I am really shocked at the "complaining/innovation/financial results" ratio our industry has shown in recent years.

  3. Ha Willem Jaap,
    I think you are partly right. When things go wrong, it is always ultimately down to the choices a director makes. At the same time, it is also too easy. I think a combination of years of putting too much pressure on people, always expecting flexibility and little appreciation in return does something to people. That can go well for a long time if people enjoy going to work, but the lockdowns have caused strange side effects. Indeed, many technicians have moved on to other jobs, new technicians have not had the chance to discover how much fun our sector actually is, so few newcomers, all the performances have been crammed into the last six months, people have to work too long hours because there are too few colleagues, the parity principle is often abandoned out of necessity, and that problem ends up at the receiving theatres. All drops that add up to make an overfull bucket. Says the woman who has been with a theatre technician (and recently married) for 22 years.
    Then again, I don't (unfortunately?) recognise that 'money sloshing against the skirting boards' in my own theatre, nor, I think, in my city directly. I do see the idiotic consequences that shake up the sector ("I'll double your daily rate if you cancel that tour and come work for me"). We are still competing each other to death.
    At Theatre Zuidplein, we were fortunately able to keep everyone employed and tried to create as much work as possible by using ZZP technicians in alternative ways. Despite not being able to claim NOW due to circumstances (new premises). We made that choice, and I am very happy with and proud of the technicians of Theater Zuidplein for having managed to 'survive' this misery. The fact that we just got a beautiful new theatre must have helped, but I think it was simply not possible for many theatres to keep everyone employed.
    I like your plea for more commitment to innovation, but I seem to have understood that ITA in particular was one of the first to invest a huge amount in live streaming. That apparently did not help at ITA to defuse the crisis, and apparently did little for the atmosphere, workload, etc.
    It is always easy to point fingers at sore spots afterwards, but I don't like to be in the shoes of the directors who have to solve this. More radical choices are needed, from the government and from the sector itself.

  4. Angelique Finkers

    Bye Willem Jaap,

    I am curious, after reading your argument in which you emphasise work versus no work resulting in vacancies, whether you, as well as colleagues who have sought new avenues, are not bothered by vacancies in their TD squad? It seems like this is directly related, but that is not what I see and experience. Even with (more than enough) work, it is difficult to fill new vacancies, which also arise due to natural attrition. I thus see a relationship between work - pay.

Comments are closed.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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