I can't stop thinking about a Guardian stage blog post on the current proliferation of old Etonian actors, commenting that acting is an expensive business and hard for those without much money to get into. I'm not ashamed exactly but definitely uneasy myself about the fact that I'm able to try and start producing in relative comfort because my long suffering parents can afford to let me move back home for a while - and I'm nearly ten years into my career. It's far too hard to make a living in theatre when you're starting out, whether you'd like to have your own company or work for somebody else.
There has been an awful lot of fuss about the legalities recently, particularly of internships with work-like conditions, but the reason why people are still offering these and long term placements is because mostly, for the charitable arts organisations, they're not illegal. There is very clear guidance on Business Link, but in essence, charities and statutory organisations are allowed to hire "volunteer workers" (as well as and distinct from "volunteers" who can be used by any organisation) who have work-like conditions and contracts but are unpaid. This is a specific exception to National Minimum Wage rules to allow people who genuinely want to give their time to a good cause for free to do so. Unpaid volunteering shouldn't be banned because it allows people who want to freely give their time - if they're retired for example - to do so without needing to be paid the minumum wage. Charities might need to contract these people or insist on other work-like conditions, if, for example, they are running a shop and need to be there at a certain time, or are trusted with certain responsibilities.
This isn't legal for commercial arts organisations, of course, and many abuse the system, but equally, even when it's legal it doesn't mean it's always right. To be a charity, what you do doesn't need to be educational (as I saw someone quoted as misguidedly saying at the State of the Arts conference) but it does need to be for the benefit of the public. I'd take this to mean that charitable arts organisations also have a particular responsibility to conduct their business ethically and fairly.
Many volunteers in the arts aren't volunteering because they want to help a good cause. They want work, and they can't get it without experience, so they are left with no choice: work for free or don't work in theatre. That rules out many. In the article mentioned above, Theo Bosanquet says "it does seem that the politics preached by much of theatreland – those of inclusion, of fairness, of equality – are rarely reflected behind the scenes, where the old hierarchies persist." We denigrate "McJobs" in our culture - do we really think paid work is so much less dignified than unpaid exploitation? And that's just the "fairness".
The actors might all be old-Etonians, or similar: so are many of the audience members. Huge and important efforts are being made by theatre companies to engage children, particularly, with the arts, to diversify audiences and to ensure that what we're doing is accessible to as many people as possible. Much of this work is wasted if the move from youth involvement as an amateur participant to paid work is impossible for many of those who want to take the next step. Theatre is still too elistist, and for change to happen, it needs to be empowered from within. That means changing the workforce. It feels to me that the lack of paid opportunities for those at the beginning of their career is a key factor in the stagnation of audience engagement. If you're always working with the same people, it's always going to be an uphill struggle to get a wider, more diverse audience. No matter how much you try and make them comfortable or get them involved, participants, audience members and volunteers, from their relatively unempowered standpoint, are unlikely to change arts organisations.
Of course not all voluntary positions are exploitative. Many are excellent examples of good volunteering practice: where timescales are flexible, can be combined with other work, offer mentoring and learning experiences, appeal to those who do have the right motivations. Also, even where they're not, it's difficult, I know. Money is not flowing, budgets are tight and many arts organisations are left in a situation where they offer voluntary opportunities or none at all. The Future Jobs fund, which enabled many to take on young employees, has disappeared. However, I don't think we can abdicate responsibility. We've got to be aware of what we're doing. Someone once said to me that by 18 or 19, it's too late anyway. A paid job or not doesn't matter - the kind of young people that can't afford to work for free have lost their opportunities to engage with the arts long before that. I hope that's not true. I certainly don't think we can use that as an excuse. I've worked with volunteers in the past, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for ones I'm not totally sure I can justify, and I expect I will again. Yet I can't stop thinking about that blog post. I want to try and do something about it. There must be something we can do.