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“is it little wonder that we have an ongoing problem with a lack of diversity in theatre?”

BLOG – to explore ways in which the Edinburgh Fringe could be opened

Fringe brochure 2016

Over the last 10 years there has been a drive to wipe out unpaid or low paid placements in arts organisations across the UK.

For many years, Battersea Arts Centre was one of the worst culprits, offering three month unpaid work placements, affording crucial work experience to young people seeking work, without paying them. And thus we contributed, like many others, towards a skewed workforce across the arts, dominated as it is now by well-supported, middle-class graduates. We have weened ourselves off this bad model and now we look back, and like smoking in pubs, you wonder how we ever did that?!

At last year’s Fringe Festival there was a Guardian debate for A Nation’s Theatre at which Jo Crowley, Lorne Campbell and lots of members of the audience reaffirmed something we all know but don’t talk about much…that the Edinburgh Fringe is the UK’s biggest unpaid or low-paid placement of all. Every year, thousands of young people take the pilgrimage to Edinburgh to volunteer at a venue, work in a bar, perform or support someone else’s show.

Whatever they opt to do they become part of the world’s biggest arts network, the most staggeringly well connected global arts community where venue directors, programmers, critics, funders and artists, spend three and half weeks, walking around 4 square miles of a single city, learning about each other, making connections and talking about how to work together.

I’m not saying for a moment that it’s easy for those who are here – but we have to ask ourselves the question who is not here?

Because the first, massive hurdle is simply getting here. A few things can help you get to the festival for the first time:

  • financial support or the ability to get and manage a loan
  • friends or family or a network to help you find accommodation
  • knowing that the festival exists, what it can offer you and how to use it

If you speak to anyone you admire who works in theatre and ask them how they began to create, produce or perform in work, I would guess that at least half, perhaps more, will have an Edinburgh chapter to their story. For some, it is a profoundly important chapter that kick starts their career, their understanding of their passion in the theatre ecology.

When you look at the challenges of becoming part of that ecology, is it little wonder that we have an ongoing problem with a lack of diversity in theatre?

At the Guardian debate last year, I promised myself that Battersea Arts Centre would do something, however small, the following year. I thought I would share the detail of what we’re doing this year for a couple of reasons:

  • to connect with other organisations or people who are already running related initiatives, perhaps we could share plans and learning in advance of next year?
  • to see if other publically subsidised organisations who receive over several hundred thousand pounds of annual subsidy, who are not currently doing something, would like to do something next year? Maybe we could club together and do something?

Here’s the practical details of what we’re did this year:

  • advertised two paid roles to local young people between age of 18 and 29
  • for people who had not previously considered a trip to Edinburgh or attended the festival
  • for people who had an interest in theatre or dance or spoken word or circus or music or a combination
  • we offered:
    • free accommodation in Edinburgh in the Battersea Arts Centre flat we rent for producers
    • free return train tickets to travel with a BAC producer
    • a fee of £250 (ensuring the fee equated to no less than £60 per day)
    • a ticket budget of £90
    • support from a BAC producer before, during and after the Edinburgh trip
  • we asked for:
    • daily reports to describe your Edinburgh experience and a blog at the end
    • attending a “seen & met” meeting at BAC to discuss the networks you have developed and how you might now use them

It cost us less than £1,000 to give 2 young people a very valuable experience in Edinburgh. It’s a scratch, so we will learn from what works and what doesn’t this year and refine the model for next year.

If every NPO in England funded over £300k did something similar we could offer a similar experience to over 400 young people every year in Edinburgh. If those funded at a higher level did more, we could offer many more. If we secured sponsorship we could make these placements longer and richer.

Given that Edinburgh plays such a profoundly important part in the ecology of theatre, seeding or developing the careers of hundreds of theatre makers every year, then if we want to make change to the kinds of people who create and support the development of theatre, then we could do a lot worse to focus some of our resources on providing an Edinburgh experience to people who would otherwise not get here – and benefit from this hugely advantageous moment in our annual calendar.

If anyone wants to team up and do something like this next year together, or connect us with an existing initiative, please do email me or

Thanks for reading.

23 Aug 2016

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