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Theatre's hiring process is unfair and nepotistic. Freelancers can fix it.

Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a newsletter about theatre written by Fergus Morgan.

This is the free, Friday issue, which usually contains a Q&A with an exciting theatremaker or an essay on a theatre-related topic. This week, thrillingly, The Crush Bar features its first ever guest essay: Josh Roche, co-founder of OpenHire, discusses the next step in his campaign to make theatre’s hiring process fairer and more transparent. After that, there are your usual three show recommendations for next week: one in London, one in Salford, one in Scotland.

In case you missed it, here is Tuesday’s issue of Shouts And Murmurs, which is a weekly, silly round-up of the most interesting reviews, interviews and articles on theatre elsewhere…

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An Enemy Of The People, A Little Life, Home, Julius Caesar: all shows staffed through OpenHire. Photos: Manuel Harlan, Jan Versweyveld, Helen Maybanks, Marc Brenner.

Part of the compensation for dealing with all the underpaid anxiety of a career in the theatre industry is the feeling that you’re special.

We are doing something difficult, ethereal, and emotional that brings joy to people. No one at JP Morgan is bringing joy, but we are. We are the joy-bringers. We are making the world a better place, one middling production of Macbeth at a time.

Because we’re so special, we don’t do things like other industries. We don’t work in offices. We don’t keep regular hours or work patterns. We are not ruled by supply and demand. We have a worth beyond our ticket price and therefore deserve subsidy. After all, the worth of a beautifully rendered Ibsen can’t be quantified in cash!

However, this idea has infiltrated other areas of our industry where it is doing damage. Take hiring. Because we’re special, and the things we make alchemical, we like to suggest that the selection of a collaborating artist requires a unique social bond that can’t be measured by something so prehistoric as an application and an interview.

As a result, artistic directors – who, lest we forget, are always hired via application and interview – tend to hire “trusted collaborators,” who are their friends. Those friends hire their “long-time creative colleagues,” who are also their friends. And those friends hire assistants who tend to be younger versions of themselves and become their friends. Then we are all struck dumb when we notice the industry is a homogenous, white, middle-class milieu who met at Cambridge, Durham, and so on.

These hires don’t always turn out well. Social hiring is far from reliable. When you hire someone based on vibes gathered from them over a coffee, you get a collaborator who is untested and capable of surprising you in unpleasant ways. Obviously, this has never, ever happened to me and I couldn’t possibly comment.

We also seem to know social hiring is bullshit as we pat ourselves on the back when we are not doing it. “The Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting is an open competition!”  “Everyone apply for the JMK – it’s an open application!” I could give plenty more examples. We love open competitions. We love how they value fairness and welcome people from different backgrounds. So, why don’t we do it the rest of the time?

“Last week, the Royal Court Theatre announced it was hiring an associate playwright, and that it would openly advertise the position. Times are changing.”

Derek Bond and I founded OpenHire to try and change this. OpenHire does two things: we send out a weekly email with advertised jobs that you can sign up to for free, and we go around persuading theatres and companies to commit to advertising a number of jobs like that each year. So far there are twenty, including Shakespeare’s Globe, The Bush Theatre, The RSC, Chichester Festival Theatre, Theatr Clwyd, Nottingham Playhouse, The Orange Tree Theatre, Wessex Grove, Nottingham Playhouse, Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake, the National Youth Theatre, and more.

In this way, jobs that would never have been advertised are now accessible to anyone. Through OpenHire Jaz Woodcock-Stewart was able to work with Thomas Ostermeier on An Enemy of the People. Through OpenHire, Atri Bannerjee directed a main stage production at the RSC. Through OpenHire, Kate Golledge worked at the Almeida Theatre, Alice Wordsworth assisted Ivo Van Hove on A Little Life, Chelsea Walker directed at Theatr Clwyd, and Eleanor Bull is designing at Manchester Royal Exchange. Last week, the Royal Court Theatre announced it was hiring an associate playwright, and that it would openly advertise the position. Times are changing.

“We often feel powerless to alter the industry in which we work, but that is not true.”

Now it is time to take things further. It is time to take the next step towards making theatre’s hiring process fairer, because the truth is that freelancers hire freelancers.

Typically, a theatre only actually hires one person at first. Let’s imagine a playwright, for example. That writer often helps to choose a director. That director hires a team of about five people, including a set designer, a lighting designer and a sound designer. Those designers hire assistants and associates. The entire process is a cascade, in which freelancers hire other freelancers, who hire other freelancers.

What that means is that us lowly freelancers have the power to change things. We often feel powerless to alter the industry in which we work, but that is not true. Here, we have agency. Here, we can let down a better ladder than the one we climbed up.

In 2021, I directed a production at Chichester Festival Theatre. I decided to hire a lighting designer and a sound designer through OpenHire. While I’d been preaching a lot about the campaign, I had never tried it myself before. I was a bit nervous.

My interviewees included some experienced people with flash agents and credits at the National Theatre, the Almeida Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse, venues I have never worked at. Two people stood out through the hiring process, however. They had no representation and far fewer credits, but they had both read the play in depth and were full of passion and willpower to make the production work. I never for a moment regretted the choice, and, lo and behold, they both now have agents and further work.

We are not suggesting you use OpenHire for every position on every show. No one has the time to do that. All we are suggesting is that, when you look for a new collaborator, you try advertising for it openly and interviewing some applicants. I have found that process actually gives me more assurance: I can ask questions about working methods. I can check timelines and availability. I can check we get along.

OpenHire also makes the jobs far more accessible to those who often experience barriers keeping them out of the industry. In 2022, I used OpenHire to find a team of collaborators, selecting the best people for the job. They turned out to all be working mothers, something that would never have happened through the social hiring model.

Freelancers hire freelancers. We have the chance to be the change we want to see.

Sign up to OpenHire

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Lady Dealer, Macbeth (an undoing), 42 Balloons.

Three shows to see next week

Lady Dealer – Bush Theatre, until June 15

This was my favourite show of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Written by Martha Watson Allpress, whose debut Patricia Gets Ready was also excellent, it is an intense, hour-long, one-woman show about a drug dealer in an existential crisis. Emily Aboud’s staging features a bruising performance from Alexa Davies and one of the softest and most stirring twists I have seen on stage. Now, it gets a much-deserved transfer to London’s Bush Theatre. You can get tickets via the button below.

Book tickets here

Macbeth (an undoing) – Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, until May 25

Zinnie Harris writes and directs this reworking of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, which first ran in Edinburgh last February, then transferred to London and New York. The show starts fairly normally, but Lady M soon starts doing unexpected things, pushing at the boundaries of the play, which push straight back at her, and the whole thing unravels into an unusual and refreshing meditation on female agency in drama. Nicole Cooper was recently nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her performance. You can buy tickets to the show’s two-week return run in Edinburgh via the button below.

Book tickets here

42 Balloons – The Lowry, Salford, until May 19

In 1982, Larry Walters – AKA Lawnchair Larry – managed to fly over Los Angeles for 45 minutes with the help of 42 helium-filled weather balloons. Now, his strange, sad story is being told in a new folk musical from writer and composer Jack Godfrey. It has got some great reviews – five stars from The Stage and The Times – and a London transfer looks likely. You can get tickets for its Salford run via the button below.

Book tickets here

Free subscribers to The Crush Bar receive these emails every Friday. Paid supporters also receive Shouts And Murmurs on Tuesdays.

That’s all for this issue

That is it for this week. If you want to get in touch about anything raised in this issue – or anything at all, really – just reply to this newsletter or email me at [email protected]. Or you can find me on Twitter/X, where I am @FergusMorgan.

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