The Producers: “Essential” redundancies, leading to “essential” profits.
Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ambassador Theatre Group and Netherlander Theatres. In the last couple of months all these high-profile figures and companies have been leading redundancy consultations which recently resulted in thousands of theatre staff been made redundant. These companies have amply profited from their staff’s hard work, who in return have been subjected to poor workers’ conditions, low pay and even abusive behaviour, methods used by these ‘entrepreneurs’ to bully and exploit their employees. Now, they have the audacity to make them redundant. The government have been extremely uncooperative, silent, and ineffective, acting too late by setting up an emergency fund that will mainly benefit these commercially exploitative and capitalistic ventures and will be used to further fill their pockets with profit. Most of these redundancies have been made right before the companies had to pay national insurance contributions for the furlough scheme. With the employees being made redundant and these companies’ inherent wealth, it seems unnecessary for commercial theatre venues to receive further support from the government, if it wasn’t for the fact that it is a profitable initiative, rather than motivated by needs of survival. Commercial venues are now working with a skeleton crew, offering minimal pay-out to staff, and allowing the loss of thousands of jobs. £1.57 billion seemed a nice incentive from the government, but it has not offered any protection or support to the workers, providing instead the producing powerhouses with more profit. It is time to not only criticise the government’s slow response to the crisis, but to attack the selfish producers and to demonstrate against the commercial industries to avoid any further exploitation of the workforce.
Cameron Mackintosh is a celebrated producer, architect of the ‘mega-musical,’ promoter of globalisation within the theatre industry and creator of the so-called ‘mctheatre,’ an initiative that made theatre viably commercial in the United Kingdom. Cameron Mackintosh is also known to be very rich and has made numerous appearances on The Sunday Times Top 100 rich list. Mackintosh has an interesting political history. He is a conservative supporter who regularly donates to the party and has recently come out in support of Brexit. It is also well-known in the industry that he often displays hostile and aggressive attitude towards his staff, thinking that filling them with terror is how they will keep providing the celebrated 5-star standard of customer service. To top that, his response to coronavirus has been atrocious: he has made no effort to develop practical methods to ensure the re-opening of theatres, nor has he produced reports or consulted with the government on how to approach the theatre crisis. He has often been critical of union activity, which he has repeatedly tried to suppress. Even though he proudly announced to his staff – during redundancy consultations – that he has “never taken a loan” during his long empire, to produce his early works he did not shy away from relying on angel investors as discussed in detail in Theatre, Music and Sound at the RSC. Les Misérables, for example, one of those projects to be supported by external investors and subsidised assets. Mackintosh tends to hide from the spotlight, as he only cares about the profit he is making, and he is extremely protective of his image. In the past week, his companies – DMT and CML – have recorded between 200-800 estimated redundancies, these figures however have not been entirely confirmed as he has declined to comment. The multi-millionaire producer has decided not to keep his employees in furlough as he is afraid to lose even a fraction of his wealth. His former and current workforce, with the help of more organised and effective unions, need to pose an opposition to these forms of exploitation and dismantle the ‘mctheatre’ way of manage theatre companies.
Andrew Llyod Webber is another benefactor of this culture of exploitation and profit. Although he has been praised for his efforts and attempts to re-opening the theatres during the COVID-19 pandemic, the multi-millionaire is also in the process of making a great deal of his staff redundant. What is even more damning is that – when the lockdown started – he proclaimed that he would not have deprived his staff of their livelihoods during such a crisis. Webber is not trying to open theatres to preserve culture: he is trying to regain and keep making profit from his shows. Webber’s political history clearly shows his reservation towards the working class and those struggling actors who are trying to make ends meet in such a tough and competitive industry. He has been a Tory supporter since the days of Thatcher, which led him to write music for the conservative’s 1987 political party broadcast. He was made a life peer in the House of Lords, where he was able to vote for austerity measures that indirectly affected the theatre industry. He even hopped on a private jet to travel to London to vote against tax credits, a motion which affected vulnerable children and their families. Let us remember that Webber does not care about the community, only his business. Webber and Cameron have recently been involved in a battle about the permanent closure of Phantom of the Opera. Webber has completely disregarded Mackintosh’s comments on closure and suggested that, instead, it would be reopening soon. These are rival capitalists fighting to win the throne over the realm commercial theatre. Ambassador Theatre Group, the largest commercial theatre in the country, have laid off thousands of their members of staff in an order to maintain their profits. They have showed a questionable behaviour towards the customer, failing to refund over 50% of the tickets booked before the pandemic. This type of anti-consumer greed of capitalistic ventures is the reason why all these producers have damaged the industry. They will continue to damage if the workers and their unions will not organise and demand increasing pressure.
One of the most saddening things to become apparent during this pandemic is the lack of union response in criticising the government. Both BECTU and Equity have tried to support a small minority of their workers by creating hardship funds, and although this might have been a nice offering, their efforts have been weak and futile: they have been complacent in accepting mass redundancies and failed to put pressure on the government in regards of the handling of the emergency funds, which could have been used to save thousands of jobs. As a result, BECTU will lose most of the workforce they are supposed to protect and will become redundant themselves when the pandemic is over. Labour have been particularly quiet on this matter, and while the leader Starmer was coming up with slogans such as “jobs, jobs, jobs”, the jobs were actually lost by the thousands. The arts workers must start organising and adding pressure on both politicians and trade union movements, even if they have already been made redundant. The fight does not end because you believe you are no longer part of it. Write to BECTU criticising the ineffective handling of the redundancies, join the Labour Party, become a delegate, and speak at conferences to put forward motions to protect theatre jobs. If not, the capitalist producers and this hopeless government will continue to do their own interests, and there will be no one fighting the workers’ corner. We must be arguing for a permanent furlough scheme until the theatres are able to open, and a forced legislation for these companies to demand a hire-back contract for their staff. Or at the very least, a much better severance package than what people are receiving. We cannot let Cameron Mackintosh, Webber, Ambassador Theatre Group or the Tory government let capitalism rot the very work force that built this industry, again.