Interview: Lucy Askew: The Artistic Director of Creation Theatre Talks About the Radical Decision to Offer Actors PAYE Contracts

“If this doesn't work, it's a noble hill to die on”

By: Nov. 23, 2022
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Interview: Lucy Askew: The Artistic Director of Creation Theatre Talks About the Radical Decision to Offer Actors PAYE Contracts
Lucy Askew

Creation Theatre, known for being a leading company for site-specific and digital theatre, has been making headlines that they will be the UK's first full-time repertory company offering PAYE contracts in a rare move for the theatre industry.

The theatre, located in Oxford, is hoping to provide significantly increased stability for performers with more employment rights, maternity leave, sickness support, holiday flexibility, and the opportunity to live locally instead of travelling for work.

BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to speak to Lucy Askew, the Artistic Director of Creation Theatre, about the company's radical decision and how the rep compnay was put together.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, what is a full-time PAYE contract?

PAYE is like most jobs in the world where you have an employer - an employer pays you monthly and you're in a long-term contract.

Largely in the industry, actors are on freelance contracts... Because we're unionised, because we have Equity, they represent that freelance workforce and try and make sure that contracts are looking after that. But by its very nature as freelance, there's an implication that you are your own mini business, and you're doing some of the work yourself.

Obviously, you get holiday entitlement on a freelance contract, but when you're PAYE, it's actually more likely that you really take paid holiday, whereas what tends to happen on a lot of freelance contracts is people get paid for the holiday, do a contract, and get another gig booked in immediately afterwards. So they're getting paid the money and then never really having time to take a holiday...the freelance system makes it much harder for people to have downtime than the PAYE system.

What we're interested in by going PAYE is what happens if the actor says, "Because of my caring responsibilities, I only want to work three days a week," what does that do? How do we do that? Do we end up with a job share? Do we actually do a show that's only on three days a week to factor that into the whole programming of something? Does it matter if you do that? Can you get the same ticket sales, can you make the same economic case for it? What differences does that make to people's lives?

How did Creation Theatre decide to offer these full-time contracts?

For quite a long time, we've been doing work with different academic researchers. We did some work with researchers from the University of Bristol about the physical effects of performance on actors, so what it's like for their physical well-being and their mental health too. They did cortisol tests on them, they had heart rate monitors, they did interviews with them. And one of the things that came out of that was that actors felt under huge pressure to be nice all the time.

We can then track back and look at times when we've had "challenging casts" and can see how if people feel under pressure to be nice the whole time, they don't raise smaller issues... Where it gets really significant is for increasing diversity and inclusion, particularly with, like, racial microaggressions. For a long time, people have felt they can't tell anyone because they don't want to be seen as difficult. But if you've got a permanent job, you develop a trust where you can talk it through. It's worth everyone's time learning, developing, and putting the time into that conversation because you're going to be together for years and you want to keep making great work. You trust the company, the company trusts you, and you can grow and evolve together.

How did you play a role as Artistic Director in creating these contracts?

I came up with the idea! We looked at the problem and went, "What can we do?" We're at a time where we've been quite empowered to make a big change because it's really difficult at the moment. Financially, now is a particularly challenging time for us, which is why we're able to do it. It's interesting that a lot of people have seen the launch and gone, "Where have you got the funding from? How are you doing this?" It's actually part of the reason we can do this; we don't have much to lose.

Our previous business model wasn't working and we weren't prepared in good conscience to do it anymore. I don't want to be the chief executive of a company where you do research projects and find out that actors are struggling with their mental health and well-being - I don't want to be part of that system. However much we look after our actors, ethically, I don't want to be involved in that anymore. So we had this moment; do we carry on? Do we stay open? It's really challenging, money-wise, and we were completely unhappy with the system.

We had this turning point early on this year...the rep company was the thing that we went, "If we did that, then we believe in this again, and then we believe in the mission. We believe in the power of theatre, and this being a brilliant thing for the world." We're in a fortunate position that we've been able to take the challenges at the current moment to go, "If this doesn't work, it's a noble hill to die on." If we don't make it through the next year, we went out doing the right thing and treating people the right way.

Interview: Lucy Askew: The Artistic Director of Creation Theatre Talks About the Radical Decision to Offer Actors PAYE Contracts
Creation Theatre Rep: Natasha Rickman, Delvene Pitt,
Emily Woodward, Anna Tolputt, Nick Osmond​​​​​

How did you go about choosing the repertory company?

So we started with two sides to our approach. We felt quite strongly that we wanted some of that rep company to be people we've worked with before. We have a diversity and inclusion board and we all talked it through. We wanted to open up new opportunities, to have new people in the company. We didn't want it to feel like a closed process.

In the industry, there's a lot of abandoning people you've worked with over the years in the drive for the new and emerging. We felt that this is about long-term investment in people, people being able to have families and security. It wouldn't sit right with that ethos to then go, everyone must be new, or that people we've known a long time need to jump through hoops to get the job. So we started by looking at people we'd worked with before, who were based in Oxfordshire. So some of the company have come from that list of people who've been in shows, who we know understand us and we understand them. Then we did a bit of spreading the word through agents, social media, and people we knew to look for other people who are Oxfordshire-based. We found a couple of our rep company that way. We didn't audition people because we're not auditioning someone for a role... and then we had people submitting through Spotlight and had some meetings with them. So we ended up with our gang that way.

We're expecting they'll kind of be a churn to it. We don't want any of them to leave and we're hoping to extend beyond two years, but we're also really aware people will get a Netflix series, move out of Oxfordshire, or decide they want to go do something different with their lives. So it's an important message for other performers that just because we've got that rep company, we do think there will be other opportunities that will occur naturally over the years, or that our rep company might take extended leaves. The idea would be that it would provide other opportunities for people to join, and come and go.

Was it a conscious decision to not require auditions?

Yeah, it was! The general principle of it was that we knew people were up to the job, and auditions are very imperfect ways to put together companies because they're normally so short - you're looking at twenty minutes to half an hour. You can determine whether somebody can play a role in that time, but what you can't determine is how they fit into a whole group of actors and how much they'll enjoy the type of work that you make and your style as a company. So we found out that allowing the time to chat has been more beneficial.

How do you believe that the full-time PAYE contracts will influence creators and performers in the future?

Our dream is to see this become a shift in the industry. We would love to see more people considering this - it could solve a lot of problems. I think it also could really increase the quality of work because a lot of actors' time is spent going into auditions and looking for the next job. It's diverting more of their time into honing their craft and into more time to prepare for roles. It gives the ability for writers to write for a particular rep company. It changes the relationship with directors because often a director's first role is to cast the show, so directors are going to come in and be told, "Here's your cast."

And it's been interesting! We are working with a researcher, Heidi Ashton at Warwick University, who's going to be talking to the company and keeping a close eye on it. Heidi's specialism is creative ensemble work and looking at European models, with an interest in why this doesn't exist in the UK. The proof will be in a couple of years if we're showing that it benefits performers but also benefits the organisation as well.

Do you think that this contract system has a future within the UK in the industry?

I think it absolutely does. There's always the risk. Obviously, we see it as an opportunity because we're voluntarily doing it, but there is always a world where the option to be freelance could be taken away from actors and producers anyway.

If you were doing lots of PAYE contracts short-term, that's a real pain. It's a pain for the performers, and it's a pain for producers. In a way, we're trying to get in there first to show a way to go "Well, if that does happen, here's how you can make it work."

Creation Theatre's The Tale of the Beauty and the Tail of the Beast is at The North Wall, Oxford from 4 December 2022 - 7 January 2023



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