Dear Rishi, 

Recently you were interviewed about your government's support for the arts sectors. Your comments in this interview have caused those of us in the arts to get a bit moody. That is because your comments are just the latest installment of the continuous way that members of your party and your government have repeatedly disrespected our careers and lives. 

 

Following this interview you asked ITV to change the headline on the story because you felt you were being misrepresented because the headline said “@RishiSunak suggests musicians and others in the arts should retrain and find other jobs”. 

The headline now reads: “Rishi Sunak says people in 'all walks of life' are having to adapt for employment”.

In the sentence directly following 'all walks of life' you mentioned theatre companies. In the one after that you mentioned theatrical performances. In the one after that you mentioned music lessons. I don't believe that you were talking about people in all walks of life, in an interview about government's lack of support for the arts, you were talking about me. Me and my friends and my colleagues. 

 

Your previous comments and those of members of your party and your government laid the ground work for those of us in the arts having this reaction to your comments. Business Secretary Alok Sharma told us we should learn skills to get "into better jobs.” This was when Ed Milliband was asking if he agreed with your comments suggesting that jobs in the arts were not 'viable'

If my job is so without skill and you think it's nonviable, come try it. Unfortunately, you might find it difficult to get work in theatre at the moment, so I’ll talk you through it. Not all of it, but let us say one day.

You’re a dresser. Day one of tech. It’s a new musical, so you do not know the music and you’ve never seen a run through, because the budget is too tight to pay you to sit and watch the show in the rehearsal room, despite it being the only real preparation that would help. If you’re lucky you’ll have seen the film it’s inevitably based on but that will likely not be very helpful.

For the whole of tech you will start work at 8am and be there until 11pm and you will work through your tea breaks. There will not be a single seat or surface in wardrobe not covered with costumes so you will probably eat your meals sitting on the floor of a corridor. But this is still day one, you're not completely exhausted - unless you were actually working on your previous contract until last night? Oh, you're unskilled, so you don't need experience or training. You're fresh as a daisy. Don't worry, tech will sort that out in no time.

As well as having all the usual tools of the trade (scissors, safety pins, spare laces, spare elastic laces, notebook, pen, head torch etc) somewhere about your person, you have an 8-page (minimum) printout with scene titles that mean less than nothing to you and those scene titles are not the same thing that the performers you are dressing know the scenes as. This is your only info about what happens when. There is no definitive way for these to be done, so on every show it’ll be a little bit different and often involves getting out the Sellotape and highlighters to make work for you.

You have another printout. This has the names and photos of the cast. So yes, you know what the names of the performers you’re looking after are, but their head shots are not necessarily recent and head shots kind of make everyone look the same and all the women will now have wigs on. However, because you don’t need skills to do my job, you’ve not got industry experience, so you definitely don’t know the names of anyone from any other backstage department and there is NOT A CHANCE IN HELL that anyone knows your name. YOU haven’t spent years building up contacts. YOU are unskilled.

On one of the pages it will say where the first person you need to change will come off stage and what they need to change into. You can’t go look for the performer you’re changing to talk them through what’s going to happen, just in case it happens when you’ve wandered off. You will stand there, ready to go for at least an hour with nothing happening. You will be given no warning when it does. You must be alert and ready whilst standing in a dark corner all day. You will also inevitably be in someone else's way. Victorian theatres were not designed for big modern musicals. 

Now, we will say that you’ve got your performer to know who to come to and where and what they’re putting on. It’s a full suit change, including shoes, socks, and with a member of the wigs department will be sticking on some facial hair. Remember, Rishi, you don’t need skills that you’ve learnt over years of training and experience to know how to make this work. Also remember if you can’t change them in time on the first go you are holding up the very tight schedule of at least 100 people.

You are unskilled, so you don’t make it first time. Because doing a quick change for the first time is like doing an elaborate pas de deux using multiple finnicky props and you’re doing it with a stranger and without having rehearsed it. This is your rehearsal. Not calmly in a rehearsal room. To a strict time limit and in the dark.

At this point your performer will start freaking out and telling the designer and the director/choreographer that IT CANNOT BE DONE! This is understandable, (they are stressed and had to walk on stage only half in their trousers) but this is a lie. You know that (well, I do, you don’t, you’re unskilled), the designer knows that, in all honesty, the performer knows that, but there is a lot of pressure because there will be an audience watching this VERY SOON. 

You have to rush the performer back into their previous costume (which has been chucked inside out into a basket. If you’re lucky) back on them so that you can go back and try the change again. And again, but only if you’re lucky. You get it right once, then you’ve got it sorted. Doesn’t matter if the costume/performer/time you have changes, it’s teched. Have fun doing that in the dress rehearsal, which might be tomorrow, but it might be in two weeks, after you've teched dozens more changes.

 

(Don't forget which performers want their left shoe first because putting the right on first is bad luck, because if you mess with luck in a theatre, you're screwed. After all, lets not discount that 2020 is just the theatre spirits really fucking about with one production of Macbeth.)

What I have described is barely 1% of the work that has to happen to even make that one change happen. For a change that is designed to not even be noticed by audiences there are designers, directors, choreographers, costumes supervisors, costumer buyers, costume makers, wardrobe managers, production stitchers, stage management, wigs and make up supervisors, wig makers, wigs managers, wigs show people, and also the two people who actually do the change - the performer and the dresser. 

 

Other parts of my job that I have not mentioned here include: the social and emotional elements of often being a confidante and counselor to the performers you look after, the ability to do quick and sturdy repairs to costume at a moments notice - often whilst still being worn or in the dark, the organisation and preparation to ensure every item of costume is where it needs to be for a show and knowing what will have to change, sometimes in an instant, to account for understudies, swings and split track covering, and then there is the ironing.

 

Do you iron your own shirts, Rishi? Let's race. Because with a good quality iron and enough elbow room I can iron a shirt in 75-90 seconds. 

If you think you could tech a quick change with a performer, which is a small fraction of one part of my job, then I dare you to do it. Show me that it's not a skill. 

The thing is, Rishi, I trained for this. I knew this is what I wanted to do.

I got my textiles GCSE in 2004 with the plan of getting the job I do.

I started my art foundation in 2006 so I could get into the university course to get the job I do.

I did work experience at my local theatres in 2007 so I could get the job I do.

I went to a drama school in 2010 to get the job I do.

I have worked in my industry for 13 years.

I am not unskilled. I am not unviable.

I love my job and I’m fucking good at it. 

Sincerely and with increasingly little respect, 

Anna Saunders

Founder of Not On The West End and also a skilled dresser. 

Thursday 8th October 2020

With thanks to Mike and Judie Saunders for their financial support of this project. 

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