Bristol Hippodrome Calls For Volunteer Performers: A Show Of Disrespect To Struggling Artists?

Photo Credit: Jake Hancock

“The show will go on” – but at what cost?

On August 18th 2020, Bristol Hippodrome came under fire for their recent advert calling for volunteers to perform at their Piano Bar, which re-opened on August 13th.  The advert was highly criticised on social media, branded as “shameful” and “disgusting” by members of the public. While the Hippodrome boasted its “prestigious” reputation to attract volunteers, many were left questioning just how well this label really describes a venue undermining the craft of its performers by denying them pay.

In 2018, the creative industries contributed £111.7 billion to the UK economy, indicating the importance of our national arts scene. Yet, this figure also highlights the extreme financial loss suffered by the arts industry, made inevitable by the UK national lockdown following the Coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately, the arts industry has five months of annual revenue to recover from. This has led to job losses and a struggle for stable employment; theatres and live music venues have only been allowed to open as of August 15th.

At first glance, the Hippodrome’s request for volunteer performers may seem understandable, considering the financial drawbacks caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. However, with the government granting £1.57 billion to the arts industry – a loan of £3 million minimum to each eligible organisation – the Hippodrome’s exploitation of their performers in light of this financial advancement cannot be justified.

The arts industry is undeniably struggling. Yet it is unreasonable to assume that those employed within the industry are not; the Hippodrome isn’t the only venue to feel the effects of the pandemic. According to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), only 29% of those furloughed in the arts industry have returned to work so far. This statistic sheds an alarming light on those left with an unstable form of income, relying on pay through furlough instead of employment.

The Hippodrome, with its call for unpaid performers, has proven itself ignorant to this fact. It can even be argued as far as being a selfish move from Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), who manage the Hippodrome, to undermine the financial needs of its performers, especially when it can access government funding to re-open and recover financially as of this month. Both the advertisement itself, and the Hippodrome’s advertising techniques, can be considered disrespectful to performers.

The theatre itself is one of the biggest outside of London, labelled as “one of the UK’s most prestigious theatres” by ATG. Most famous for hosting West End shows on tour, the Hippodrome has seen performances of major shows such as Cats, The Lion King, Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. However, the advertisement only called for volunteer performers for the venue’s Piano Bar – a much more casual setting compared to the Hippodrome’s stage. This calls into question just how much of an amazing opportunity volunteers are faced with, as they are both downgraded from the main stage to providing bar entertainment and denied pay.

The Piano Bar, far from infamous without its attachment to the theatre itself, cannot be considered just as “prestigious” as the Hippodrome’s stage, making the attractiveness of performing in a well-respected venue seem much more underwhelming. The Piano Bar’s reputation pales in comparison to the Hippodrome itself; its reputable description on the advertisement can then be considered both dishonest and misleading to its audience. Performers were ultimately sold a dream with nothing in return, not even the experience of performing on the venue’s main stage. In this case, experience cannot be considered an equal means of pay.

Performing – with or without pay – is also a significant risk to those employed in the arts industry during the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite the two metre distance rule being reduced to one metre, the question of how social distancing can be upheld, especially in theatrical performances requiring physical interaction, is raised. How can performances successfully and safely adapt to a socially distanced stage while maintaining the same dramatic effect?

Andrew Lloyd Webber has branded the task as “impossible in the theatre”, as more than just intimacy in performances have to be considered, such as one-way systems, queues and the overall operating of venues. With audiences being reduced to only 30% capacity, theatres across the UK also face lower income, and an inevitably reduced success rate, on their journey to fully reopening.

Considering the risk of returning to work – not only because of coronavirus, but also the limited success of adapted and reduced performances – further highlights the lack of thought behind the Hippodrome’s demand. Why should a financially struggling performer, open to the risk of infection, do so without receiving pay in return? In its advertisement, the Hippodrome has disregarded the mutuality between give and take.

The Hippodrome has since apologised for and withdrawn the advertisement, claiming that plans for a Monday open mic night were released “prematurely”. It is unfortunate that only after social media backlash, ATG were able to identify their move as a mistake – one that may tarnish the venue’s reputation until the full reopening of theatres across the UK on 18th October.  

Words by Flossie Palmer.

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