The Stage – News – Dominic Cooke: Theatres have focused on staffing levels at the expense of talent

Former Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke has claimed theatres have been focusing on staffing levels at the expense of funding talent.

He has urged theatres to commission work now for after lockdown, making use of freelance talent and “filling their larders” for the future.

The director was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme, alongside director Fiona Laird, who has been calling for freelancers not to be overlooked when the government’s £1.57 billion rescue package is distributed.

Cooke said that when he started 30 years ago, staffing levels in theatres were about half what they are now and said they had “bloated considerably since that time”.

Although he recognised that some of the increase is in areas where there has been a legitimate need for expansion, such as in digital, he said there had been “been an incremental spread in areas where assistants have been hired and people have believed hiring more people is the answer”.

He said he had “worried for a long time” that the proportion of public funding that is going into institutions’ logistics and administration was increasing and that Arts Council England should be “funding talent and not buildings”.

He added that “what should be prioritised is the commissioning of work for post lockdown”, including a raft of commissions to writers and the funding of a developmental approach to work, including workshops that make use of freelancers such as directors and composers. By doing this, he said theatres would be “filling the larder for when we come back”.

“There are a lot of talented people sitting around at the moment and I would make use of that,” he said.

Cooke also claimed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should take a proportion of the rescue money and give it to a hardship fund, in order to help people who “are desperately struggling” and need to be kept afloat.

Laird called for more protection of freelancers in the industry, and said: “We have hundreds and thousands of classically trained, highly skilled artists, working in Aldi, delivering pizzas and retraining, and there is no body that can represent freelancers. It’s a very disparate group of voices.”

She added that money has to go via the institutions and the “institutions have to make work that will employ freelancers”.

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