Discussions about poverty in the creative sector fail to include the theatre and performative arts, where it is not “immaterial labour”, but specifically working without pay which has become the driving force behind activity

In the year 2015, Krytyka Polityczna published The Black Book of Polish Artists. Its cover shows Zbigniew Libera holding a sign with the words: I AM AN ARTIST, BUT THIS DOESN’T MEAN I WORK FOR FREE. This Black Book, however, represents one of the most potent practice and theory publications on the subject of so-called “immaterial labour” of recent years. Considering the proposed methodological tools and analysis of the circumstances those working in the arts sector are forced to endure, the position taken up by Krytyka Polityczna and the Civic Forum of Contemporary Art represents the ideal complement to the “The Art Factory. A report from the Free University of Warsaw”, edited by Michał Kozłowski, Jan Sowa and Kuba Szreder.

The Black Book, being a collection of essays, manifestos and documents, speaks more clearly about the question of social status either enjoyed or suffered by those working in the arts sector. Its most basic expression can be found in Kuba Szreder’s text titled “Why Are Artists Poor?”, which includes part of the manifesto drafted by artists who went on strike on the 24th of May 2012: “Those who create culture are socially engaged. Their activities improve the quality of the city space and the living standards of those who inhabit it. (…) Meanwhile, the majority of those who produce culture are impoverished. Lacking permanent employment, most artists struggle to make ends meet. They work hard, but earn little and far from often. They are usually the first to suffer from budget cuts and unfavourable changes in the labour markets”.

Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

The reality of work done by artists being poorly rewarded, not allowing them to derive any meaningful income from their efforts, also leaving them unable to depend on any regular public handouts, has been dissected in a wide range of publications covering employment in museums and for museums, and also arts events such as the artists’ strike of 2012 held in galleries and arts centres, which led to the clarification of postulates and the legalisation of the activities of the Civic Forum of Contemporary Art. And yet, a list of questions remains: How is it possible that criticism of institutions so vividly focused on museums and galleries is so blatantly absent from the theatrical community? Why is work on shared artistic projects in the theatre not perceived to be part of the mechanisms of exploitation? Why do we not challenge these using tools developed by institutional critique? Why do so few performances relating to the world of theatre attempt to describe, analyse and deconstruct the conditions in which they are produced and their means of production? In other words – why does any sort of discussion about poverty within the arts not include the theatre and other performative arts?

It appears that in the theatre and the performative arts it is not immaterial labour, but specifically “work for nothing” which has become the driving force behind creative activity. Here we are witnessing the biggest gap between what public institutions can do and the potential field of activities in the so-called independent sphere, one which is not subject to public institutions. Put simply, activities outside of institutions are based on “low budget” systems, which indicates semi-voluntary work in a place whose founders have no funds, either to pay themselves or to hire the space they work within. Public theatres can usually afford to cover the cost of their premises, but this is also related to the fact that they do so by employing staff on temporary and/or badly paid contracts. The very idea of a “śmieciówka” (trans. “crap contract”, “junk contract”), so often used in pre-election debates, can also be described in the context of its functioning in theatrical institutions.

“Śmieciówka” is not only a label applied to contracts drafted in a way which is unfavourable to the employee. It also implies lack of respect for someone’s labours, of the maintenance of a radically hierarchical relationship between the employed and the employing. It somehow keeps alive the maxim: “Work is a privilege – one has to earn the right to a job”, a synonym for an unclear and unfair distribution of internal means and the legitimation of all shady explanations offered up by arts managers: “We can’t afford to increase the number of permanent contracts”, “Our budgets are exhausted”, “You have to give to receive”, “Don’t get your hopes up”, “We’re doing all we can”, “You’re connected to the theatre, so your wages will be lower, because the opportunities are huge, you have to understand it this time”. It is also a way to label the lack of communication, interrupting the flow of information, overdue payments of wages and treating talks about remuneration as insulting to the role of the artist. In terms of Polish theatrical institutions, “śmieciówka” is utilised as an expression of generosity and good will, and not avoidance of responsibility or a tool of exploitation.

For a Few Coins

At the other end of the spectrum, there is unfair treatment of staff employed on permanent contracts, including lack of adherence to regulations, missing overtime payments and, worst of all, the turning of cultural institutions into machines for the mass production of artistic events – production so lacking in insight and subtlety that it overwhelms the space in which employee initiatives and trade unions can flourish. One of the factors which goes with the maintaining of such a state of affairs is the way in which people are employed. Most public theatres in Poland are not dependent on hiring people from outside their own ranks, because the main point of reference in evaluating the way a theatre is perceived is through its actors and actresses, who tend to be contracted staff. Though not all of them are…

The technical team remains invisible and lacking in external representation. Michał Buszewicz used his show Question of Technique in order to reveal himself to audiences, along with Jarosław Majzel, Janusz Rojek and Mirosław Wiśniewski, his technical colleagues from the Old Theatre in Krakow. The three protagonists take apart the process of hiring and firing, criticising the “star system” (favouring celebrity artists), toying with the expectations of audiences which, coming to this national stage, are mostly interested in what is happening behind the scenes. Paradoxically, teams of actors lack this sort of empowerment – public knowledge about their salaries, roles and functions within the theatres is non-existent. Jan Klata, the director of the Old Theatre, interviewed in Gazeta Wyborcza, describes newly hired actors as the “best transfers in Poland” (echoes of football players and their moves between clubs). Thus theatrical companies are seen as sports teams whose task is to run well in a “relayed marathons”. The show is what counts, not the way in which it was produced – all that matters is the final act, which involves beating the competition provided by other theatres and their troupes.

In other words, one can either work in a theatre on a two-month temporary contract worth 3,500 PLN (before tax), or for 1,600 PLN per month (after tax) for the assurance of permanent contract. In terms of this sort of web of dependency, both the politics of permanent contracts, as well as the politics of “crap contracts” in Polish theatrical institutions, become easy targets for cynics, introducing the next stage of neoliberal blackmailing of those working in the arts.

Institutional critiques fail to cover the world of theatre not only because that which they deliver is essentially ephemeral and fleeting. This failure is mostly down to the process of working for such institutions being hazy, unregulated, based on unsanctioned persons wielding power and often using force, which in turn evade systemic analyses, often destroying the psyche and the emotional wellbeing of workers. These are categories which are hard to pin down, and admitting that a theatre has done someone harm is often seen as shameful. This is the way bullying works, and it’s not something which is new to the world of theatre. Mobbing (the Polish word for “bullying”) has always held the world of the stage hostage, even before the breaking of employment laws, the belittling of individuals and the keeping of employees at an arm’s length entered the equation.

The recent transformation of the political establishment in Poland does not bode well for any hopes of resolving these complex issues. The actions of the new Minister of Culture and National Heritage are making many believe that he is the only enemy, and all efforts aimed at improving conditions in theatre land should be directed at external factors – such as the postulates and plans being introduced by the new political regime. This means the chances for critical self-analysis begin to dissipate, along with alternatives to outdated structures. Perhaps this isn’t the right time for the introduction of broadly envisioned reforms within theatrical institutions or else is, in fact, the last chance we have to attempt such reforms and develop alternative models.

Theatrical institutions in Poland lack the courage to be truly self-reflective, in ways exemplified by the recent decision of the Schauspiel Stuttgart to invite the She She Pop collective to conduct an internal analysis of workplace dynamics within their theatre. For a whole year, members of the external collective conducted interviews with those working for the Stuttgart theatre, studying the functions and power structures hidden behind its walls. Their work was not focused on becoming a temporary fix, but was instead intended to once again revisit the idea of a unified theatrical team. Seeing as the concept of “collective” has been so deeply compromised in the symbolic sphere, perhaps it is worth considering it in the context of actual employment within a theatre, in terms of the webs of relations and dependencies between permanent and temporary workers?

Oliver Frljić attempts something similar in his work, although in his case the effect is more explicit and direct. The theatre formula developed by this director is always based on presenting a localised vision. During initial rehearsals, actors are presented with a range of questions, focused on economic dependencies and civic duties: “Have you ever taken part in a strike?”, “Do you agree with the views you express when in character?”, “Do you belong to a trade union?”, “Do you think theatre is a tool for social and political change?”. Conversations on these topics combine to form a shared platform for communication, allowing co-workers to verbalise their position in relation to the institution as a political apparatus and an entity which only superficially lacks concrete bodies.

What after the Institution of Critique?”1, a conference organised by Marta Keil at the Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz, might represent the first step on the way to considerations of the individual functioning within networks of dependency established by theatres. The presentation given by Florian Malzacher seems especially telling, seeing as he showed a different direction for the development of theatrical teams other than the publicly acknowledged state institutions and theatrical collectives – less popular in Poland, but essential features on the map of the most important developments in world theatre. Artistic organisations and institutes of performative arts can point towards a new way of developing the arts – both more profitable, as well as fair and equal. Organisations such as the Centre for Political Beauty, but also Milo Rau’s Institute of Political Murder, which unites people from different networks and from different parts of the world, have to remain in a state of auto-referential readiness. They have to contest the means of production, because they are the ones who formulate and apply them. There is the chance that similar entities, connecting research institutes and production houses, will not fall into the same traps as previous authoritarian theatrical hierarchies.

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Finally, we must ask whether Polish theatrical institutions will have the courage to review their own internal mechanisms. Could they become places where self-governance takes root, and would they have what it takes to reveal how much their staff are earning? Would any Polish theatre be able to introduce a different division of managerial responsibility, without turning their team of actors into a freewheeling group dependent on a repertoire imposed upon them from above? Perhaps such radical change is not possible without grassroots involvement and workers taking up the call? Perhaps it would be possible as an answer to internal postulates and protests from people working in theatres or collaborating with them?

Alas, it is more likely that the sad perspective of “no change whatsoever” will prevail. Performative initiatives will be received by existing communities with the same lack of interest as right now, and artistic interventions will legitimise the theatrical status quo. Total secrecy surrounding salaries will mean there will be no official pay raises, though they will remain a negotiating element in discussions about impending redundancies, while conversations continue taking place behind closed doors down the same old corridors of power.

AGNIESZKA JAKIMIAK – playwright, film critic and essayist, she graduated from Warsaw University’s College of Inter-Faculty Individual Studies in the Humanities and is currently studying playwriting at the Directorial Department of the National Academy of Theatre Arts in Krakow. She has written scripts for shows by Weronika Szczawińska (Genius in a Roll-neck Sweater, How to Be Loved) and has worked with the likes of Anja Suša and Oliver Frljić.