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The Other Palace is just another example of the corporate takeover of theatre culture

To London’s Other Palace, a rolling mess. Honestly, the full catalogue of stories would take more than a book to cover.

As you may now have read, a summarily letter was sent to casual front of house workers that had the professionalism of a Bank Holiday sing-a-long matinee of We Will Rock You.

The blanket letter sent from some kind of middle-management bunker began: “Dear Staff Member,” — have these people not heard of mail merge?

“I am writing to give you notice that your current contract with The Other Palace ends on 3rd September 2023. We have some new roles as detailed below available for the new show which starts on 8th September 2023.”

In 5 days? It went on to promise that the new roles with “fixed weekly hours” would mean “more stability within the team on all positions”.

Right you are. Aware that they can do whatever they want, though, the grim letter asks employees to send a brief paragraph for the role they wish to apply for and ‘why we should re-hire you’.

Where do you even start? It’s called fire and rehire – it seems nearly all corporate West End theatre operators are currently cynically exploiting things in this way to drive down casual workers pay and conditions. Join a union, kids. 

However, The Other Palace’s behaviour exposes much more than just low pay and poor terms and conditions; it also highlighted the significant legal imbalance that exists between arts workers and their employers.

But wait! A brazen statement followed: “The Other Palace issued a letter to FOH employees on casual & fixed-term contracts due to end on 3 Sept. We were pleased to let them know that there was the opportunity to continue working with us should they wish to be considered & are delighted by the number who are interested.”

There is simply no moral failing of theirs that would not cause their employees to passionately excuse it or love them more for it. Obviously. 

In a recent profile, fresh from a spin class, Other Palace artistic director Paul Taylor Mills said that he had stopped engaging in conversation on Twitter as an act of self-preservation. “It’s too aggressive for me.”

Fair enough. Bizarrely, a go-to phrase of Mr Taylor Mills is ‘Be Kind’.

Sorry what? Far be it for me to speak for all “real people”, but as a real person I have to say my overall impression is that the only people who are not usually being kind are the people in positions of power who deploy the phrase.

And yet, everything being someone else’s fault is surely not the most appealing strategy. 

Crucially, The Other Palace allegedly has and continues to put its loyal staff under tremendous stress and pressure. Why do we assume that they will do it for love?

In the meantime, key Theatre service staff are surviving on less and less. Where’s the sense and where’s the future in that? Where is SOLT?

Last week, one prominent West End theatre operator terminated FOH contracts with 2 weeks notice – one usher who contacted me said: “We didn’t even get a letter!” 

Of course, the entire theatre industry is facing the impact of a bleak economic reality, with the real challenges of Brexit and the hangover from the pandemic. Nobody disputes that.

But maybe corporate theatres like The Other Palace should think about treating casual workers with some dignity. As the cost of living crisis bites, maybe all theatres – Nimax, LW Theatres, Delftont Mackintosh and ATG should think of the ways that poor decision making, firing and rehiring loyal staff is impacting frontline staff and their wellbeing. And how about a little more transparency from West End Theatre owners around their commitment to paying staff Living Wage – not just Minimum wage.

These small steps may just help shift a theatre culture that currently sees nothing unusual in a cheap, often young drama school students, actors in the casual workforce subsidising its success.

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Director, Adam Lenson: “I’m all about musicals that push boundaries. Music is such an important tool for change.”

Director Adam Lenson is all about expanding the form of musical theatre.I believe the new British musical is going through a good time. But I also think it’s important to do bold and experimental musicals as well,” he tells me cheerfully.

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Director Adam Lenson in rehearsals.

“I’m all about musicals that push boundaries. Music is such an important tool for change,” he says.

Lenson has tackled Ryan Scott Oliver’s 35MM: A Musical Exhibition’ at The Other Palace his fourth musical in six months – a song cycle that is inspired by Broadway photographer Matthew Murphy’s photos. The show contains 15 songs based on 15 photographs. The show cleverly weaves a musical together thematically. So why 35 MM? “I tend to seek out work that is a little bit more complicated and thoughtful or maybe difficult,” he pauses. “I think people think of musicals as fun or accessible and easy; I tend to look for projects that have a little bit of friction, whether its intricacy or what is traditional.”

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35 MM: A Musical Exhibition at The Other Palace, Studio.

 

“With 35 MM, there are no rules. Just songs. Ryan has actively set out to make a piece that is a challenge for a director – you have a choice – I’ve always aspired to stage work that is unusual. As the director, I’ve tried to give location and identity to each of the songs so there is cumulative power to the songs.”

For Lenson, who has spent several years building his profile through the traditional path of assistant director roles and making projects happen, the changes have been gradual. “Directing is a job made up of a lot of skill and a lot of things: managing actors, working efficiently with a technical team, bringing people together to make a piece of integrated work,” he says.

“I assisted for a long time which I think was a huge benefit. I got to nick the bits of really good directors I like and bend them in a shape that works for me John Doyle’s expressionistic style I had always aspired to find my work. I worked a lot with Terry Johnson and he is a forensic playwright. I discovered a lot about text and caring about acting through choreograph expressionism. The biggest challenge is showing people that you can direct, lately I’ve been trying to make my own work rather than waiting around to be offered it.”

It’s no real shock that Adam has found a home at the new musical venue, The Other Palace. Lenson believes that the venue has a big part to play in the continuing revolution driving new and experimental musicals. “It’s probably no surprise that I’ve ended up working there!” He laughs.

“I believe the new British musical is going through a good time. But I also think it’s important to do bold but experimental musicals as well. The exciting thing for me about The Other Palace is it is an establishment sign of a growing commitment to developing new musicals.”

How does he manage his workload when thinking about his next wave of jobs?My brother is a management consultant, he often likens it to re-fuelling the plane while flying it,” he says drily. “I’m just constantly suggesting things to people and meeting people from all disciplines: writers, producers and actors, until I have the right combination of things.”

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35 MM: A MUSICAL EXHIBITION is at The Other Palace, London, until 30 September.