More than one year into the pandemic, Berlin’s theatres still struggle with an uncertain future. As Germany looks towards distant post-lockdown life, it’s still unclear what the months ahead hold for freelancers in this struggling industry. Budgets will be slashed as audiences, whenever they do return, will be at far below capacity. (A series of test concerts this month will cap audiences at 30%.) And while many theatres, actors, costume designers, directors and choreographers received government grants to keep them afloat, many freelancers were deemed ineligible for extra support, for reasons as trivial as who was paying for for their health insurance when the pandemic broke out.
Babylon Berlin actress and theatre industry spokesperson Laura Kiehne has been advocating for freelancers throughout the crisis. She spoke with us about the difficult road ahead for her fellow self-employed theatre workers.
How helpful has the Berlin government been throughout the crisis?
Senator for Culture Klaus Lederer (The Left) takes the troubles of freelance cultural workers seriously and tries to help quickly and without much bureaucracy. The €5,000 emergency aid was extremely important, a real life-support measure for many self-employed people. A big problem is that many fall through the cracks. For example, actors who are only hired for one play at a theatre are covered by social insurance through the theatre during this time. As such, they weren’t entitled to support from these aid funds, even if they now have to get through the months without performances and fees. This is not Mr Lederer’s fault, but simply a consequence of the legal and collective agreement provisions, which are often unfavourable for freelancers.
Have Berlin theatres behaved fairly towards freelancers and guests during the crisis by, for example, paying the agreed fees for performances that could not take place during the lockdown?
Most of them at least tried to be fair. But the collective agreement does not provide for the payment of fees if rehearsals or performances have to be cancelled due to force majeure, for example. This means that the fee can be completely or partially cancelled.
While the permanent employees at the theatres are paid with full wages or a topped-up Kurzarbeit allowance, freelance actors who were on stage with them fall into a bottomless pit. Would you like to see more practical solidarity from your employed colleagues, perhaps in the form of financial support?
On the one hand, yes. At least from those who earn well. But many actors and other colleagues don’t earn much, even in permanent employment. They are not protected from losing their jobs when companies are downsized for budget reasons. We don’t believe in playing freelancers and permanent staff off against each other. The solidarity we want in the ensemble network is to correct the collective agreements so that freelancers are better protected. On the employers’ side, the Bühnenverein is also called upon to anchor improvements in the collective agreement.
The number of freelancers has increased significantly in theatres over the last 20 years. The engagement of guests is not the rare exception, but rather the rule in view of the significantly smaller ensembles at many theatres. But the collective agreement has not been reformed accordingly. This is to the detriment of the freelancers. We absolutely must have this discussion. If there’s anything good about the crisis, it’s that we can all see very clearly that the legal situation of freelancers at theatres is untenable.
Do you have an example?
One is the passage in the collective agreement that the fee does not have to be paid if a performance is cancelled due to force majeure. This is legally complicated and controversial. It means that the risks of disruptions to the business, for which no one is to blame, are dumped on the weakest, as is now the case with the pandemic. That is simply unfair. We would like to see a working group in the union and the stage association, for example, to correct this problematic passage.
You mentioned that the pressure to save money in the coming years could have painful consequences for theatres and their employees. Do you have any indications of this?
We don’t know how drastic the cuts will be. But if even rich Munich will cut its cultural budget over six percent, we fear even harsher cuts for poorer cities and states. We fear that many cities and countries will expect savings from their theatres. This can hit the weakest first: freelancers and actors whose contracts are not renewed.
The pandemic will make the country, plus many cities and municipalities, poorer. Isn’t it understandable that strained public budgets must make savings, including in the cultural budget?
It simply important that this is done in a socially just and balanced way.
Would you like to see greater salary transparency and flatter salary ranges at the theatres, perhaps through higher minimum salaries?
Absolutely. We’ve been proposing for years that theatre salaries should be based on the collective agreement for the public sector, the TVÖD. It applies to many theatre employees, but not to freelancers. With this, a flatter salary structure with smaller gaps between the salary groups could be established. It could finally eradicate the gender pay gap that is still blatant in many theatres.
If budgets become smaller and money distributed more fairly, privileges at the top of the pyramid must also be cut. Does a higher minimum salary also include an upper limit for high salaries?
We also have to talk about solidarity principles, of course. Many theatres cannot manage their high output of premieres and performances without freelancers. The theatres owe them something. According to surveys by the Künstlersozialkasse, freelance theatre artists earn an average of €20,000 a year, gross – and that was before the crisis. This can be done more fairly and more socially.