Tim Wilson is a Director of VAULT Festival, whose 2017 event runs from January 25 – March 5 and features almost 200 performances. Visit the official website for full programme information and tickets.
Festivals thrive on the people who build them, that’s self evident – but what about professional training? What about job security and retention? How do you offer growth potential? In summary, how do you hold onto the great people working around you?
Festivals begin with an idea and no small amount of idealism. They begin with perhaps three or four people huddled around that central idea. From there, yes, it’s anybody’s guess how long the idealism lives and how bright the idea remains. But you can guarantee that if the job lacks satisfaction, engagement, prospects, rewards and incentives, people are going to wander away and find some other idea to kindle.
How do you stop that happening? How do you sustain the fun of the fair, while transitioning a team into the fairground business?
For hitting high job satisfaction, take your cue from the content and concept of the Festival. As often as possible, from contracting, to remuneration, to operations, if there’s something in the job that can mirror the festival itself, then it should do so. At VAULT Festival we speak first about equality and honesty, and we provide a platform for artists to present their work in a fair context.
This means offering open-book management to everyone we work with. Everyone can see the numbers, see the risk. There’s no culverts where secret profit can be diverted to, and that lends an equal truth to every interaction between our staff and either the public or the visiting artists. No mark ups, no charge backs, no tricks. There’s satisfaction in seeing the same principle from top to bottom, side to side in an organisation.
Jobs also are satisfying if they feel active – producing tangible results, and having a tangible effect on those results. This means feedback, both ways. Supervisors should point out when targets are being hit or missed. If you’re at work, you should know that you can feedback about better ways to do things.
At VAULT, this two-way feedback isn’t seen as up-and-down the chain. It’s lateral – that helps it to be truthful. It’s easier, if you’re inexperienced, to have a conversation about what works and what doesn’t, than to write it up in a critique of the management.
Engagement is the simplest target to hit. It’s about being close to the coal face. If the festival is about food, get eating! If it’s about theatre, get watching! Whatever it’s about, engagement means being involved with It, and being involved with the other people who love It. To use the market terms, if everyone knows the end product and end user, and is given a chance to use, improve, and display that engagement, it makes for a sense that an individual’s work has value in the festival environment.
For those three or four people huddled around the initial idea, they might see a zillion prospects for their little festival idea. I know that for the first few years, when I shared dreams for the future with Mat, and then Andy when he joined, the energy of ambition and hope was an insta-tarmac over any amount of roadbumps.
But not everyone will be fuelled by such snake oil. And if you’re ever hired someone fantastic and watched them walk off into a better job somewhere else, you’ll know that you need to make your festival as good a prospect as any other. This is harder than it sounds because there’s two traditional ways to do this: job title or money. And truthfully, the first of those is only a route to the second.
This might not apply to your festival. Maybe you run on voluntary work. Maybe everyone’s paid handsomely. Well done and please write next week’s column with your secrets! Make sure to think ahead and figure out where you’re going to need elasticity, as preparation is everything. (And it never hurts to try and spread the snake oil energy of ambition and hope around!)
Working in festivals is a career path that doesn’t have much in the way of pensions, perks, bonuses or employee schemes. There’s a way to make working at your festival far more enticing, though, and it’s part of the solution for the conversation about prospects too.
Which job would you choose – the one that you can do right now, or the one that trains you to do the next five jobs? Of course, not every role has training courses – but for curators, technicians, ushers, producers, look for something that you can accredit, that you can offer documentation for, that might put a shine on working at your festival. Maybe it’s just some dedicated time with the people who occupy a different position in the festival.
At VAULT, this means that everyone at more senior positions is available for one-on-one time with any member of staff, to discuss their projects, advise on their work, or to share some insight about where the best place to look for work is. It’s baked into all our contracts: make time to share.
We also train people in first aid, working at height, box office systems, management, marketing, press and artist liaison, but that may be gilding the lily.
Wait, it sounds like we got it right at VAULT and that’s not what I wanted to say! We’ve had lots of fantastic people work with us and then move on, so we haven’t got it right all the way. So, what’s the last thing…the big thing.
Sometimes you forget to make it fun for you – and I’m not talking about festival directors. I’m talking to every role in Festivals. Yes, it’s sometimes hard work. It can be good or bad business. But it should be fun. And that’s up to you. Keep the silly bits. Keep some of them at least. It should be fun, and if you ever read a recipe or a how-to-make-a-job-fun list, I’ll be the first to say – that doesn’t sound like fun.