Location, location, location

An epiphany led to Natalie Pulfer selling up her house, moving to London and embarking on a two year MA Arts Policy and Management degree at Birkbeck. This is her #BBKgrad story.

This is a photo of graduand Natalie Pulfer

Natalie Pulfer

Natalie Pulfer is no stranger to the performing arts world having previously performed at the Royal Albert Hall with a background in local theatre. Yet, she put all of her creative ambitions aside to become a social worker and for the past 20 years has worked within the field, with specific responsibilities for children’s services.

Three years ago, she recalls waking up one day deciding that it was time to revisit her passion and look at ways of getting back into the Arts. She says, “I’m originally from Suffolk and I decided to sell my house, up sticks and move to London with the pure aim of getting back into the Arts somehow and this course seemed to be the best way that I could do it. I literally sold the house in April/May (2017), moved to London in September and started the MA in October. It really just all fell into place.”

The last time she had pursued academic study was in 2015, as part of continuous development for her social work career, but she relays that the Master’s was on a totally different level in terms of the approach and acquiring knowledge. To adapt to the challenge, she credits embracing the task ahead and being open to the support needed to overcome this as well as learning from others enrolled on her course in terms of easing back into learning.

Peer support was quite crucial to Natalie’s study path though she was conscious of her age and recognized that she was one of the “older ones”. However, she says she wasn’t acutely aware of this: “Everyone else was in their twenties and early thirties whereas I was in my mid to late thirties but I see that was also to do with the course I’d chosen to do. You tend to have to get into the Arts at a younger age. It was good to get those people around me with their energy. I quite enjoyed that.”

The flexibility of the Birkbeck learning model was also noted as pivotal to her study success and whilst she was working all day until 5pm and then having to go off to study at 6pm, she shares that she might have gone in lectures tired but never left tired. She would be doing 9am-9pm days, getting home at 10pm but shares, “The energy that you got from it was just great. You didn’t feel that you couldn’t engage and that was down to the tutors, really. They brought a lot of energy to it.”

Natalie studied her course over two years, on a part-time basis and whilst the experience was hugely beneficial; with her recently taking on some production work for an online festival and some further work with a production company, she notes that it wasn’t without its challenges. In her second year, she was diagnosed with dyslexia but found the College extremely supportive with adapting the study approach and providing technical equipment.

To anyone considering study at Birkbeck, she offers the following words of encouragement, “Just do it and don’t think about the barriers.” She adds that her social work career might have deterred her from applying elsewhere but Birkbeck identified her previous management skills and arts experience and was also able to draw on her knowledge of policy from her social work; which were all considered as part of her application.

As to the best part of studying in London, it’s clear she’s in no doubt the move from Suffolk to London was for the best. She says, “For the Arts, I think learning your craft in London is key because you have access to the theatres, arts projects and arts communities and that made a massive difference.”

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BEI Breakfast Seminar: work life balance and career penalties in the performing arts

Professor Almuth McDowall led a lively and thought-provoking discussion at the first School of Business, Economics and Informatics Breakfast Seminar of the academic year.

On a crisp, autumnal Monday morning, academics from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology, were joined by students, colleagues and professionals working in or with an interest in the performing arts for the first BEI Breakfast Seminar of the academic year. Rebecca Whiting hosted the seminar as this links to the department’s wider interest of working with culture, arts and the creative industries.

Professor Almuth McDowall, who was leading the discussion, began by explaining why the performing arts had become a special interest for her department. The performing arts are the largest employer in the arts and culture industry, yet there are many elements of the sector that need to be better understood. Curiously, the sector is notably absent from UK wide employment surveys and statistics such as the Work Employment Relations Survey, especially when it comes to improving work life balance. Work in the performing arts is often cyclical in nature, unpredictable and subsidised by another job to make ends meet. This is a sector where job sharing makes headline news.

Career penalties in the performing arts

Professor McDowall shared the key findings of Balancing Act, a survey carried out by academics from the Department of Organizational Psychology in collaboration with Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts (PiPA). While performing arts professionals are highly engaged at work, there is a toxic mix of high levels of job insecurity with low levels of employability. Of those who were surveyed, 54% didn’t have full time contracts, in contrast to 15% of the general population, and those with caring responsibilities were much less likely to be in full-time, secure roles.

Women were found to be disproportionately affected by precarious working practices than men due to the ‘second shift’: cooking dinner, making sure birthday cards are bought and continuing to ‘work’ in many ways once their paid working day has finished.

Women also suffer a pay penalty in an already low-paid industry; the median part-time earnings of women surveyed were £5,000 less than men, suggesting that they have to rely on social and financial capital outside of work in order to pursue a career in the performing arts.

When it comes to caring responsibilities, 44% of women and 36% of men have had to change their work roles for this reason, for example, by not touring, or choosing not to work in the West End in order to spend more time with the family.

Furthermore, respondents who had left the performing arts industry did so almost unanimously to become a parent, with those able to continue their career relying on their social capital (partners, friends or family) for support.

In an environment that is practically hostile to working parents, 12% of respondents reported facing discrimination and bullying at work, with one survey respondent warning that “[t]he industry will not care for you”.

The case for change

So, Professor McDowall asked the room, is the ‘deal’ in the arts to accept job insecurity? As a woman, should you try to marry rich, since that’s strategically your best career move? Since performing arts workers are ‘lucky’ to be doing a job they love, should they just keep quiet about the downsides?

As an alternative to accepting the status quo, PiPA has developed a best practice charter for the performing arts industry, starting with recruitment. Professor McDowall stressed that practical solutions do not have to be expensive or call for extra resource, they can be as simple as giving performers and backstage workers more notice of future scheduling.

She also called for more research in order to understand the role that social capital plays in the workforce, and how to equip people working in the arts to craft their careers and negotiate a better deal.

The talk was followed by a passionate discussion from industry professionals both seeking support and sharing best practice. In response to a question about the biggest barrier to change, Professor McDowall suggested that organizational culture remains a barrier, and that more work needed to be done to “research into the active ingredients that will promote culture change in the performing arts, as it’s not an industry where there is a lot of time to reflect and take stock.” The demands of the arts simply require that often getting the next production on stage will take priority over more people focused activities.

Far from just accepting the status quo then, the morning ended with positivity that change can be made in the performing arts industry, since, as Professor McDowall put it, “surely there is an onus on the performing arts to better reflect society?”

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