In France, artists working in the live performance, film and audiovisual sectors have a special kind of unemployment insurance scheme: the régime des salariés intermittents du spectacle (scheme for intermittent workers in the performing arts). HesaMag went to meet four artists living in the south of France, each of whom manages his or her career in a unique way using elaborate organisational skills. We asked them about their day-to-day work as artists and the benefits, as well as the limitations, of the scheme.
According to the latest available figures (from 2017), 143 321 workers are registered with the French unemployment scheme for intermittent workers in the performing arts, which is 66% of the 217 153 workers in the live performance (dance, theatre, music), film and audiovisual sectors, be they artists, workers or technicians. This is a rather special unemployment insurance scheme. On the one hand, it allows organisations and firms in these sectors to recruit employees on very short fixed-term contracts, with no limitation on the number of consecutive contracts (in 2017, the figure went up to more than 50 contracts in a year for some), and on the other, it entitles workers who have accumulated 507 working hours over a period of 10 months to unemployment benefit during non-working periods. However, this scheme is restricted to professionals whose work is primarily associated with artistic creation projects, meaning that it excludes teachers of artistic disciplines (such as dance and music teachers). The scheme was set up to offset the inherent discontinuity of periods of employment in these professions.
We met four French performing artists to obtain a better understanding of this French scheme for intermittent workers, what they gain from it, and the constraints it imposes.
Isabelle Uskï is self-taught and sees herself primarily as a multidisciplinary artist: she dances, plays the accordion and performs vocal improvisations and clowning. She is a performer, teacher and "explorer of the body in motion and in relation", according to the website of Chorescence, the company she has been directing for 15 years. She has only been an intermittent worker since 2015, when she decided to focus her activity on creative work.
Régis Soucheyre, on the other hand, is a self-employed intermittent worker. An "all-rounder", he started with music and progressed into dance and theatre. He likes projects that bring him close to the audience. He was involved in amateur projects before he was made redundant and took advantage of this to change career path and become a professional artist.
Yannick Barbe, along with Véro Frèche, has been co-directing the company Les Noodles, which describes itself as presenting "all-terrain theatre" since 2004. A self-taught comedian and musician, after graduating and working as an architect he started acting as an amateur, because he loved it. Since then, he has performed in a large number of plays with several companies (such as Droguerie moderne) and staged theatrical productions, often darkly funny, working for Noodles and the Compagnie de Poche. We met him at home in Grenoble.
Nicolas Hubert has been a dancer and choreographer for 20 years. He directs the company Épiderme in Grenoble, with which he stages creative projects for both the theatre and public spaces. His dancing career came about after he met a choreographer when he was studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and performing as a musician in a group. He stayed with his company for nine years, during which he trained himself in contemporary dance in Paris. In 2004, he set up his own company to stage his choreography, first alone and later with different dancers and artists.
The French scheme: an exception that offers protection
Yannick Barbe sums up the advantages of the intermittent workers’ scheme in France: "What I like is that I operate as self-employed, but with the status of an employed person." This is precisely what makes this scheme so attractive to a large number of workers in the artistic sphere: the ability to enjoy independence within your organisation and to choose your own projects, while still being employed by each organisation you work for. And all this while still drawing unemployment benefit in periods between contracts. This system only operates, of course, on the condition that one has "put in one’s hours", as the intermittent workers we met described it – that is to say, clocked up 507 working hours over a period of 10 months. These much-talked-about hours were fiercely defended and ultimately maintained during the protests triggered off in 2003 when the French government sought to review these exceptional French arrangements with a plan to reform the intermittent workers’ scheme. The four artists we met all thought the same: this scheme is financially advantageous, and the arrangements are protective. The "smoothing" of income is a security factor: systematic compensation for days not worked means that remuneration can be levelled out over the year, and changes of activity, which are frequent and almost inevitable in these professions, can be offset.
A driver of creativity
As participation in creative artistic projects is the number one condition for access to the intermittent workers’ scheme, it is in the interest of all artists to prioritise their creative projects to the detriment of their other activities, including audience engagement. "The scheme requires people to develop their own creative projects," explains Isabelle Uskï. In this way, it influences the organisation of the artist’s work as much as it denotes membership of a professional world that has its own special operating rules.
The terms of the intermittent workers’ scheme therefore make it a powerful driver for creative work. But it is also a scheme that supports creative activities by providing artists with a certain level of economic well-being. As Isabelle Uskï says, "it gives you space", and that helps to generate new ideas. In her artistic work, she makes a real effort to "take time". This is illustrated by the titles of her productions, Ralentir (Slowing down) and Respire (Breathe). The scheme thus allows artists to take time to explore new avenues. Yannick Barbe explains that there can be some drifting in the creative process before it becomes productive, and for him "wasting time is important". The time that is "unwaged" but compensated is also used for other dimensions of work that are necessary for creation, such as documentation, reading, and also meeting people to expand an artist’s knowledge of a subject. Research is an integral part of the creative process, and "this is necessary to produce high-quality performances", the artist explains.
Very busy periods of “unemployment”
The unwaged periods that the scheme compensates for are far from being rest periods. They are partly devoted to research and creative work, but they are also used for other activities that are vital to artists (particularly when they have their own company), such as management, administration, networking and organisation. Artists are then in an ambiguous situation, as Isabelle Uskï explains: "All the time you spend looking for partners, putting together a project, counts as unemployment." The paradox of this scheme is that it does not allow for a clear distinction between periods of employment and periods of unemployment. A large number of different activities have to go into the realisation of a performance, ranging from the choice of a drama text or choreographic content to the technical set-up and the performance itself before the audience. Nicolas Hubert, as a choreographer and company director, admits that he puts his hand to just about everything: administration, costumes, choreography, scenery, coaching, performance, project supervision, management, and even "a bit of psychology". Some of these duties are easier to undertake and master than others. This versatility is part of the profession and, despite the constraints that this can impose, it is seen as a plus by the artists, partly because it gives substance to a profession that is sometimes abstract and seen by outsiders as "easy" or rather remote from reality.
A scheme with some dead ends
Although the scheme spontaneously steers artists towards creative work, more often than not they also carry out engagement activities for performing arts enthusiasts in the form of workshops and courses. Cultural institutions – in particular those that award subsidies and thus partly finance artistic creations – usually require some work in cooperation with these supporters. In some cases, it is also an essential means of "getting their status in order": in other words, achieving the required 507 hours. Teaching, being easier to plan in terms of duration than artistic work, provides some stability in earnings. It also makes it possible to organise one’s time better and offers opportunities for developing long-term partnerships with organisations outside the world of culture, such as schools. Therefore, developing these activities represents an important issue for artists, particularly in the field of dance, where the opportunities for staging productions are severely limited as available resources diminish. In this way, audience engagement and working with enthusiasts are genuine outlets for artists and give meaning to their work. The paradox is that this work is not fully recognised by the intermittent workers’ scheme: the number of hours declared has to be limited if professional artists want to maintain their entitlement to the benefit scheme.
These artists do not necessarily want to invest in teaching activities more than in artistic creation. For Nicolas Hubert, teaching "is interesting when it is linked to the artistic act". He affirms that he needs to feel "first and foremost like an artist". His "visceral" attachment to the intermittent workers’ scheme derives, to a large extent, from the fact that he is, by turns, a choreographer, a performer and a teacher. Yannick Barbe also mentions his need for balance between his creative work and the "social theatre" he offers with his company in the form of workshops at schools or other institutions. "Our school is pure creation," he explains, in contrast to workshops that are about "watching life, taking the temperature of the world all the time" to "feed our imagination".
Even though the four French artists recognise the reassurance of regular income that the intermittent workers’ scheme can provide, its operating principle, which dictates a number of hours that have to be worked during a set period, sometimes leads the artists to chase after contracts to "get their status in order". Nicolas Hubert admits, "There have been jobs that I wouldn’t have chosen to do if I hadn’t had to make up the hours". Yannick Barbe echoes these comments: "There is an economic reality that drives us to go too fast; sometimes you have to produce results." The quantitative objective and the cut-off point that goes with it are a source of constant stress for these intermittent artists. Nicolas Hubert, for example, admits that, even after 20 years of working on an intermittent basis and a great creative career recognised by professionals in the cultural field and by the public, he still worries about doing "enough hours" to qualify for the time limit. However much he plans his work over the year, projects are always throwing up unforeseen circumstances that can prevent him from meeting the time target, which means he is always overworked. Régis Soucheyre also relates that his greatest fear is not having a regular income. Taking it upon himself to do the work of promoting and putting on his shows is a way of ensuring that money will come in, which gives him reassurance.
Limited health protection
Social security rights for intermittent workers in France are calculated in a different way from the rights of other employees under the ordinary arrangements. To be entitled to compensation in the event of illness or pregnancy, for example, the quota of hours to be worked is different from the 507 hours of work in 10 months required for unemployment benefits. In this case, a worker has to provide evidence of 600 hours of work over 12 months or there is no sick pay. What is more, the calculation differs according to when the artist falls ill. And when an intermittent worker is ill for short periods, in order to be eligible for benefits, he or she has the same quota of working hours to achieve over the period of 10 months as people who have not been ill. In any case, it is not easy for artists to back out of a date for a show or a performance, even when they are ill. In other words, intermittent workers need to be in good health, as otherwise they run the risk of being automatically excluded from the scheme.
It is not easy to manage the situation of intermittent work and the multifaceted nature of artistic careers. They involve a high degree of self-sufficiency and organisational skills, particularly in periods between con- tracts. Régis Soucheyre, for instance, confides that he sets himself timetables and organisational rules on a daily and weekly basis – such as no weekend working except during performance periods – as a framework for his commitment to work. He also limits his creative time so as to have more time to devote to putting on shows. From his former ca- reer as an accountant, he has retained a taste for efficient, structured work. Performance periods are different: that’s when he shakes off his routine. Self-organising is something that Nicolas Hubert learned at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied before he became a dancer. In this kind of training, access to information is facilitated but students have to be capable of organising their projects on their own. Yannick Barbe also relates that he draws on skills he developed during his architectural training to practise his profession as an artist. He still has a taste for conceptualising innovative devices, and in his creative work he makes use of his skills in forward planning and implementation.
Difficulties in putting on shows cast a shadow on the future
Currently in France, particularly in dance, there are such significant constraints on putting on shows that they have a serious impact on artistic work and creativity. In Nicolas Hubert’s experience, the average number of performance dates for a choreographic production is three. This means that many dancers invest most of their time and money in the production and creation of shows with no guarantee that they will be able to stage them. Programmers are usually overwhelmed with information, which encourages them to work with people they already know, or, by contrast, constantly look for novelty. It is a real challenge to raise the profile of your work as an artist and to build long-term partnerships. The public is not always loyal either, particularly when, as with Nicolas Hubert, the artist likes to change style and domain with each new project. The difficulties involved in putting on shows cast a shadow on future prospects for a career as a professional dancer.
The compensation scheme for intermittent workers does provide a sense of financial security to artists who qualify for it, giving them room for manoeuvre to be creative, but it is no substitute for the true engine of artistic work: the relationship with the audience. "The profession has less meaning when you don’t meet the public, even when we’re given the means to work," concludes Isabelle Uskï•.