With a large part of theatre’s workforce excluded from the government’s rescue package, many are considering leaving the industry. Adele Thomas says it’s crucial that those who have been left behind join the conversation
We have all looked on in horror as the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic ripped through the theatre industry. Seemingly indestructible institutions across the UK suddenly look as if they are built on sand.
The government’s announcement of its £1.57 billion support package for the arts allowed us all a moment of relief. Watching the news break and flow through social media and the theatre community in the way that it did was, for a beautiful brief moment, exhilarating. We now face the most crucial moment in the campaign so far: what comes next.
Few will have failed to notice the glaring omission from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s announcement: how this funding would find its way to freelancers. Freelancers make up about 70% of the total theatre workforce, which is more than 200,000 people. We make the plays, musicals and live experiences that are part of the fabric of British life.
As lockdown has worn on, there has been a growing realisation that freelancers are often missing from the narrative. Even since the emergency funding announcement, freelancers have heard contradictory messages. On one hand, chancellor Rishi Sunak said that there would be no provision for freelancers in this support package, but then Arts Council England announced that there would be.
Freelancers are the backbone of theatre, yet have rarely been able to speak with one voice
Freelancers make up the backbone of theatre, yet have rarely been able to speak with one voice. The pandemic has aggravated an already precarious situation in which freelancers are overworked for not enough pay.
Right now, more than ever, we need a unified voice. This is why an initially small group of volunteer freelancers got together to create Freelancers Make Theatre Work to give a voice to all those people who were not being represented, and to offer a place to share information and find support. It also aims to connect different groups, unions, associations and campaigns.
Since it was set up, freelancers have been in touch to tell us their stories, their hopes and their fears during the pandemic and discuss what comes next. It has been important to find the human side in this crisis. But reading those stories has more often been painful too.
Many feel they will be forced out of the industry they love as the future remains uncertain: often, they have fallen between the gaps of emergency funding from the government and Arts Council England. They feel overlooked, forgotten and anxious.
Some have talked of their frustration and feelings of isolation and despair over the lack of clarity from the government. New starters and recent graduates feel they have missed their chance at a career in theatre. Many have talked of the immediate dangers and how impossible it will be to survive if money doesn’t come in soon.
As well as these stories, we knew we needed data, so reached out to more than 8,000 freelance theatre workers in our network. Earlier this month, we published the results in a report, Covid-19: Routes to Recovery, which outlines how bleak the situation really is – even with the emergency funding. It highlights how many people have slipped through the net and not been eligible for any support during lockdown so far.
The report has found that one in three freelancers received no support from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme or the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. One in four have been unable to access emergency income of any kind. One of the most chilling findings from the report was that one in three said they were likely to leave the industry.
Something has to be done to support freelancers until theatres reopen and we can go back to work. From emergency relief, to retaining skills and jobs while the theatres remain closed, we must ensure the recovery benefits given to organisations also help freelance workers. Without that it would lead to irreparable sector decline.
It is essential that we keep letting the government know there is more work to be done, and Freelancers Make Theatre Work has information on how to contribute, including a template letter to send to MPs. Of course, the bailout came too late for many theatres and organisations, and it couldn’t prevent the redundancies already in progress.
It is clear that freelancers should not be set against theatres and artistic directors during this crisis. The shared sense of trauma has been visceral. Even in this state of emergency, there is an appetite for long-term, sustainable change within the industry. Now that the stark situation facing freelancers has been exposed, it will be impossible for things to remain as they were.
Historically, the freelance voice has been excluded from decision making, left out of public discussion on the future of the industry and, even at the highest levels, felt powerless to change poor working conditions.
All too often, freelancers’ silence has allowed this power imbalance to continue. We need fundamentally to disrupt the structures of power for systemic change to happen.
We need to be involved in all conversations in future. From the government’s Cultural Renewal Taskforce – which currently includes no freelance voices – to the daily running of a theatre or company, freelancers need greater power within the theatre ecology.
We are asking freelancers to share their visions for how the industry must change with us. That will inform how we approach artistic directors and can help change the industry.
There has been a lot of positive movement. From the artistic directors of UK theatres to MPs in parliament, suddenly the freelance experience is on the agenda. Labour MP Jo Stevens was right when she said of the emergency funding for the arts: “It is vital that this money does not just get hoovered up by the biggest venues with the loudest voices.” And she added that the lack of mention of freelancers in the announcement suggested the DCMS didn’t understand the nature of the work in this sector.
Conservative MP Jason McCartney recently highlighted freelancers and asked to “please make sure that this funding does get through to support all of them, because they are the real lifeblood of our arts and cultural sector”.
During the lockdown, we have collectively made ourselves and the vital role we play in the industry visible. And while we are exhausted and isolated – as we watch the rest of the world return to work – we have to keep drawing upon the collective energy we have nurtured so far.
Theatre freelancers are resourceful, innovative and collaborative. The best work on stage relies entirely on these skills, particularly collaboration; a coming together of myriad skills and disciplines. We have to work together to get through this – only that way will the industry come back better, stronger and more inclusive.
For more details go to freelancersmaketheatrework.com