What is theatre’s most precious resource? There may be a number of contenders for this honour, including the audience, without whom nothing theatre does matters. I’ve always liked the quote about theatre that wryly points out that without an audience it’s just masturbation.
But top of my list would be the artists, without whom nothing could happen at all – whether they are creating a main-stage show or working with the community. So, don’t you think it’s upside down that British theatre pours millions of pounds into funding buildings and administration but not into funding artists?
I’ve long wondered why British theatre funding basically supports bricks and mortar and keeps the toilets and the accounts department open (both crucial, of course), but not the creatives who keep the building’s heart beating and are the reason it exists in the first place.
The current lockdown has highlighted this often overlooked disconnect and raised awareness of the significantly higher levels of precariousness that many self-employed freelance creatives find themselves in compared with those who are employed by national portfolio organisations in salaried positions.
It creates a two-tier theatre landscape. I know of many amazing NPOs that have gone above and beyond to pay freelance workers, in many cases simply on the basis of gigs promised even without any signatures on dotted lines and with work unlikely ever to materialise. Plenty have been heroic in trying to support and raise funds for their freelance networks.
But I also know of buildings and organisations where salaried staff have been furloughed but not all freelance contracts have been honoured. In some cases, the approach has been downright sneaky, with payments to some but not others depending on the external or internal nature of the project. As producer Jo Crowley observed on Twitter last week: “There are some NPOs (and I’m talking big ones not little) that are behaving very badly towards freelancers, artists and companies. We know who you are and our memories are long. Do the right thing. Pay your freelancers.”
There are some NPOs (and I’m talking the big ones not little) that are behaving very badly towards freelancers, artists & cos. We know who you are and our memories are long. Do the right thing. Pay your freelancers.— jo crowley (@crowleyjo) April 14, 2020
Quite right. My intention in raising this is not to pit one group of theatre workers against the other or the salaried against the freelance. I’ve always hated theatre’s tendency to retreat to its own tribes in moments of crisis – particularly a funding crisis – pitting the devisers against the playwrights, the jugglers against the ballet dancers. Everyone involved in theatre, in whatever role and however they are paid, is crucial to its survival. Without the producers, the technical staff, the front-of-house staff and the administrators of all kinds, the artists cannot do their job properly.
The lockdown has put the inequalities of our society into sharp relief. Many of the lowest-paid workers, often working in the gig economy, are most exposed to the coronavirus, and so with theatre – where few are well-remunerated in any area – it is freelance workers who are the most exposed. In theatre’s case, ‘freelancer’ often means ‘artist’, a group already prone to high levels of self-exploitation. You don’t have to have a psychology degree to work out that there may be a connection between feelings of precariousness and exploitation and mental health issues.
The lockdown has put the inequalities of our society into sharp relief. With theatre, it is freelance workers who are the most exposed
When I spoke to New Diorama Theatre artistic director David Byrne a couple of weeks ago, he made the point that theatre likes to think about itself as being vastly different from businesses such as Uber that have no cars and Deliveroo that has no kitchens. We kid ourselves that we are as unlike those outfits as Mary Poppins is from King Herod. But is this true?
Theatre has no, or very few, artists on its payroll. Like so much about the Covid-19 crisis, the current situation is testing something that we have taken as a given: that our funding system is geared towards supporting organisations and not those people who make the art.
But maybe, along with a great many other assumptions about the way theatre works, now is the moment to question these things. Maybe we are going to be forced into a position where we have to because the longer the theatre shutdown goes on, the less likely it is that the landscape is going to look anything like it looked in mid-March.
What I do know is that while freelance creatives often feel powerless and vulnerable when dealing with organisations and NPOs’ salaried staff, those organisations are also heavily reliant on freelancers – their goodwill as well as their nimbleness and creativity.
When theatres eventually reopen they may be able to survive on reheated work for some time. But not forever.
Perhaps this could and should be the moment when funders and the funded invest in realigning their relationship with artists and freelancers. Because a house reliant on those who are paid least, and are most precarious, is one built on very shaky foundations – business-wise, but also ethically.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday: thestage.co.uk/author-lyn-gardner