New study to chart impact of COVID-19 on theatre freelancers

  • Date

    Thu 10 Sep 20

A new, 18-month research project seeks to uncover the true impact of COVID-19 on theatre-makers across the UK – how they are surviving and the impact of restrictions on how they approach their work.

The impact of COVID-19 on theatre institutions has been well-documented. But what about the individual freelancers who make up the majority of the industry, driving its creative work, and delivering value to the UK economy?

A new study, led by Dr Holly Maples from East 15 Acting School, seeks to go beyond the headlines and chart the wider impact of the pandemic on theatre-makers across the UK.

Dr Holly Maples said: “The entire theatre industry has taken an enormous hit and I think we'll still be seeing the effects two, three years down the line. We’ve heard a lot about the impact on theatres and theatre companies, but what about the actors, the writers, the producers, the technicians, the designers? The pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on livelihoods but the impact is not only financial.

“COVID-19 is really transforming what it means to be a theatre freelancer, culturally and socially. The current restrictions are challenging established approaches to collaboration, to artistic and creative development, and to audience engagement."

The project brings together experts from the University of Essex, Manchester Metropolitan University and Queen’s University Belfast, and will last for 18 months.

Dr Maples said: “We’ll be examining the effects of the pandemic ‘in the round’ and asking whether they vary, based on factors like age, background, ethnic group and location. How are individual theatre-makers supporting each other? How are the various networks that existed before the crisis helping freelancers, and how are these networks themselves developing? How is social distancing impacting upon creative practice? And what has been the effect of the pandemic and its restrictions on the type of work people are creating?

“This pandemic is a collective traumatic experience for the world. It will change so much. If we can, in real time, study that, it could be an enormously valuable opportunity for research."

A final report will be published, but the researchers are also looking at less traditional outputs from their research.

Dr Maples said: “We will also be asking people to respond in creative ways – by contributing a video or image, for example. It doesn't have to always be about words.

“We hope to feedback to the Arts Councils and also the government, to help inform future policy.”

The project will look at the experiences of freelance creatives based in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, and at all levels.

Dr Maples also works as a freelance theatre maker, director, and actor and her knowledge of the industry helped design the project.

Dr Maples said: “Traditional market research asks people to describe themselves as one thing – that isn’t flexible enough to show the complexity that exists in theatre.

“In theatre, freelancers often cover a number of roles, and may have ‘side gigs’ – other jobs – to make their theatre careers sustainable, so you have all these interweaving strands. I call it ‘the web’ and it keeps everything going.”

A 24-person steering group will be split evenly between individual freelancers and networks. Partners include regional theatre networks and Equity, the actors’ union.

The initial phase of the study will comprise a review of existing research on the impact of COVID-19. An industry survey will be completed in autumn 2020, followed by focus groups and one-to-one interviews.

The 18-month period of the study is likely to bring widespread changes and not only because of COVID-19. The pandemic struck an industry already in the midst of a funding crisis and trying to prepare for an uncertain Brexit.

Dr Maples said: “COVID-19 is obviously having a huge impact, but for people I know, it’s part of a wider concern they have for how the industry is developing and changing.

“Theatre is a very resilient business, though. We're used to being broke and out of work and finding other ways to do things. In some ways - weirdly - that can be a benefit, so I do have a lot of faith in our industry.”

This grant is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.

 If you are a UK-based freelance theatre-maker and wish to participate in this study, you can contact Dr Holly Maples directly.