Tue 16 Feb 21
The team behind a major research project, looking at the impact on theatre freelancers of COVID-19, has spoken of the risks to diversity, and the emotional toll they are uncovering around the UK. Theatre-makers are seeking alternative income and considering their futures.
The Freelancers in the Dark project, a collaboration between East 15 Acting School, Manchester Metropolitan University and Queen’s University Belfast, is asking freelance theatre-makers, organisations and venues from across the UK to help chart the impact of COVID-19. Two surveys have been launched, to look at the effects on all aspects of UK theatre.
Early responses highlight the financial impact on freelancers and the potential long-term prospects for the industry as individuals gain new skills and seek income outside of theatre:
Dr Holly Maples, from East 15 Acting School, is leading the study. She said: "Many theatre freelancers have fallen through the cracks in the system – the ways we work have left us excluded from government support.
"The pandemic is also exacting a powerful toll on the mental health of freelance theatre-makers. Many are worried that when this is over, the financial impact of the pandemic will leave producers and companies more risk averse, and the industry even less equitable."
Freelancers have reported feeling "angry", "forgotten" and "disregarded". Many are questioning their futures.
Dr Joshua Edelman, from Manchester Metropolitan University, a co-investigator on the project, said: "Many say they are worried they will not work in theatre again after the pandemic, and are thus developing skills in digital production, film, television, or outside the arts entirely. In the long term, this could mean a substantial reduction in the talent pool that theatres depend on for their work. As this pressure is being felt most strongly by the least financially-secure members of our community, including those from working class and minority backgrounds, it could also mean a sharp rollback in the gains in diversity that the field has worked so hard to achieve."
Dr Maples: "A fear now is the permanent loss of many working class and particularly Black British Women in the industry. That should be a huge cause for concern."
The project has found Government support to be inconsistent across the United Kingdom.
Dr Ali FitzGibbon, a Lecturer in Creative and Cultural Industries Management from Queen’s University Belfast, and a co-investigator on the project, said: "While Northern Ireland was the first to introduce emergency funds for freelance artists, it has also been the last to distribute emergency cultural recovery funds, increasing hardship and uncertainty.
"Freelancers in Northern Ireland faced a double exclusion from SEISS due to application problems with the scheme. While these were resolved eventually, it was a signal of some of the wider issues of central and devolved governments not being aligned in support of freelancers."
Anger at Government is palpable.
Dr Laura Harris, from Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “By far the most answered question in our survey so far is around how freelancers feel about the Government’s rhetoric towards the Arts since March 2020. The word that keeps cropping up is 'unvalued' and we are seeing a lot of anger.”
The team has also observed a steady increase in activism among freelancers, with groups focusing on how to address existing inequalities, established power structures and the need for greater support. Concern in this area has been heightened by recent events.
Dr Ali FitzGibbon said: "The question of union representation and activity, heightened in its significance in this current moment, has become more charged in Northern Ireland. The interests of Northern Ireland members of Equity and the Musician’s Union have long operated through the respective offices in Scotland. Now however, the controversial decision by Equity Head Office to close the Glasgow operation raises significant concerns about how unions are adequately representing freelancers in Northern Ireland."
Recent attempts to shine a light on these issues have brought some progress. The team have observed greater collaboration and communication between freelancers and the organisations they work with. Some organisations have recognised the need for freelance representation at board level and in leadership positions. A push for greater representation for BAME, trans, working class, female and disabled artists has gained momentum.
However, the serious challenges facing freelancers leave a mixed picture for the future of theatre in the UK.
Dr Maples said: “Small grassroots companies and theatre-makers are thinking outside the box, looking to create outdoor and site-specific work, and to bring more theatre to communities, to widen access. I see the next ten years as an exciting time for the theatre industry, but the worry is for now, and the next four years - will artists stay in the industry?”
The two surveys - one for theatre freelancers and one for organisations and venues - are live and will run initially until 28 February.
The project is funded by ESRC as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.
*Statistics are based on the first 350 responses. Surveys are ongoing.