Over 70% of theatre freelancers "pessimistic" about future, research finds

  • Date

    Thu 17 Jun 21

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has left nearly three quarters of theatre freelancers feeling pessimistic about their futures, new research suggests.

The Freelancers in the Dark project, a collaboration between East 15 Acting School, based at the University of Essex, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Queen’s University Belfast, is investigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on theatre freelancers from across the UK.

Following a nationwide survey of 397 theatre freelancers, carried out between November 2020 and March 2021, emerging findings include that many respondents felt ‘worried’ or ‘fearful’ about their future in the theatre industry. Overall, 72.4% felt pessimistic about the future.

The research has also highlighted:

  • a perceived lack of support, with some freelancers reporting feeling ‘disposable’
  • evidence of freelancers’ capacity to adapt and change
  • the importance of networks and peer-to-peer support in sustaining freelancers through the current crisis

Dr Holly Maples, from East 15 Acting School, who is leading the study, said: “Freelancers are not a cohesive unit, but have varying needs and responses to the pandemic based on the disciplines they work in, the areas of the country they live in, and other demographic factors.

“In the survey, our 140 interviews, and ongoing focus groups, freelance theatre workers articulate a desire to individually, and collectively, fight for better and more equitable working conditions in the post-pandemic world because the institutions, arts organisations, and government bodies are felt to be letting them down.”

Lack of support

Freelance staff reported a perceived lack of support from organisations, public bodies or the government as the largest barrier they have faced in their professional lives since March 2020.

More than half (54.8%) of theatre freelancers reported feeling unsupported by their current or former employers, compared with 18.9% who feel very or quite supported.

Dr Joshua Edelman, Senior Lecturer in Drama and Contemporary Performance at Manchester Metropolitan University, a co-investigator on the project, said: “While of course money matters, a sense of being supported is more than that. Freelancers make up the vast majority of workers in the theatre industry, and we see that they’re quite worried about the future of their work with theatres that have been decimated by this pandemic.”

A lack of communication from employers is leaving freelancers feeling ‘disposable’, ‘disappointed’ and excluded from conversations around the future of theatre.

Over half (58.7%) of theatre freelancers have changed their expectation about the sort of work they will do in the future, compared to 16.8% who expect the kind of work they do to remain the same.

Developing new skills

The emerging findings also suggest theatre freelancers have shown a high degree of adaptiveness, alongside an uncertainty about making these adaptations permanent. Many are reorganising their working lives and developing new skills in response to changes in the sector.

Findings show that 62.2% of theatre freelancers have gained or developed new skills since March 2020 with 51.6% intending to use their new skills.

New skills range from making theatre on digital platforms like Zoom, to development of creative practices such as writing, to taking online mental health first aid courses, to understanding how to work in COVID-secure ways.

Others are future-proofing their careers by learning audio recording skills, with TV and voiceover work seen as more secure sources of income.

The findings suggest that, post COVID-19, policy should be built around a more flexible and complex understanding of freelancers’ careers, skills base, and motivations.

Optimism and peer support

The survey also shows that optimism, hope and the development of skills are significantly enhanced by peer support and the informal networks freelancers have established, something which has been vital and meaningful during the pandemic.

A positive correlation was seen between feeling closer to other freelancers and developing new skills, due to peer-to-peer skill-sharing.

These findings suggest that the power of freelancer networks should play a significant role and carry greater status in post-COVID-19 policies and systems.

Dr Ali FitzGibbon, Lecturer in Creative and Cultural Industries Management from Queen’s University Belfast, and a co-investigator on the project, added: “This early finding highlights just how much theatre and live arts relies on people to thrive and survive. This tells us a lot about how future planning and policy needs to be attentive to people’s hopes and ambitions as well as their livelihoods.”

The Freelancers in the Dark project will continue with interviews and focus groups. Additional findings will be released, followed by a final report.

The project is funded by ESRC as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.