An uncertain future lies ahead for theatre freelancers, research reveals

  • Date

    Wed 23 Mar 22

Many theatre freelancers from across the UK fear their future is uncertain, according to research project Freelancers in the Dark which was set up to investigate the impact the pandemic had on them.

Participants spoke of fear that their value and identity as theatre workers had been eroded; the abandonment from both the industry and political spheres; and the effect the lack of connecting and creating with peers in a physical space had had on them.

Dr Holly Maples, from East 15 Acting School, who led the study, said that with a theatre sector which relies on a workforce that is 88% self-employed or freelance, the findings of this study are not to be under-estimated.

“Our research into the experiences of freelancer theatre workers has revealed diverse insights into the current state of the UK’s theatre sector as we continue to deal with the unprecedented ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

“It is vital that this important group of theatre workers is reflected in industry change that emerges from the pandemic, reflecting their deep-rooted anxiety that their identity as artists had been damaged by national lockdowns and theatre closures.”

The project, which started in September 2020, is a collaboration between East 15 Acting School, based at the University of Essex, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Queen’s University Belfast. It looks at the experience of freelance creatives based in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, at all levels.

There was optimism at the beginning of the project that the disruption of work in the theatre industry would create a catalyst for change – but, as the pandemic in the UK evolved and shifted through different stages, fears and anxieties increased among freelancers.

“Over the pandemic, wide-ranging activism and advocacy for better support for freelancers was seen as a positive outcome,” said Dr Maples. “However, the continuing waves of outbreaks from new variants and long-term instability to the performing arts sector has made these early moves to change less appealing to an industry which will take years of financial, cultural, and institutional recovery.”

As well as an insight into the experiences of freelancers during the pandemic, the report highlights how the “Government’s response to the pandemic failed to recognise how live theatre operates or the crucial contribution that the arts provide to the UK economy”.

The economic value of the UK’s cultural industries and live arts sector was cited by many of the freelance theatre workers who participated in the study. Findings will be used to provide feedback to arts councils and government departments.

“It’s important to keep this conversation going – about how we advocate for The Arts in this country,” said Dr Maples.

Dr Joshua Edelman, Reader in Drama and Contemporary Performance at Manchester Metropolitan University, a co-investigator on the project, said: “The pandemic has been transformative for freelancers’ understanding of their careers, their work, and their place in society.

“Freelancers make up the lion’s share of workers in the theatre industry, and so whatever happens to them is of key importance for the future of the field. This project tries to make sense of those changes to help ensure the health of UK theatre for the long term.”

The team of researchers will be presenting their findings – and having key discussions – on Friday 25 and Saturday 26 March in a two-day online workshop.

The event Freelancers in the Dark: End of project events will include panels, discussions and roundtables, as well as a virtual exhibition showcasing work from the last two years.

The panel and roundtable themes have all been drawn from the research findings and final report, which will be launched as part of the event. Each topic to be discussed covers a different aspect of the report, and the team will be looking at positive steps that can be made for the future.

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

More information about the end of project workshops can be found here.