COVID-19 has been devastating for many industries including the performing arts. The closures of theatres and outlawing of public gatherings have proven financially devastating to the theatre industry across the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world. The pandemic has sparked a wide range of industry-led strategies designed to alleviate financial consequences and improve audience capture amidst social distancing. COVID-19 has affected all levels of the sector but poses an existential threat to freelancers—Independent Arts Workers (IAWs)—who make up 70% of the industry workforce in the UK. The crisis has put a spotlight on the vulnerable working conditions, economic sustainability, diversity of the workforce, mental wellbeing, and community support networks for freelancers. The pandemic has highlighted how freelance theatre workers are often overlooked, but it is their very precarity that makes them pioneers of adaptability responsible for key innovation within the sector. They are essential to the future resilience and regrowth of the theatre in the aftermath of COVID-19.
The UKRI ESRC funded study, Freelancers in the Dark provides a grassroots investigation of the economic, cultural, and social impact of COVID-19 on UK theatre freelancers from across the country. Our 2020-2021 study explores in real-time the wide-ranging challenges and creative solutions being made, discussed, and interrogated by freelance theatre workers and the institutions, networks, and arts organisations who support them. We are investigating connections between the financial consequences of COVID-19 and creative strategies for industry survival including social support networks, communication initiatives between arts venues and freelance theatre workers, and the development of mixed-media work in the wake of the pandemic. Our study scrutinizes the economic, cultural, and social impact of COVID-19 on freelance theatre workers and the organisations that serve them with the aim of informing strategies for sector recovery.