On the media coverage of theatre freelancers during COVID-19

This blog is written by Jacob Rayner Blair and is based on research completed as part of a placement on the project Freelancers in the Dark, facilitated by Manchester Metropolitan University.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a rise in British news reports concerning freelance theatre workers. Since 1st January 2020 there have been at least sixty-five newspaper articles mentioning theatre freelancers. In the nineteen years prior to this, there were just six—three of them reporting on the same story (the 2004 crisis at the centenary of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre). In other words, in the last year and a half there has been over ten times the amount of coverage of freelancers than there was in the nineteen years preceding the pandemic.

To understand what it is exactly that the media has been reporting, I collected a sample of fifty reports from broadcast media and newspaper articles mentioning theatre freelancers during the pandemic. All reports recognised the problems that freelancers faced when theatres were forced to shut their doors, and thirty-four out of the fifty reports used emotive language regarding this. Words such as ‘struggling’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘plight’ were used frequently. The intention of the majority of these articles seemed to be to raise awareness of how the pandemic has made the profession even less financially reliable than before.

There was an increase in articles relating to theatre freelancers after the Culture Recovery Fund was announced on the 5th July 2020. Many of them reported that most theatre freelancers were not receiving any of the government’s funding. Similar phrases often cropped up across the press and broadcast media, for example fourteen of the fifty reports sampled used some variation of the phrase ‘fallen through the gaps’ when reporting on freelancers not benefiting from the government’s funding. One article quoted Prasanna Puwanarajah who took it even further stating that ‘it’s no longer possible to call them cracks—they really are chasms’, stressing the gravity of the situation.

The freelance theatre workforce was mainly represented in the sample by artistic directors, many of whom had gone through a range of careers including sound designing and acting. However, it was only when a famous director or actor was interviewed on theatre freelancers that there was a surge in reports on the subject. For example, after Sam Mendes was interviewed on his encouragement to donate to the Theatre Artists Fund, there was a large spike in reports concerning theatre freelancers. Similarly when Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Maggie Smith joined a Zoom show in aid of UK theatre workers, theatre freelancers became the talking point in many news reports for a short while, suggesting that the topic only becomes relevant when celebrities are talking about it. If the only voices given full media attention are from actors and directors, the fear is that other freelancers such as technicians, designers and stagehands will be forgotten. Work needs to be done to remind the public of the diversity of theatre’s workforce.

When reporting on freelance theatre workers’ unstable financial position, most of the articles acknowledged that the precariousness of the profession was not a new problem, and that it has been a reality for theatre workers long before the pandemic. Despite this, only since the start of the pandemic has it been a concern of the mainstream media, and this point was highlighted in a few of the articles. One report stated that ‘the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the precarious situation for the vast number of freelancers working in the theatre industry’. Whilst theatre workers and many theatregoers have been aware of this instability in the profession for a long time, the recent media attention it has been receiving will no doubt spread awareness, which is a necessity if the industry is to be kept afloat. Hopefully, this recognition of freelance theatre work continues and theatre freelancers get the support they need, both during and after the pandemic.

Picture credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

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