Theatre Freelancers’ Pandemic Geographies

How did theatre freelancers’ locations affect their experiences of the pandemic? How might the geography of theatre-making in the UK—by which we mean the physical location, distribution, and activity across the four nations—have been changed by events since March 2020? In order to address these questions, we have turned to our 397 survey respondents. Analyzing these responses by postcode and nation, as well as considering the written reflections on location, has given us some intriguing initial insights.   

Existing research showed theatre activity in the UK to be clustered around core cities, making commuting and travelling for work a pre-COVID norm.  87.9% of our survey respondents were ‘Often’ or ‘Sometimes’ travelling across the UK for work purposes, while 63.4% undertook European travel, before March 2020. This demonstrates that our respondents were highly mobile before COVID-19 struck. The removal of the ability to travel for work created a major problem with immediate consequences.  

This mobility was quickly replaced by the widespread use of digital meeting platforms. For those whose work is often located in London (around which theatre-making is clustered) but who do not live there, our survey shows this new normal to be roundly considered a net benefit. The development serves the overwhelming majority of our respondents who travelled for work, with particular benefits for those with caring responsibilities or anyone for whom travelling is a burden and a barrier. We are clearly seeing a hope and expectation that this will continue into the future, evidencing a potential long-term change in the everyday geographies of theatre-making.  

This potential redistribution of the work of making theatre has knock-on effects for the traditional core cities of the sector. Our survey shows an emerging emotional disinvestment in the UK capital. Respondents living in London (including Greater London) were more likely to indicate feeling pessimistic about their future careers in theatre compared to those living elsewhere. Some respondents also reported that the struggles of living in London—such as high living expenses—became more pronounced as the work opportunities diminished. As the benefits of living in the capital were removed, including mobility, social, and cultural life, and it became increasingly apparent that Zoom-working was both feasible and practical, personal cost-benefit analyses of London living were re-negotiated. 

At the same time, our survey data echoes a wider trend of ‘localism’ in response to the pandemic. Respondents across the UK were busy engaging in their immediate local communities, both in and beyond their theatre work. Many were engaged in countless local mutual aid groups and other, less organised, acts of community care. 43.9% of respondents reported feeling an increased sense of belonging to their local communities; conversely, 55.1% felt a decreased sense of belonging to the UK as a whole. This increased localism is shared by arts and culture audiences. It remains to be seen how long-term and transformational this localism proves. 

On a larger scale, our survey data shows differing experiences across the four nations of the UK. Those living in England reported lower levels of feeling supported by their previous employers. England-based respondents reported feeling ‘Very’ or ‘Quite’ unsupported by their previous employed at an almost 10% higher frequency than any other nation. Respondents in Wales reported the lowest levels of feeling unsupported, at 47.4%. We are undertaking closer study in order to understand the different strategies from employers that were playing out in different national contexts, and which have produced these results.  

To understand the impact of urban or rural locations on theatre freelancer’s pandemic experiences, respondents were categorised into ‘urban’ or ‘rural’ using the 2011 Census urban-rural classification, based on the first half of postcodes. However, this produced no significant findings, suggesting that the location of respondents relative to urban centres in general was having negligible impact on their experiences. This emphasises that it is specific urban locations—i.e., London and other core cities—that are exerting the biggest influence on theatre freelancers, as well as their national context.  

This analysis of our survey highlights the shifting geographies, both emotional and practical, of theatre freelancers over the course of the pandemic. While living in London was a driver of pessimism, respondents across the UK were identifying more closely with their local area and community. Zoom meetings established a new distribution of working lives which looks set to remain. Taken together, these findings suggest that the pandemic may have catalysed a long-term shift in UK theatre-making towards decentralisation. As we continue to amalgamate our survey data with our qualitative data, we will continue to explore this phenomenon.  

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