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.

Launching: Crowdsourced Timeline of COVID-19 and Theatres

Since the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 we have witnessed unprecedented upheavals in our social and cultural lives. Policy has been announced and changed. Governments have U-turned. Lockdowns have been imposed and lifted. We have all tried to keep up with changing social restrictions. It’s been difficult to keep track of events.

Since going dark in March 2020 theatres have struggled through these upheavals. Theatres and theatre freelancers have had to navigate government and industry support packages while living through the emotional reality of a pandemic. At the same time, many have taken their theatre work online, or organised theatre freelancer advocacy and support groups across the UK. Presently, as some theatres begin to reopen, the impacts of the pandemic on the sector are coming to bear.

As our research looks at the impact of COVID-19 on the economic, social and cultural lives of theatre freelancers we are interested in how these effects have changed over time. We also recognised that time, in a pandemic, moves in a strange way and it can be hard to recall the order in which things happened. We needed a tool to help us chart the changes.

To this end, we have created an interactive timeline mapping out over 100 key dates in the pandemic, including key policy and government announcements that have impacted on theatres, and the publication of key pieces of research related to theatre freelancers. Recognising that each nation of the UK has been on differing timelines, we have organised the timeline under these national headings.

We believe that mapping out the events since March 2020 should be a collaborative and on-going effort, taking into account many different viewpoints. We are therefore inviting you to contribute to the timeline. If you work in or engage with the theatre sector, please use this form to answer the question: What have been your key dates and events since March 2020?

Our idea is to create a tool that not only supports our research but also helps with the theatre industry’s collective memory of the pandemic and its impacts. It is both an aide memoir and a resource that allows us all to look back over the course of events and recognise the key junctures in the pandemic. What’s more, it is perhaps haunted by alternative futures and paths not taken.

Through crowdsourcing key dates, as well as the dates and events that our research has shown us to be important, we hope to tell some of the story of the UK theatre sector during COVID-19. Rather than a definitive history, we hope that this timeline becomes a live and evolving reflection on an ongoing crisis.

Interim Report #1: The Future from Here

We are delighted today to be publishing our first report, The Future from Here: Theatre Freelancers and Planning for the Future During the COVID-19 Pandemic. The report details the emerging findings from our survey of theatre freelancers which ran from November 2020 until March 2021, and we would like to say a huge “thank you” to those who took part. We heard from 397 theatre freelancers, across all career stages and a variety of specialisms. We are only at the beginning of our analysis, and will continue to publish our emerging findings as we dig deeper into this data set, as well as integrate it with the data we are gathering through interviews and focus groups.

Our research project is focussed on the medium and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the field of theatre freelancers, and by extension the UK theatre sector as a whole. Our survey echoed this interest, asking theatre freelancers to tell us about their plans for the future and how they have evolved since March 2020. This generated a wealth of fascinating reflections in free-text answers which made clear that theatre freelancers’ future planning was being influenced by lived experiences in their entangled professional and personal lives. Beyond the economic (dis)incentives facing theatre freelancers, we became interested in other experiences—political, cultural and emotional—that appeared to be impacting how theatre freelancers are planning for their future careers. For this reason, we placed theatre freelancer’s hopes and fears for the future at the centre of our analysis, and we will take up these themes in future publications. We also offer early recommendations for policy and practice with a view to limit the flow of freelancers leaving the industry, taking their vital skills, perspectives and creativity with them.

Our report speaks to the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre’s (PEC) fortnight of research and policy on creative freelancers, “One Size Can’t Fit All.” PEC’s series is highlighting the unique struggles faced by freelancers across the creative industries, whose existing precarity has often been compounded by the gaps in government and industry support packages. As Julieta Cuneo writes in the opening blog:

“It is vitally important that the government provides targeted support for freelancers. Not only for when venues in the UK do finally reopen over the next few months—as per the Prime Minister’s recently introduced roadmap out of lockdown—but for the long-term health of the creative sector.”

Head over to their website for our blog which summarises key findings and recommendations of our report. Also be sure to check out the other contributions, including a PEC commissioned report Building Back Better? Creative Freelancers and Learning from the Covid-19 Experience, which together offer an excellent resource for understanding how the pandemic has reverberated across different fields of cultural freelancers.

The next steps in our analysis will include integrating the data from across our different methods. This will allow us to get close to the lived experiences and emotional realities of theatre freelancers, while positioning them in their wider professional field. We are also prioritising analysing inequalities and their intersections in order to illuminate further the differential impacts that the pandemic is having across sections of the freelance workforce. Follow us on social media or sign up to our monthly mailing list to hear about our future publications. You can find the report in two formats (PDF and online) here.

Tell us: Organisations & Venues Survey

Launching today is our survey for Theatre Organisations and Venues. An important part of the Freelancers in the Dark project is to understand how freelancers and the role they play in the theatre sector are perceived. We’re also keen to understand how different kinds of support and relationships are emerging or being sustained between theatre freelancers and organisations/venues during the lockdowns and interruptions created by COVID19. To see more about the whole project and all the different elements, please click here.

We invite theatre organisations and venues of all shapes and sizes, commercial and non-profit, who produce and/or present theatre, and deliver theatre projects (youth and community theatre, etc). We are keen to also hear from multi-artform organisations who include theatre as part of their programme. Please also share this with organisations and venues as widely as possible – the wider and more diverse range we capture, the better picture we will form.

The survey is open until 19 March 2021 and takes about 10 – 15 minutes to complete. We are asking a couple of questions about staffing figures and it may be useful to have these to hand before you start. To complete the survey, please click here. There is an audio play button to assist with survey completion if you require it. If you would like assistance completing this survey, please contact us through the project email or using the contact form on this site. See here.

The data we gather from this survey is anonymous and will be added to the other information we gather from all the different parts of the project. You can see all of our strands of data collection on the ‘Take Part‘ page.

Launching the Freelancers Survey

We are pleased to be launching our survey, an important tool with which to understand the effect of the COVID19 pandemic on freelance theatre workers across the UK. We hope to reach workers in a variety of roles, across all stages of their careers, and to represent the full diversity of people and skills that make up this workforce.

Our survey of freelancers is particularly interested in the experience of being a theatre freelancer in the UK since March 2020. The project as a whole is concerned with the social, cultural and economic impact of the COVID19 pandemic, and the survey addresses all of these issues. Through it, we hope to build a holistic understanding of how these issues intersect, and to be able to back up our other research strands with quantitative data.

This survey, aimed at people who consider themselves theatre freelancers, is only one aspect of our data collection. We have also been running interviews and will continue with a suite of qualitative methods throughout 2021. Follow us on Twitter to hear more about these. We are also launching a survey aimed at employing organisations to examine the support they have been providing freelancers. You can see all of our strands of data collection on the ‘Take Part‘ page.

Taken together, all of our data will not only help document the collective strategies of freelancers during and in the immediate aftermath of COVID19, but also help the sector develop a plan to address the challenges facing freelancers in 2021. We will be publishing reports, articles and holding events to facilitate communication with support networks across the UK, and increase resilience in the sector. Every participant in our research is a vital part of making this as impactful as possible.

The survey takes around 20 minutes to complete, and consists of both tick-box and free text questions. It is open until March 19th, 2021. All information on consent and the use of data can be found on the frontpage of the survey, or here. If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch.

Thank you very much for considering completing this survey. Please do share it with your networks; the more people we hear from, the more powerful our work will become.

Introduction to the Project from Holly Maples

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. 

Nina Dunn: The Dark Theatres Project

The images on this website have kindly been provided by Nina Dunn, and are all part of The Dark Theatres Project.

Nina is an award-winning video designer who has worked extensively in theatres across the UK and internationally. She began to document London’s dark theatres after they suddenly closed as lockdown in began in the UK, in mid March 2020. Nina gained access to a number of theatres across London’s West End, documenting the empty theatre spaces and telling a story of the industry in these unprecedented times.

“It was as if somebody had just said “Out, now!”, and people had left, knowing that they wouldn’t be coming back”

Cameron Slater -Photographer

Capturing this unique moment in history, The Dark Theatres Project tells stories of the blanket closure of theatres across the UK. As well as taking photographs, Nina conducted interviews with those affected by the closures. As such, the project captures insights from a selection of people who usually inhabit these buildings and bring them to life. Combining these interviews and stunning photography, the project shows every corner of the buildings as they wait for their next chapter, telling a larger story of a sector shaken by continuing uncertainty.

“It’s the weirdest feeling knowing that a whole part of my life exists in a space I haven’t seen in months”

Natalie McQueen – Performer

Initially born from Nina’s artistic curiosity, the artist realised that the project could also help to support those who have lost their livelihood during COVID-19. Donations and the proceeds from various products, including prints, a coffee table book and face coverings, will help nominated charities that are supporting workers and buildings until they are able to return: Backup, who support technical professionals in live events, theatre, TV and film; The Theatrical Guild, a charity for front and back-stage theatre workers; The Theatres Trust, the national advisory public body for theatres; and Acting For Others, a collation of 14 charities providing emotional and financial support to theatre workers.

You can follow the project, and purchase images, at The Dark Theatres Project website, and follow Nina and the project on Facebook and Twitter.