Features Published 10 May 2020

Theatre’s Left Behind Freelancers

Alice Saville surveys the freelance theatre workers who aren’t covered by government support, and have been left without income overnight.

Alice Saville

This week, Whitehall sources suggested that people were becoming “addicted” to the government’s furlough scheme. And although being able to fund your basic living costs is indeed a delicious thrill, it’s one that’s not available to many of the freelancers whose labour the theatre industry is built on.

According to Sunak, 95% of workers who are majority self-employed will be covered by the newly opened Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). But what about those who aren’t? I surveyed 100 theatre workers who’ve been left without income in the middle of a pandemic.

Some of them felt that they’d been left out of government support programmes because their multi-stranded career was in some way unusual: one theatre director said that “I think that the government is unlikely to change what they’re offering because I’m in a minority.” But actually, this ‘minority’ is close to a majority in the theatre industry, where multi-strand, portfolio careers are the norm. Directors, producers, theatremakers, designers, stage managers, technicians, front of house, costume supervisors, casting directors, voice coaches, PRs, production managers, and workshop facilitators all spoke of the devastating impact of being left out of government support packages;

  • 40% are considering a career change
  • 1 in 3 are experiencing housing insecurity
  • ¾ found navigating the government’s support systems hard or impossible
  • Over half are struggling with depression and anxiety because of their financial situation

Who isn’t covered by government support?

“For me, this situation is just an extension of the way our government has consistently overlooked the precarious and increasingly complex nature of low-income freelance workers’ lives.”
Ross Graham, director and facilitator

People who take on a mixture of PAYE employment and freelance work were the biggest group of people affected (49% of the total). Anyone who gets more than half their income from PAYE employment is not eligible for SEISS – so that could mean actors who temp in between jobs, people who mix bar work with writing, or a theatre technician who takes on a mix of PAYE and freelance contracts. In theory, this group aren’t eligible for support because employees, agency workers and casuals can ask their employers to furlough them. But 15 respondents to the survey reported that their regular employers had refused. Often, these companies are ones that are already trying to avoid taking on legal responsibility for the people they hire on a ‘freelance’ or ‘zero hours’ basis. Alison Hellings, an actor, said that “I temp alongside acting work and it’s where I make the majority of my income [but they won’t furlough me because] they are worried that temps will accrue holiday allowance which they will then be on the hook for.”

Another sizable group of respondents weren’t eligible for furlough because they weren’t in PAYE employment when lockdown started – either because their previous contract had ended, or because they were taking on a period of non-PAYE work.

“The first months of being a freelancer are so precarious – which is exactly why newly self-employed are in such need of governmental support, and why the arbitrary cut off point feels particularly callous.”
Jessica Norman, writer and producer

People who haven’t been freelancing for long enough to qualify for support made up another sizeable group (24% of the total). The government’s scheme only covers freelancers who were self-employed during the 2018-2019 tax year, and who have filed a tax return for that year. Anyone who’s been freelancing for less than a year isn’t covered, and those who went freelance during the 2018-2019 tax year can only apply if their freelance income outweighed their PAYE income for that period.

The HMRC’s reasoning for this is accountability; “We would not be able to distinguish genuine self-employed people who started trading in 2019-20 from fake applications from fraudsters and organised criminal gangs”.

Understandably, this rhetoric is something that self-employed arts workers reacted against strongly. Playwright and fundraiser Cressida Peever said that “I feel that the government has chosen to exclude many people in need in order to guard against the minority who might try to exploit the system.” Other respondents pointed out that they’d already submitted a tax return for 2019-2020, which could be used in HRMC’s calculations; “I feel like we’re being represented as fraudsters – punished for an industry that isn’t black and white or clear cut.”

Self-employed people whose profits were too low (35% of those surveyed) are unable to meaningfully benefit from SEISS. One anonymous creative workshop facilitator explained that “my self-employed wage makes up 45% of my income, but after deductions for usual costs and materials, my profits are less than £100 for the year.” This group also includes those with gaps in their earnings due to parental leave or caring responsibilities.

Self-employed people who have set themselves up as a limited company are also left out of government support. They are unable to furlough themselves, but they also can’t apply for SEISS. One anonymous theatremaker said that “Because I direct a company with no core funding, it’s really difficult to quantify the loss of income. I’m anxious about the future of my career.”

People whose visa status means they don’t have recourse to public funds are also left behind. “We seem to have fallen through the cracks,” said one, “there’s a significant number of non-British citizens living in the UK, with no support options.” Freelance theatremaker Emma Clark added that the current situation put her career in the UK in jeopardy; “I’ve only recently been awarded an Exceptional Talent visa based on my portfolio as a theatre maker, and to stay on this visa track and have any chance at a more permanently settled status in the future, I have to show proof of earnings in my field.”

The impact

“I’m angry that I’ve paid my taxes for years, on time the amount requested, and yet someone with job security at the end of this gets all the help they need financially, while we face losing our jobs and our industry, as well as just eating air. Honestly? I just want to sleep until it’s all over.”
Cory Shipp, theatre designer

Government advice to people left in financial limbo is to sign up to Universal Credit. But although one anonymous actor was “pleasantly surprised” to find that it covered their living costs, any more found that it wasn’t enough to survive on: one theatremakers said that “it covers my rent and bills but leaves no money for food.” Others weren’t eligible for Universal Credit at all, because of their visa status, relationship status, savings, or because they still had small amounts of freelance income coming in. 19% weren’t eligible because of their partner’s income or savings; an anonymous actor said that “I will be okay thanks to my husband, but I do feel undervalued, and it will cause tension and imbalance in my marriage.”

Losing your job overnight would never be easy. But the respondents to this survey found themselves in the impossible situation of hunting for new work during lockdown, while dealing with the disheartening impact of cancelled creative projects, the psychological weight of fear for the future, and managing caring responsibilities for family and friends. They spoke of the pressure to choke down their feelings so that they could stay visible in order to compete for the work that’s left; an anonymous actor said that “It felt like from social media that everyone was coping well – watching all the online plays and applying for all the opportunities- and that made me feel even worse.”

The pressure to find work also makes it harder for people to protect themselves from the virus; actor Carmella Brown said that “I’m classed as vulnerable due to health conditions, but I’m having to consider the prospect of risking my life to go out and earn a living. My anxiety levels are so high.”

Understandably, over half of the survey’s respondents reported increased levels of anxiety and depression. Many people reported being in the centre of a perfect storm of micro and macro stresses. An anonymous producer said that “I’m stressed as hell honestly, between job stress, visa stress, housing stress, trying to defend my industry, and a lack of interactions to have in the theatre.”

Something that patterned through many people’s responses was the psychological pain that came with feeling that their work wasn’t valued; an anonymous theatremaker said that “It’s made me feel really fragile and worthless. Finding out I wasn’t eligible was a shock – I didn’t even think twice that I wouldn’t be. I’ve felt a lot of jealousy towards my friends who are salaried – despite the fact I know it’s really tough for them too.”

Losing work also means losing a sense of community – especially when it’s combined with lockdown. One anonymous casting director said that “As a freelancer who previously worked in-house, I’m now longing to be part of a venue again. Working through this crisis alone has been incredibly difficult and job security aside, I’ve missed having a real support network.”

“Landlords don’t like freelancers at the best of times, but a theatre freelancer with no guaranteed work until 2021 is a very very scary label to have right now.”
Tim Norman, stage manager

A third of respondents said that they’re experiencing housing insecurity – especially in cities like London and Edinburgh, where residents already pay a disproportionate percentage of their income as rent. Actor Dominic Treacy said that “Something I couldn’t get my head around is the fact that London is the worst affected area and a huge percentage of properties are rental, and yet NO support was offered to people in this situation. I have heard horror story after horror story about landlords demanding money and being hugely unsympathetic about the issue.”

According to government rules, landlords can’t evict tenants during lockdown. But tenants are still on the hook for rent, and any reductions are at landlords’ (limited) discretion; director, actor and composer Caleb Rowan said that “we have managed to negotiate a few months reduced rent with our landlord, but it can’t last forever and it’s only patching holes in our sinking ship.”

And for people who are between jobs, finding a new place to live with no income is almost impossible. Actor Maria Leon said that “I came back early from a cruise contract due to medical reasons so it took me a while to go back to work, let alone find a new room. Then everything got cancelled and I was left without a house or a job and I’ve been couch surfing ever since.”

Although some people I surveyed were able to cope by getting financial help from family members, this situation hits people from low income backgrounds the hardest. Playwright and fundraiser Cressida Peever said that “I’ve always been anxious about money, and I delayed going freelance for a long time because I was so nervous about not having a salary to fall back on. So this situation has compounded that. You don’t lose the fear that disaster might be around the corner. It’s something that those with the privilege of financially secure backgrounds don’t quite comprehend.”

An anonymous producer felt similarly, explaining that “I think it’s made some of the old imposter-syndrome rear its head again – why did someone like me think they could ever have done this etc…”

There was also a widespread concern that the current crisis could deepen existing inequalities in the arts; an anonymous theatre administrator said that “I’m scared that the industry will lose a generation of working class artists, technicians and administrators.”

41% of respondents said they were considering a career change, citing options including teaching, accountancy, law, psychology, haulage and logistics, and retail. Many more were considering taking on other temporary work, or diversifying their already wide freelance portfolios.

New graduates were especially likely to be deterred: theatremaker and producer Sarah Allen said that “I’m at the very beginning of my career so there are hundreds of people more qualified than me for the tiny number of roles available.” An anonymous theatremaker was similarly concerned; “People who wouldn’t usually go for lower tier work are going to try and get what they can. The competition is getting harder and fiercer. Those who can afford it will stay. Those who can’t will have no choice but to leave, which is going to break down a lot of the fantastic work being done to diversify the industry.”

Who’s been helping?
“I feel quite cynical about this government to be honest. It feels like there is a desire to be seen as Churchillian, and to be perceived as offering far-reaching help and support, when actually they’re perfectly content (economically and ideologically) to drive huge numbers of people into personal debt.”
Lauren Mooney, producer and dramaturg

Most respondents to the survey doubted that the government would extend its existing package of support. Instead, they reported turning to unions, theatres and trusts for support. Many respondents spoke positively of Equity’s response to the crisis, mentioning that they’d received small emergency grants. An anonymous theatremaker felt that “companies like New Diorama Theatre, Company Three, and Slung Low have all dug right into helping communities and artists.” People were also broadly positive about the Arts Council’s speedy response to the crisis, which offered reassurance to artists long before the government announced plans to support freelancers.

Freelance theatremaker Emma Clark said that “I’m glad ACE stepped in with decisive leadership, to support people who are otherwise falling through the cracks.” Sascha Goslin raised concerns that ACE’s ambitious programme of grants to artists and small companies isn’t means tested, pointing out that “successful people who have already received significant ACE funding are more likely to get them.”

But overall, there was the sense that ACE is doing a good job of fulfilling a role it was never designed for, and shouldn’t have to. Costume designer and propmaker Bryony Rumble felt that “for ACE staff, these decisions must feel horrendous and impossible. They are trying to do the work our government should have been doing. Rather than staying in our enclaves – theatre helping theatre – we should be working to reach people in different circumstances but the same new terrible reality so that, together, we can remind the government who they have forgotten.”

Theatre isn’t uniquely affected; the hospitality, cinema, and live music sectors are also in crisis. And in a wider sense, we’re living in a climate where low paid workers like cleaners, nurses and supermarket workers are carrying out essential work in difficult and dangerous conditions, for a country that consistently undervalues their labour. It feels like a vital time to resist the Treasury’s narrative that freelance and insecure workers are somehow less deserving of support – even though their working patterns have been deliberately created by wider economic trends.

Something that patterned through the responses to this survey is the power of collective action. Arts workers have volunteered for Mutual Aid groups, which provide a compelling new model for a new, more supportive kind of community. Arts Emergency recently launched a new appeal, The Future Is Another Place, which will enable the charity to increase levels of support and contact with isolated young people. And there are a huge amount of local efforts to fundraise for and support workers who’ve been left behind – often led by artists who are just as vulnerable themselves.

What about the future?

“I think the hardest part for me has been looking at friends whose biggest concern is ‘when can I go to the pub again’ or ‘can I go on holiday this year’ whose jobs will just snap back to semi-normal as soon as lockdown ends. Whereas I watched my whole industry disappear overnight. It’s hard to explain that to normal people.”
Emily Garside, researcher and critic

I initially felt concerned that by writing this report, I’d add to the almost overwhelming fog of doom and gloom surrounding theatre’s future. But several respondents to the survey said they found just talking about it therapeutic. There’s value in recognising and talking about difficulty, especially under a political regime that blusters through the suffering of coronavirus, and prioritises a semblance of normality over grieving and protest. And this survey also shows that what can seem like individual bad luck or singularity is part of something deeper; part of a systemic issue with both precarity in the arts, and the policies pursued by the government – which massages employment figures by boosting the gig economy, and cutting back on protections for the UK’s most low paid and easily silenced workers.

No one knows when theatre will return, or how many theatres will survive the next few months or years; Nuffield Southampton Theatres recently went into administration, leaving 80 employees out of work. Equity has called on Rishi Sunak to extend SEISS until the end of the year, arguing that live entertainment venues will be the last businesses to reopen. An anonymous casting director said that “I don’t think theatre will be back to normal until there is a vaccine sadly. So many of our patrons are classed as vulnerable and I fear that, even when lockdown has eased, many audience members will be too scared to go to theatre.”

Nearly half of those surveyed didn’t think theatres would reopen until next year – and some thought it would be between two and five years before things were fully ‘back to normal’. But what is ‘normal’, anyway? Freelance theatremaker Emma Clark said that “I don’t think things will ever go back to normal. And in many ways, I hope they don’t. I really hope we take this time to imagine better ways of valuing, caring for, diversifying, and uplifting the workforce that keeps theatre afloat.”

The current pandemic has made a lot of previously invisible things visible, showing the precarity that underpins the UK’s funding system of short term grants and insecure contracts. An anonymous theatremaker emphasised the need for theatres to respond to crisis by looking forwards, not backwards: “instead of streaming old content and doing live streams with guests, other theatre companies could put resources into commissioning new projects and creating more jobs and posts for artists.”

This situation has also shown that imagination and experimentation are vital in a crisis. Freelance producer Claire Turner said that “One of the things which brings me joy is seeing the creativity that has sprung up in all sorts of places, whether that’s making masks, donning a spiderman suit to run round the neighbourhood, setting up a dance in a housing block in Ireland or my local mosque in Cardiff baking cakes for neighbours. It reminds me that creativity and connection exists everywhere and I hope we find a way to continue that.”

Arts workers’ skills are consistently undervalued in a crisis, both financially and by rhetoric that casts their roles as non-essential. But director Joanna Bowman felt that “most theatre-making relies on imagination, working up solutions, and empathy. It feels to me that any world after coronavirus will need those three attributes, and I hope we contribute those skills – whether that is in a ‘theatre context’ or outwith it.”

And actor Maria Leon had more words of reassurance for other people in her situation: “Performers are resourceful people and I know we will find a way to survive this. It’s just embarrassing that the government doesn’t really consider us an important part of society, even though the arts are the only thing keeping people sane right now.”

How to help
What follows is a small selection of the funds available;

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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