Features Published 12 February 2021

Nearly a year on, UK theatre freelancers are still in the dark

Laura Harris and James Rowson share some initial findings from research project Freelancers in the Dark, charting broken lines of communication, grief, solidarity and hope.

Laura Harris and James Rowson

Raising our voices: research project Freelancers in the Dark

When it comes to the impact of Covid-19 on theatre the figures and headlines are easy to find, if difficult to swallow. In the performing arts 72% of parents and carers are considering leaving their career; at least 7,442 theatre and live events workers have been made redundant; government support for theatre’s self-employed disproportionately fails D/deaf and disabled workers, workers of colour and emergent talent. These figures will come as little surprise to those for whom they have been a lived reality. The pandemic has caught everyone between the micro and the macro – between our personal experiences and the headline statistics – and theatre freelancers are no different. 

Freelancers in the Dark‘ is a project at the University of Essex, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Queen’s University Belfast looking at the social, cultural and economic impacts of COVID-19 on freelance theatre-makers and multidisciplinary artists in the UK, who range from actors, to directors, designers, stage managers, creative producers and countless more. We are still in the early phases of the 18-month project and much more data will be collected before we publish our comprehensive analysis – we are currently running a survey of theatre freelancers and will soon embark on a suite of focus groups. But even at this early stage we have begun to learn about the emotional, lived realities of theatre freelancer that go beyond the headlines. 

It is nearly a year since the first lockdowns across the UK. Our interviews, conducted by Dr Holly Maples with freelance theatre-makers in the second half of 2020, recall the first lockdown as a time charged with fear, but also an energetic and a spirited attempt to keep theatre alive, even if online. There was a defiance to many freelancers’ rush to learn to skills in order to keep making theatre, which one interviewee summed up: “I’m capable of learning anything if it means that I can continue making theatre.” However, as the ‘new normal’ wore on and anxieties become routine, many interviewees described feeling marginalised and excluded from debates around the future of the theatre industry. “I would have liked to have seen more communication and empathy,” one interviewee told us. There was frustration with the lack of support offered by theatres, illustrating the need for more dialogue between buildings and the freelancers who bring them to life. “‘How are you doing? Sorry, nothing new to report’ is much better than hearing nothing,” a participant reflected. What’s more, as many theatre freelancers’ sense of self is deeply entangled with their work and the places in which they make work, these frustrations often had a deeply existential character. “I have been an actor for 35 years, I can only act” one told us, and another “I’m living my life through my work.”

Day-to-day life during the pandemic has been marked by uncertainty in the face of a constantly shifting future and the confusion of government (in)decisions. As independent theatre artists try to plan for their futures, we have heard from many concerned that they do not have the same access to information on how and when the situation will change that large cultural organisations do – as one interviewee put it “emails are not responded to, things are not concrete.” Interviewees told us of their fears that this uneven access to knowledge and information will create future barriers for planning and creating new work. At the same time, many freelancers are generous in their acknowledgement that theatres have been under immense financial pressure, resulting from multiple national lockdowns that have left them unable to implement their artistic programmes and stage planned productions. Our current survey of organisations is one of many attempts to understand how theatre institutions have navigated the pandemic. 

Our project’s nascent findings have also demonstrated bursts of optimism for theatre’s recovery despite the devastating consequences of COVID-19 on the industry. Shared struggle has a habit of bringing people together, forming new networks which can reshape the fabric of social fields. “The costume community has become more connected than ever before,” one participant told us, and another said that “all my technician friends got immersed in training and networking. What if we’re not languishing, as Boris would have us?” As researchers Ben Walmsley, Abigail Gilmore and Dave O’Brien reflect, there is “a new sense of shared endeavour and of working in a sector that really matters.”  

One of the most exciting consequences of the last twelve months has been the emergence of new forms of collective collaboration and discipline-related support bubbles. These new creative networks have provided vital opportunities for both established and emerging theatre freelancers to reciprocally develop their performance practices in ways that may have been financially non-viable before the pandemic. The online drama series Shakespeare in Isolation brought together a diverse team of over 30 artists from across the United Kingdom, in a multi-regional and multi-disciplined project; the Virtual Collaborators digital festival similarly championed the work of a manifold group of freelance creatives, providing them with a digital platform for their artistic output during the first wave of the virus; the ‘Director’s Zoom’ run by Robert Icke and Lyndsey Turner has consolidated the theatre directing community and opened up important new avenues for advocacy and debate. Could these new ways of producing theatre and organising mutual support have the power to change the social landscape of theatre-making?

As well as these high-energy, organised acts of creativity, we have been hearing about quiet and personal acts of care in many different forms which can change the emotional timbre of a day in the pandemic. These have ranged from “just phoning people to try to make sure they’re OK”, to checking in with fellow freelancers who have expressed that they are suffering, setting up WhatsApp groups for marginalised sections of the workforce, to giving encouragement, walking together, and “commiserating together.” “It hurts less,” one said “when you’re in solidarity with other people.” After all, the backdrop to the struggles and strains of theatre freelancers is an experience of grief, both collective and personal, bringing with it a need for human connection. Many theatre freelancers are used to theatre delivering these connections; with theatres dark, the community seems to have sought out new ways to provide this to one another on every scale. 

One emotion that has also recurred in our research so far is hope. Hope that the pandemic represents a crucial window during which we can make a radical and profound shift in how theatre and performance is created, programmed, and valued in the UK. The devastating disruption to the culture sector wrecked by the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the traditional hierarchies that have remained entrenched in British theatre during the twenty-first century. One interviewee posed vital questions to be asked by theatre-makers going forward: “Do we have right to produce this? Are we the right people to be doing this? Have we employed the right people to write those stories?” Many of our initial participants have spoken of this need for these power dynamics within the industry to be questioned, alongside a hope that important new work will emerge to challenge dominant dramaturgies.

When we find ourselves in a future after social distancing, the emotional paths that we take through life will have been irrevocably altered by our experiences during the pandemic. Have desires to stay in the industry been dampened by the pandemic? Will the new forms of collective action find a way to replace stress with joy? Sector recovery will play out in the theatre of politics and policy, and life-choices will still be disciplined by money and the job market. But for theatre freelancers, future choices will also be made in the heart. It is this that Freelancers in the Dark will illuminate. After all, in the words of an interviewee, “You can do theatre without a building, you can do it without a lot of money, but you can’t do it without freelancers.” 

Freelancers in the Dark is a research project looking at the immediate and long-term social, cultural and economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic on theatre freelancers (funded by the ESRC). It is currently running a survey of this workforce. Find out more on their website, or follow them on Twitter


Laura Harris and James Rowson

Laura Harris is a Sociologist currently based at Manchester School of Theatre at Manchester Metropolitan University, working on the project Freelancers in the Dark. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Liverpool. She is also a freelance arts writer. ______________________________________________________________________________ James Rowson is a Postdoctoral Researcher at East 15 Acting School, University of Essex, where he is a member of the ESRC funded project Freelancers in the Dark. He received his PhD from the Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance at Royal Holloway, University of London.



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