Features Published 15 July 2021

Has the pandemic been a step back for working class inclusion in theatre?

“This is not a leveller”: Holly Maples and Allie Young explore the pandemic’s impact on working class artists, as part of the Freelancers in the Dark research project.

Holly Maples and Allie Young

An image from 2011’s The Mill, City of Dreams, written by Jonathan Holmes and Madani Younis for Freedom Studios Bradford, which told the stories of the city’s mill workers

In recent years, calls to make theatre more diverse and inclusive have become central to the industry. This talk of diversity looks promising, but Covid-19 has exposed the cracks under the surface of conversations about inclusion. The Freelancers in the Dark project, based at the University of Essex, Manchester Metropolitan University and Queen’s University Belfast, looks at the impact of the pandemic on theatre freelancers, finding that working-class freelancers’ experiences of the pandemic expose broader problems in the industry. Our survey found that 70% of those who identify as being from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background have changed or completely changed their expectations about their future work since March 2020 (compared to 55.4% of those from other backgrounds). Here, we want to focus on the responses of the freelancers from across the UK who identified as being working class. Has Covid-19 been a set back in terms of the progress made in recent years towards greater class diversity? And what did that progress really look like in the first place?

COVID-19 has meant huge challenges across the arts and theatre sectors. In the early days of the pandemic, we often heard the phrase ‘we’re all in this together’, as the virus and its associated restrictions impacted everyone across society. However, this message erased the ways that the pandemic was experienced differently along various lines according to wealth, ethnicity, age, region and other factors. One London-based freelance artist and academic issued a reminder that “This is not a leveller. People that had security still have that to fall back on. Whereas people that don’t, don’t have that.”

Over the last 18 months, there have been growing concerns that the pandemic will further push theatre to favour the wealthier members of our society, with economic inequality exacerbated by factors of race and gender. One freelance stage manager felt concerned that existing progress would be lost: “people from working class backgrounds, especially black and ethnic minority people, might struggle to come back to theatre, simply because they need job security. And there isn’t job security at the minute, in the arts particularly”.

However, these concerns are not new, and highlight bigger problems in the industry that have always limited diversity. A set designer based in North-West England told us that “until we get an industry that working in it is respected and has some job security, and you get paid reasonably well, then you’re not going to get the diversity of people wanting to work in it”. Rather than such insecurities being results of the pandemic, the last 18 months have highlighted pre-existing precarity, and given space for reflecting on it.

The 2018 report Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency confirmed that the arts sector has long been dominated by those from affluent backgrounds. With unpaid and underpaid work as just one exclusionary aspect of routes into theatre, access for those from diverse and precarious backgrounds can be difficult. But beyond the problems of access, the culture of theatre spaces is also restrictive. Many reported that the expectations and support within the sector are not welcoming of those from diverse backgrounds.

Instead, a number of freelancers we spoke to felt the need to assimilate into the dominant cultures of theatre spaces. One director shared that she was “brought up in a way that you kind of just mould to the structure that you go into. It’s uncomfortable but it’s fine.”

Many of the working-class artists we spoke to felt that there were good intentions towards diversity in many theatre buildings and arts organizations, but that they remained on the surface. Though there is a growing attempt to diversify programming, organisational structures and expected behaviour in rehearsal rooms and backstage remain bound to white middle class norms. As one working-class artist shared, “it can be quite isolating coming from different marginalised backgrounds”, while criticising the tokenistic way that diversity is often practiced.

There was a sense that the culture in these spaces was not open to change. A Scottish dance theatre artist felt that “fundamentally some people don’t want working-class artists in their buildings. They don’t want the tone brought down.” An actor who defines herself as being from a benefits-class background similarly told us “I feel like lots of buildings are now saying ‘You’re welcome in our space’. But it’s still their space, and [the unspoken message is that] ‘While you’re under our roof you’re under our rules’. Instead of saying ‘No, this really is your space too’.”

During the pandemic, activist groups such as the Freelance Task Force and Freelancers Make Theatre Work have lobbied for more representation from working class and other under-represented backgrounds at all levels of the organization, particularly in management structures. As one working-class actor argued, “a well-meaning Oxbridge person trying to make their building more diverse, it’s just never going to fully work because there’s so many blind spots”.

It’s not just about what voices appear in front of the audience, it’s also about how those voices are allowed to express themselves during the whole rehearsal process. Several freelancers mentioned how they had rarely, if ever, been in a rehearsal room with a working-class director, or where more than one or two other members of the team were from working-class backgrounds. They emphasized how this effects how they can act, and the type of discussions that can take place in the rehearsal room. One working-class actor told us that even when working with a well-meaning director who they described as being “switched on and open to learning”, they were expected to be “super polite British in the rehearsal room. It was like I had to not be me.”

The need for more diversity in the workforce goes beyond equal representation, to empowerment and the potential for long-term career development and support. One performance artist spoke about how significant mentorship from an established working-class artist was for her career: “It was the first time I met someone that talked like me, from my background, as a mentor. And it just opened me up … making me feel like I did belong in that space”.

Our interviewees argued that true change needs to go beyond lip service towards improving diversity. But some found that even the institutions attempting to make positive change are reinforcing discriminatory practice. One theatremaker in Scotland told us how she was brought into an established theatre as a consultant on a show about working class experience. What began as an exciting chance to make a difference to working-class representation soon turned into another example of exclusion. She challenged some of the dialogue, and clothing that would be worn, saying, for instance, that a working-class man wouldn’t usually wear an Adidas tracksuit because it was too expensive. She was conscious of reinforcing particular negative and often unrealistic stereotypes, and instead wanted to give a more specific context to the representation on the stage. Soon after her consultation began, she was removed from the rehearsal room and her reflections on working-class culture were not shown in the production. She said: “It felt quite telling that they were creating this piece about poverty porn, about working-class people’s experiences, with a middle class creative team”. While the play was successful and won awards, she felt that there was “no authentic working-class voice in it.”

Other necessary changes to working conditions include schedule adjustments to provide access for artists with chronic health issues, caring responsibilities, and other work/home obligations that impact more frequently marginalized and disabled artists. Many of the working-class artists we spoke to argued that the rigidity of the schedule for work that occurs in the theatre industry needs to become more flexible to be more inclusive. As one theatre maker who self-identifies as disabled queer working class says, she rarely sees herself or her communities represented on stage, and this is related to access issues. She has made an access agreement that arts organisations have to sign in her contract which allows her to work to a schedule she needs for her health and carer responsibilities. She argued that the industry’s inflexibility was “excluding too many disabled people and working class parents by not having more flexible systems”.

Many of our interviewees discussed how important community involvement has been to them in order to create work and give back to their communities through arts projects. For some, a rejection of the established theatres for more non-traditional, community spaces has allowed them to fully express themselves as working-class artists. One artist highlighted the importance of using “places that we know and are comfortable to us,” explaining that for them, using cafes and Dockers Clubs as alternatives to theatre spaces had been a way to collaborate with and support other working-class artists.

Our survey found that those identifying as being from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to have engaged in social or community work since March 2020, joining some of the many grassroots organisations have developed from within communities that feel marginalized. The Working Class Artist Group published a statement in July 2020 particularly addressing the needs of Working Class artists; “We are a collective of 32 members from across the UK – we stand in solidarity with our peers and colleagues affected by the decision making of those in power and will begin to set out our own roadmap to a better, fairer sector”. Through their Twitter feed, they shared calls for funding and support to others on the group, media reports on the pandemic, and further information to develop their practice.

Fox Irving, a solo artist, developed the Women Working Class artist group, designed to offer mentorship and discussion to “host an ongoing conversation among artists and producers to deconstruct hierarchies of space in the landscape of art by sharing our experiences and strategies, dreams and schemes, theories and knowhow”. The group funded eight participants at LADA to come together via Zoom and create meaningful discussions of development and change. They are currently creating a new group in the Northwest. Fox feels that the pandemic greatly changed their approach to work and allowed connection with a wider group of working class artists. Fox is now working with an Arts Council funded web designer, building a resource for working-class artists, thinking about “how we bond and take care of each other digitally”.

Art by Fox Irving

The many networks and development programs created from within working class artist networks have been a positive outcome of the pandemic, but more work needs to be done within arts organisations and theatre buildings to allow our cultural spaces to be truly representative of the country as a whole.

As we look forward, how can we learn from the reflections of the last 18 months and make meaningful change? The working-class freelancers we’ve spoken to have emphasised that while the industry may think it knows how to be more diverse and inclusive, less progress has been made than some have thought. An actor based in London argued that things won’t change unless it changes at the top, arguing “it’s about demystifying the hierarchy of it all” and rethinking organizational structures, rehearsal rooms and backstage spaces. A Scottish dance theatre artist asked us to think about “who gets to set the tone?” As theatre struggles to recover from the pandemic, the freelancers we spoke to made a strong case for work to be done on how theatre is made, as well as who it’s about.

For more on the Freelancers in the Dark research project, visit their website, or read their first Exeunt article Nearly a year on, UK theatre freelancers are still in the dark

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Holly Maples and Allie Young

Holly Maples is a theatre maker, educator and scholar. She is the Primary Investigator of Freelancers in the Dark, and a Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Director of Impact and Post Graduate Research at East 15 School of Acting, University of Essex. Allie Young is Project Officer on the Freelancers in the Dark project and Associate Lecturer at Newcastle University. She recently completed her PhD at Newcastle University, and has a background in theatre production, Creative Producing and research

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