Performing in a PandemicHow to Keep the Show on the Road?
Richard Hansen offers ideas on how to help the freelance theatre workers on which the industry relies
As the infection rate from the COVID-19 pandemic begins to decline, or at least plateau, and we begin to reopen the economy, freelance theatre workers still face a deeply uncertain future.
Much to the pleasant surprise of many in theatre, the Government has announced an arts bail-out package worth more than £1.57 billion. Without this, institutions such as the Royal Opera House would have faced collapse by Christmas.
While these funds should be sufficient to sustain Britain’s cultural and artistic infrastructure until next year, they leave behind freelance workers who make up more than 70% of the industry’s workforce.
The overwhelming majority of theatre workers are freelance, compared to only 15.3% across the economy as a whole. Whether the bail-out package will help save the theatre industry’s workers depends on how it is spent.
Get Lost or Go Broke
It is important to keep theatres, concert halls, opera houses and arts centres functioning – but they are of no use in and of themselves. It is the art made by freelancers which matters most and which audiences pay to see.
These people are the set designers, artists, musicians, technicians, actors, stage managers, directors, composers, sound engineers and producers. While the Government support scheme for self-employed workers will stop at the end of October, most theatres in the UK have already cancelled their programmes until at least the beginning of 2021 – leaving millions of people with many months of uncertainty.
The Coronavirus pandemic has thrown many freelancers’ lives into chaos and has exposed further flaws in an already imperfect system. While permanent staff were furloughed at the beginning of lockdown, freelancers simply went home, often losing thousands of pounds in income.
Many theatre freelancers have large upfront expenses, not all of which have been possible to recover. Some freelancers were eligible for a grant under the Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) but many were not as they earn their living through a combination of freelance work and PAYE employment. Others were able to apply for small grants which helped for a few weeks, while some are nervously awaiting outcomes of Universal Credit applications or have simply left the industry altogether.
“I have had to take on a new role as a care worker, and while I think it is important to contribute in any way I can, I do not see myself working in the arts sector for at least the next year,” says freelance soprano and producer Rachael Brimley.
Innovation is the Only Way
This crisis has also exposed the disparity between arts freelancers and theatre administrators. Many large organisations that rely on Arts Council funding have to employ a certain number of administrators in order to satisfy their funding criteria.
“Without intervention from the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the bail-out money will in all likelihood go to the Arts Council, which will then distribute it to the institutions it has been funding for years which will in turn probably spend it on retaining as many of their full time non creative employees as possible but these people are already safe – they have received 80% of their salary for the past few months and their skills are transferable should theatres never reopen,” the theatre director Fiona Laird observes.
Brimley offers a more radical solution, whereby theatre freelancers could be used in administrative roles.
“There are often too many people employed by these organisations on a full-time basis in non-creative roles while the creatives are left to be freelance,” she says. “Maybe it is time these organisations look at employing creative people to administrative roles. A singer can be trained as an administrator much quicker than an administrator can be trained to be a singer.”
If bail-out funds can be placed in the hands of freelance artists who have been creating the work which theatres rely on, the industry will have a chance of survival. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing a generation of emerging talent, especially from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Many artists are desperate to perform again and, while it is vital to do this in a safe way, there are plenty of people offering up inventive new ways of making it work. Now that outdoor, socially-distanced performances are permitted, organisations could be doing more to commission and facilitate work outside the traditional theatre framework.
Outdoor performances, on the streets, in communities, drive-ins, on the beach, or via livestream are only a few options which could be undertaken by organisations receiving emergency funding, rather than simply using the money to mothball until this crisis is over.
This could provide employment opportunities for freelancers at a time when they are facing perilous uncertainty – stopping their talent from being lost altogether.