Almost three quarters of theatre freelancers pessimistic about their futures, research suggests
8 June 2021
Impact of COVID-19 has seen freelancers developing new skills and support networks
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has left nearly three quarters of theatre freelancers feeling pessimistic about their futures, new research suggests.
The Freelancers in the Dark project, a collaboration between Manchester Metropolitan University, East 15 Acting School at the University of Essex, which is leading the study, and Queen’s University Belfast, is investigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on theatre freelancers from across the UK.
Following a nationwide survey of 397 theatre freelancers, caried out between November 2020 and March 2021, emerging findings published by the research team have found that many respondents feel ‘worried’ or ‘fearful’ about their future in the theatre industry. Overall, 72.4% felt pessimistic about the future.
Lack of support
Typically, a large portion of the theatre industry is staffed by freelance workers but theatre was hugely affected by COVID-19 lockdowns.
The concerns have been intensified by a perceived lack of support from organisations, public bodies or the government, something which theatre freelances reported as the largest barrier they faced in their professional lives since March 2020.
More than half (54.8%) of theatre freelancers reported feeling unsupported by their current or former employers, compared with 18.9% who feel very or quite supported.
Dr Joshua Edelman, Senior Lecturer in Drama and Contemporary Performance at Manchester Metropolitan University, a co-investigator on the project, said: “While of course money matters, a sense of being supported is more than that. Freelancers make up the vast majority of workers in the theatre industry, and we see that they’re quite worried about the future of their work with theatres that have been decimated by this pandemic.”
A lack of communication from employers is driving freelancers to feel ‘disposable’, ‘disappointed’ and excluded from conversations around the future of theatres.
Over half (58.7%) of theatre freelancers have changed their expectation about the sort of work they will do in the future, compared to 16.8% who expect the kind of work they do to remain the same.
Developing new skills
The emerging findings from the research also suggest that theatre freelancers have shown a high degree of adaptiveness, alongside an uncertainty about making these adaptations permanent. Many are reorganising their working lives and developing new skills in response to changes to the sector.
Findings show that 62.2% of theatre freelances have gained or developed new skills since March 2020 with 51.6% intending to use their new skills.
New skills ranged from using digital platforms like Zoom to make theatre, development of creative practices such as writing, taking online mental health first aid courses to COVID security.
Freelancers make up the vast majority of workers in the theatre industry, and we see that they’re quite worried about the future of their work with theatres that have been decimated by this pandemic.
Others are future proofing their careers by learning audio recording skills, as TV and voiceovers are perceived as a more secure source of income.
These findings suggest that post COVID-19, policy should be built around a more flexible and complex understanding of freelancers’ careers, skills base, and motivations.
Optimism and peer support
The survey also shows that optimism, hope and the development of skills are significantly enhanced by peer support and the informal networks freelancers have established, something which has been vital and meaningful during the pandemic.
A positive correlation was seen between feeling closer to other freelancers and developing new skills, due to peer-to-peer skill-sharing.
These findings suggest that the power of freelancer networks should play a significant role and carry greater status in post-COVID-19 policies and systems.
Dr Holly Maples, from East 15 Acting School, who is leading the study, said: “Freelancers are not a cohesive unit, but have varying needs and responses to the pandemic based on the disciplines they work in, the areas of the country they live in, and other demographic factors.
This early finding highlights just how much theatre and live arts relies on people to thrive and survive.
“In the survey, our 140 interviews, and ongoing focus groups, freelance theatre workers articulate a desire to individually, and collectively, fight for better and more equitable working conditions in the post-pandemic world because the institutions, arts organisations, and government bodies are felt to be letting them down.”
Dr Ali FitzGibbon, Lecturer in Creative and Cultural Industries Management from Queen’s University Belfast, and a co-investigator on the project, added: “This early finding highlights just how much theatre and live arts relies on people to thrive and survive. This tells us a lot about how future planning and policy needs to be attentive to people’s hopes and ambitions as well as their livelihoods.”
The project will continue with interviews and focus groups with more findings to be released, which will be followed by the final report.
The project is funded by ESRC as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.