An uncertain future lies ahead for theatre freelancers, research reveals
12 April 2022
Findings will help inform positive changes to the theatre industry
Many theatre freelancers from across the UK fear their future is uncertain due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, research suggests.
Research project Freelancers in the Dark, a collaboration between Manchester Metropolitan University, East 15 Acting School at the University of Essex, who led the study, and Queen’s University Belfast, has investigated the impact of the pandemic on freelance creatives in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Participants at all levels of the industry spoke of fear that their value and identity as theatre workers had been eroded; the abandonment from both the industry and political spheres; and the effects of the lack of connecting and creating with peers in a physical space.
Dr Joshua Edelman, Reader in Drama and Contemporary Performance at Manchester Metropolitan University, a co-investigator on the project, said: “The pandemic has been transformative for freelancers’ understanding of their careers, their work, and their place in society.
“Freelancers make up the lion’s share of workers in the theatre industry, and so whatever happens to them is of key importance for the future of the field. This project tries to make sense of those changes to help ensure the heath of UK theatre for the long term.”
Freelancers make up the lion’s share of workers in the theatre industry, and so whatever happens to them is of key importance for the future of the field.
Dr Holly Maples, from East 15 Acting School, who led the study, said that with a theatre sector which relies on a workforce that is 88% self-employed or freelance, the findings of this study are not to be under-estimated.
She said: “Our research into the experiences of freelance theatre workers has revealed diverse insights into the current state of the UK’s theatre sector as we continue to deal with the unprecedented ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is vital that this important group of theatre workers is reflected in industry change that emerges from the pandemic, reflecting their deep-rooted anxiety that their identity as artists had been damaged by national lockdowns and theatre closures.”
Through surveys, interviews and focus groups, researchers found optimism at the beginning of the project that the disruption of work in the theatre industry would create a catalyst for change – but, as the pandemic in the UK evolved and shifted through different stages, fears and anxieties increased among freelancers.
Findings from the survey revealed that 72% of freelancers have become more pessimistic about their future work in theatre with many respondents feeling ‘worried’ or ‘fearful’.
Almost half (54.8%) of theatre freelancers also reported feeling unsupported by their current or former employers, compared with 18.9% who felt very or quite supported.
Interviews revealed that a number of theatre freelancers expressed disappointment and anger around the rigidity of the funding support and that many had slipped through the net.
Theatre freelancers adapted to the changes in the industry by developing new skills and finding new ways of working with 62% of survey respondents having gained or developed new skills since March 2020.
Activism and advocacy
During the pandemic, wide-ranging activism, and advocacy for better support for freelancers was seen as a positive outcome, the project found.
Feelings of desperation shifted towards feelings of optimism, something which was boosted through peer support and informal networks established between freelancers.
For many participants, the pandemic provided a break and allowed them to reconceptualise the way they supported, worked, and collaborated with other theatre freelancers on both a local and national level.
The pandemic has been transformative for freelancers’ understanding of their careers, their work, and their place in society.
However, long-term instability to the performing arts sector made these early changes less appealing to an industry which will take years of financial, cultural, and institutional recovery.
The report also highlights how the “Government’s response to the pandemic failed to recognise how live theatre operates or the crucial contribution that the arts provide to the UK economy”.
The economic value of the UK’s cultural industries and live arts sector was cited by many of the freelance theatre workers who participated in the study.
Findings will be used to provide feedback to arts councils and government departments to help inform positive changes in the theatre industry.
The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.