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Theatre freelancers "undervalued, underpaid and under-appreciated"

The Freelancers Make Theatre Work 2023 survey of self-employed industry professionals paints a stark picture for much of its freelance talent.

Freelancers make up 70% of the UK's theatre workforce. 

This month, Freelancers Make Theatre Work, an inclusive, independent community for the self-employed and freelance workers from all areas of theatre, opera, dance and live performance, published the results of their 2023 Big Freelancer Survey. 

1200 industry freelancers were asked to identify up to five key words to describe their experiences of working in the industry over the past twelve months; to identify three things about the industry that they would change if they could; to provide any other comments on the survey and the issues it raises; to comment on their thoughts and feelings about the impact of Brexit on the industry and their work, and to describe any thoughts or feelings they have about concerns about a current skills drain in the industry following COVID, Brexit and the increasing cost of living in the UK.

Matthew spoke to Mimi Doulton and Paul Carey Jones from the collective about the insights the survey uncovered, and what it means for the industry and its people.

There's a clear message in this year's report that freelance individuals in the industry feel 'undervalued, underpaid and underappreciated' - is there a sense that freelancers are being treated with less respect or as second-class citizens, or is this a feeling which those working in the industry feel, regardless of their contract type?
Two specific events have contributed to the current sense of being 'second-class' citizens. The first impacts everyone working in theatre, and that is the brutal funding cuts our industry has undergone over the last year; the culmination of a gradual dismantling of arts funding and arts in schools since 2010.

The second event is more freelancer-specific (although organisations also suffered), and that is the Covid-19 pandemic, during which so many of the freelancers in our community were left without any form of government support. 

Funds that were distributed to buildings and organisations did not trickle down to freelancers, and a huge number were left unsupported by schemes such as SEISS, creating a pervading sense of injustice and inequality.

Although the whole industry is under siege, the picture this year's survey paints is of a workforce where freelancers lack access to basic HR, and where issues of equality (for example, fair pay) are not being adequately scrutinised. 

And added into this mix is the current cost-of-living crisis - is any organisation budgeting to deal with double-digit inflation when it comes to freelancers’ pay? Or are many of them instead planning to squeeze it further as a cost-cutting measure? As so often, the freelance workforce is bearing the brunt of the problems of the industry as a whole.

How reliant is the sector upon the self-employed workforce, and what risks do you feel the industry faces if they're not taking better care of their freelancers?

We are already seeing the impact of a lack of care for freelancers, with a huge shift in the workforce from theatre to Film and TV, which is generally perceived to be better paid and more secure, as well as to other sectors outside the arts. 

This is leading to skills shortages in certain roles, for example stage management, production, wardrobe and so on. The skills shortages in turn are causing excessive pressure on the remaining freelancers to cover more work often without any increase in pay, which brings with it risks of burnout and unsafe working conditions.

We estimate that around 70% of the theatre workforce are freelancers, and the industry simply cannot exist without them.

A key theme in the report is transparency around pay - the gender pay gap and the freelancer pay gap are both significant issues raised. What do you feel needs to be done around pay transparency and setting industry rates - and what benefits might this bring?

As stated in the survey, many respondents made calls for fair rates of pay, paid overtime, and pay that reflects skills and experience. 

There’s a specific issue around earnings plateauing for freelancers after 20 years or so of working, which is extremely pronounced for female workers in particular, and this must surely have a huge impact on workforce retention. 

Theatre industry leaders need to take a close look at the data and come up with some solutions. 

We will never achieve a truly diverse workforce until we tackle the issue of fair pay. BFS23 indicates that careers in theatre are becoming financially inaccessible, due to both the high training costs and pay that is often below minimum wage, all this combined with a cost-of-living crisis. How can we honestly encourage people from low-income homes to train for jobs that will not guarantee them a basic living wage?

Another key theme is discrimination and inclusion - organisations are not required to report on diversity of non-employed members of staff, is this a hidden issue when it comes to freelancers, and what more can be done to tackle it?

As with so many aspects of the crisis in the freelance workforce, the lack of data acts as a shield for so much inequality and inaction. It’s remarkable that successive governments, funding bodies and the industry itself haven’t done more to gather data and examine these issues. Without examining, identifying and diagnosing the challenges facing us, there’s no hope of finding solutions.

There's a general tone of things looking pretty bleak, and lots of references to the damage done by Covid and Brexit, and naturally other factors like the economy will be at play. What is the mental health impact from the key issues you're highlighting

Among those respondents considering leaving the industry, mental health was cited as the second most common factor, after low pay. 

There’s a clear message from freelancers that the extra pressures that have been disproportionately loaded onto them in the rush to open back up post-lockdown have taken, and are continuing to take, a significant toll.

Where are freelancers in the industry turning for support, financially and for mental health? Is it sufficient? What more can employers and industry bodies be doing to support the mental health of freelancers?

From a financial point of view, there is clear evidence that freelancers’ savings have decreased and level of debt increased significantly over the last three years, even now that many are back in work. 

With mental health, freelancers are far too often left to fend for themselves - as one respondent put it, conditions and behaviours causing the pressures which lead to mental health issues are rarely discussed because “we have all decided that poor mental health is just ‘part of the job.’’ 

Freelancers don’t even have the safety net of sick pay to support them.

Is there optimism to be seen in the conversations you're having? Are there positive signs and glimmers of hope over the horizon, or is this a stark wake up call to the sector to tackle issues head on? If they're not tackled, what future might the sector face?

Given the extent of the challenges facing freelancers in theatre, the sense of enthusiasm and positivity is constantly inspiring. People make huge sacrifices every day, by and large because they believe in theatre as an art form, and they want the UK theatre industry to persist and thrive.

But we need to be clear that ultimately the crisis facing the freelance workforce is the industry’s problem to solve. When freelancers are forced to leave the industry because of this immense burden being placed on them, their absence is the theatre industry’s problem, not theirs. 

How are theatre companies going to produce shows without stage managers, lighting designers, wardrobe technicians? The answer is that they can’t. And so they need to stop seeing this as a minor concern and recognise it as the central challenge to the continued existence of the theatre industry in the UK.

A huge thanks to the Freelancers Make Theatre Work team for taking time to speak to us, and the work which they do supporting the freelancers within the theatre industry. You can learn more about their work, along with accessing resources, support, news and advice at https://freelancersmaketheatrework.com/

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