Forgotten freelancers: the arts industry professionals who have been left behind

At the start of the pandemic, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, famously said that no one would have to face COVID-19 alone, but, unfortunately, this has not been true for 5% of the workforce – freelancers.

By Maxine Denton |

With the end of Britain’s furlough and Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) on the horizon and no set date for when theatres can reopen, there has been a lot of uncertainty and fear around what this means for those who still can’t return to work in the industry.

After uproar from theatres and artists about the lack of financial support during the pandemic, on the 5th of July, the government announced that it will provide a £1.57bn recovery fund, to the creative industries. For over four months in lockdown, artists had no financial security on top of having to worry about protecting their health and looking after their loved ones. The ‘rescue package’ was announced “to protect arts, culture, and heritage from the disastrous effects of the coronavirus pandemic”. £500m of that was to be distributed as emergency grants to organisations by Arts Council England, with a further £270m as loans.

freelancers in the performing arts face a potentially grim future

Sadly, freelancers were forgotten in the announcement, and whilst the SEISS offered some support to self-employed artists, as many as one-in-three in theatre – and the same proportion of musicians – were ineligible for it. This is due to many having just recently transitioned into freelance work and therefore not having a full year’s tax returns to show, their income being deemed too high, or complications with being paid via Pay As You Earn for short term work.

Freelancers make up 70% of the UK’s theatre workforce, from all areas of theatre: opera, dance, and live performance. What we see on stage – all those speakers, lights, the miles of cabling, the staging and automation, the props, costumes, and wigs, do not belong to the theatre itself but rather to freelance technical support and rental companies. In fact, many actors and actresses are freelance performers. Just because they are not all visible on stage, it does not mean that they are not there – they are the skeleton to the body of the performance. Every individual involved in a show works at the top of their game to ensure the story is brought to life during the performance, then packs up at the end of the run and moves to a new theatre to begin the process again.

Following Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden’s, confirmation that there would be no update on full reopening of theatres until November and the cancellation of Christmas pantomimes already, those workers and freelancers in the performing arts face a potentially grim future. They have essentially been prohibited from returning to work, while most of the economy has taken the steps to be back on track.

Whilst some venues have experimented with the concept of socially distanced indoor performances, the reality is that it is just not financially feasible for an extended period because most indoor theatres rely on 80% audience capacity to break even on costs.

Artists are crying out for more support from the government, and, unfortunately, they have not yet been heard

Of course, social distancing rules need to be in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and, therefore, large gatherings within venues would be inappropriate until the government has successfully contained the virus and it is safe for audiences and professionals to return. However, doing nothing is not an option.

Artists are crying out for more support from the government, and, unfortunately, they have not yet been heard. But that only makes them louder. Last Wednesday, performers and members of the creative industry – including an assortment of pantomime dames from across the UK – joined in protest outside Parliament Square. The colourful demonstration, labelled the #PantoParade, was organised by the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union and British Actor’s Equity Association, along with Excluded UK, and aimed to highlight the issues caused by the closing of theatres during the ongoing pandemic. On the same day, the international movement, We Make Events, called for performance venues across the country to light up in red to show solidarity for the performing arts sector.

Freelancers and creatives are a resilient bunch and have continually demonstrated innovative ways of sharing their work with audiences during the pandemic – whether that be via social media and online platforms such as Zoom during lockdown or in socially distanced outdoor performances since July 11th.

According to an Ofcom report, UK adults spent almost half their day watching TV and online streaming services during the height of lockdown. Twelve million adults signed up to new streaming services, and, by early July, Disney+ attracted 16% of online adults – around the same time Hamilton was added to the streaming service… coincidence? I think not.

Many artists, including the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber, have also offered audiences the opportunity to stream their work for free. In April, Universal launched the YouTube channel The Shows Must Go On!, which has shared behind-the-scene clips, backstage interviews, and live performances of beloved shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Evita and Hairspray over the last 7 months. As of October 2020, the channel has over 1.34 million subscribers. Theatre and art helped us during the pandemic and offered an escape from fear and uncertainty of the world. We spent our time consuming the work of these creatives at a time when it was needed the most. Theatre has been part of our culture as we know it today for more than 500 years. It benefits education, community and well-being. It’s time we help the arts.