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A new initiative to champion the needs of freelancers with caring responsibilities is being launched, specifically focusing on returning to work after parental or care leave. Sarah Meadows and Emily Williams outline why it’s so urgently needed.

Sarah Meadows standing in a theatre auditorium holding two children. The theatre is empty and red curtains are drawn on-stage, though there are four stage lights switched on. Sarah has her back to the camera. She is wearing a black and white striped t-shirt and has long brown hair.

All new parents and carers are bonded by high care costs. For parents, childcare during the early years can take most, if not all, of your earnings, making the decision and process of returning to work complex. For carers, a Carers Leave was only introduced last year but while it entitles employed staff to one week's unpaid leave it offers no support for freelancers. 

From a recent focus group of parents working in arts, we know that three months is the average point of return to work after having a baby, with many either returning sooner or not at all due to the cost of childcare and lack of flexibility with projects. Salaried staff average nine months. 
“As a freelancer there was no easing in, no staggered process back into work, no KIT (Keeping in Touch) days, no development or training, no support to prepare. I went straight into leading a room in the same way as before. It appears you are inadvertently set up to fail.” 

This quote is from the CF:SLR 2021 research report (Creative Freelancers Shaping London’s Recovery) by Fuel and Creative UK in collaboration with PiPA (Parents in Performing Arts) which makes recommendations for best practice to support the needs of freelance parents and carers. 

The ‘return to work’ programme

Overall, the research findings pointed to two areas of much needed change with regard to freelance parents and carers, which sparked our collaboration:

  • A cultural shift towards visibility, flexibility and open communication; and
  • Supporting and valuing parents and carers by asking what they need to do their best work.

For one of us – Sarah – the ‘return to work’ programme was a tangible and powerful vehicle by which to begin to tackle the issues expressed by the research participants. As a director working across subsidised and commercial theatre, she experienced first-hand some of the best and worst practice of our industry - while also being a mum of two small children. She reached out on social media for possible partners and Theatre Bristol became the first partner to support the idea to turn it into a reality. 

For Emily at Theatre Bristol, the approach from Sarah for collaboration was a no brainer. Theatre Bristol’s work is led by a desire to build a more equitable and sustainable ecology where artists can establish and sustain independent careers, whatever their background. It does this by connecting people, sharing knowledge and resources, brokering relationships and advocating for best practice through a responsive, seasonal programme of offers. 

Support for freelancers and employers

The aim of the ‘return to work’ programme is to create free and evolving resources (made with the Creative Commons principle) to provide essential information and support for freelance parents and carers working across live performance - and for the people who employ them. The programme will be designed and led by freelancers. 
There will be multiple strands to the work, but currently we are designing and developing a workshop and seeking organisations to host and facilitate sessions for local freelancers. The workshop will explore various aspects of returning to work including legal and financial challenges, contracts and working conditions. 

It will also offer peer-to-peer coaching and problem solving, and provide tools to reconnect returners with themselves and their work, thereby building a local community of peers with shared experience. It is paramount that this workshop is free, accessible, evolving and publicly owned. 

Most will need care leave 

The industry is currently facing many challenges and the talent drain is hitting hard, particularly for those with caring responsibilities. We must take action now and the way we work must adapt. We need more models to explore flexible working in creative, practical and open ways. 

A recent Theatre Bristol survey cited “lack of flexibility, location, long hours and lack of childcare" as having the biggest impact on their ability to work. So, it is essential too that employers become more visible in their support of freelance parents and carers and that there is accountability when this isn’t given. Without such intervention, more industry talent - who happen to have caring responsibilities – will be lost. 

Most people will experience care leave of some kind at some point in their career, so our work to create change is to the benefit of everyone. Access benefits all. The programme will become a support and education tool, not only for freelancers themselves but also for the institutions who host them, thereby growing awareness of the challenges and increasing visibility. 
Theatre Bristol supported us to develop this idea together. In collaboration, we have run an online focus group with 12 parents working in live performance, and collected data through a survey. We are now building a network of partners to support, develop and test the programme. Little Angel Theatre in London is our first partner who will pilot the programme with us.

Next steps

Like most things, the challenges were magnified by Covid - although the flipside is that now it has been proven that some roles can be delivered more flexibly. According to Theatre Bristol's recent survey (2022), 88.9% of freelancers working in live performance regularly turn down work due to their caring responsibilities. And according to PiPA’s research, pre-Covid four in ten people left the industry because of caring responsibilities (PiPA Balancing Act Report), increasing to seven in ten in 2020 (PiPA Covid Report). 
The cultural sector will only ever be as resilient as its talent. With 70% of our industry being freelance, we have to re-evaluate the disparity in support for caregivers and change the way in which freelance creatives return to work. This will ensure parents and carers continue to sustain careers and can thrive.
For the next phase of the project, we are seeking venues or producing organisations who can financially contribute and/or host the workshop in its pilot phase and after launch. We are also looking for freelancers who’d like to be part of the research phase. If you are interested, please email emily@theatrebristol.net

Sarah Meadows is a freelance theatre director and founder of the return to work programme.
Emily Williams is Chief Executive Office of Theatre Bristol and co-creator of the return to work programme.

@SarahMeadows1 | @emilybronwen | @theatrebristol

Link to Author(s): 
Headshot of Emily Williams
Headshot of Sarah Meadows