Freelancers share what organisations can do to help them throughout the current crisis and beyond.
© Julia Miranda
Throughout this pandemic, freelancers across the arts have been left out of conversations, support and planning. To address this, we at Freelancers Make Theatre Work hosted the Future Labs, a series of conversations between freelancers and organisations. Over the course of nine topics, we searched for ways to support freelancers through the current crisis, get as many as possible back to work and improve the industry as we move beyond this moment.
These are the ten key messages that emerged from those conversations.
Include freelancers in conversations
Building a more resilient future depends on using the whole workforce ecosystem, 70% of which is freelance. Hosting town halls and creating associate roles is a good start, but freelancers need to be embedded as consultants in organisations’ decision making. This could include seeking freelancers’ feedback about the experience of working on a project, finding new ways for them to collaborate with permanent staff, and being transparent about budgets, resources, and targets at the first possible opportunity. Be brave and be open. Inviting us into these conversations does not necessarily mean agreeing with our point of view – none of us have all the answers!
Use freelancers' skills
While productions are halted, think about how you can harness freelancers’ talents. How can you provide opportunities that suit their skill sets? During the last lockdown theatres such as Southwark Playhouse ran skill-sharing workshops alongside talks and demonstrations for audiences, enlightening both arts professionals and theatregoers to the talents of artists and practitioners. Organisations could also use their own internal resources to create skill sharing and development opportunities for freelancers. As well as providing support, this would help ready the industry for the changing trends and practices of theatre.
Put freelancers on boards
Putting freelancers on boards is a first step towards creating agency and equity for a diverse range of voices. Providing clear and detailed information about the board on your website, practising transparent recruitment processes, and setting up observership programmes like the Stellar Quines Board Pioneers scheme would demystify board membership. It is essential that we increase the diversity of individuals and professional roles on boards. In the immediate future, this could be done by creating freelance advisory boards, such as that recently set up by Chichester Festival Theatre.
Employers need to be honest about what opportunities are available and how they can be tailored to the needs of individuals. Future Lab participants on both sides of the discussion said organisations must look beyond the immediate contractual relationship to develop opportunities for freelancers, especially those at the beginning of their careers. As well as finding ways for contracted freelancers to expand their skills through wraparound activities, theatres can use trainee and observational placements with an eye to employment at the end.
Take on apprentices and associates
Funding bodies and foundations need to invest in trainee and associate schemes for freelancers if we are to develop a truly talented and diverse workforce. Some organisations are already making strides: educational institutions like Royal Welsh College have developed long-term pathways that embed genuine apprenticeship links between students and theatres. Similarly, Creative Society are looking at ways to harness the Kickstart scheme to develop theatre freelancers.
Link up with others
With freelancers moving away from cultural hubs, they are increasingly left out of the loop. It is more important than ever that theatres link up with each other and their local communities. Building solid relationships with freelancers breaks down perceptions of us and them and provides opportunities for connection like workshops, coffee mornings and creative spaces. Several organisations have found a solution within this unpredictable landscape by co-contracting individual freelancers to work on shorter-term projects.
Give fair contracts
The pandemic exposed how unanchored and unsupported freelance workers have traditionally been. Organisations need to review current pay levels and increase fees, open discussions about cancellation clauses and guarantee payment of all contracts in case of emergency. As we move towards digital theatre, we need an urgent discussion about fees and royalties for broadcasting and streaming. We must work together to ensure existing baselines are protected.
Now more than ever, the mental and physical wellbeing of freelancers depends on improved working conditions and support systems, such as the recently launched Inc Arts Mind. Increasing resources and time, recognising unpaid labour, and working against discrimination will have the greatest impact. Organisations need to eliminate tick-box notions of best practice and ensure that working cultures and access requirements are tailored to specific contexts, with clear contingencies and accessible systems for feedback.
Covid-19 will have a disproportionate effect on those from underrepresented communities. Organisations should use this moment of pause to engage with and support existing networks such as StageSight, Inc Arts, and Theatre Call to Action that can provide practical routes to change and share learning in the sector. Underrepresented voices must be invited into decision-making processes. As we begin to make work again, organisations need to recognise that marginalised communities will face specific barriers to returning to work and take concrete steps to combat this.
Embed freelance roles
As we rebuild the industry, there is an opportunity to make creative roles that cross over into governance. Out of Joint, for example, have contracted a group of part-time writers not to just write, but also to develop projects and attend programming meetings. Programmes like this allow individuals to retain their freelance identities while gaining financial security. In this way, they can actively participate in decision-making across the industry.
Freelancers Make Theatre Work is an advocacy group supporting freelancers through the pandemic.
Contributed by Jack Hudson, Emma Jayne Park, Susan Kempster, Peter McKintosh, Prema Mehta, Vicki Mortimer, Arran Pallan, Tom Piper, Adele Thomas, Leo Wan, and Andrew Whyment.