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Study finds freelance workers in theatre are underpaid and facing financial uncertainity across all career stages and regions, with some forced to live hand-to-mouth and considering careers outside the sector.

A young man taking part in theatre rehearsals

shironosov via iStock

Average earnings for freelancers in the theatre industry are 17.5% below the UK national average salary, according to the findings of a new survey.

The third edition of Freelancers Make Theatre Work’s (FMTW) annual survey, which received responses from 1,156 theatre freelancers workers in March and April this year, found an average mean income for arts freelancers of £22,900, compared with an average of £27,756 for all UK employees.

Male respondents had a mean income of £32,600, compared with £20,400 for women, equating to a gender pay gap of 37.4%. Elsewhere, FMTW’s report details numerous accounts of ageism and sexism within the industry and a growing skills shortage due to freelancers leaving, or being forced out, of the sector.


Paul Carey Jones, FMTW Data and Communications Manager, said the survey “paints a stark picture of a freelance workforce under siege”.

“The clear message from this year’s survey is that the freelance theatre workforce feels undervalued, underpaid and underappreciated, a feeling that has been amplified by significant funding cuts in the last year”.

Jones added that the industry needs to take a “long hard look at itself” and called upon the government to assist in “a much-needed” shake up.

“Although many find the work fulfilling, unsustainably low pay is leading to skills shortages across the arts industry, coupled with the devastating impact of the fallout from Brexit,” Jones said.

FMTW’s report says instances of financial uncertainty and underpayment were the most widespread concerns across all career stages, regions and sectors and are resulting in many freelancers living hand-to-mouth.

“If I work out the amount of hours I expect to put in it would be well below minimum wage,” one participant said.

“I am fed up with having no life outside of work to make ends meet. It has taken away my love for my job and is not what I want for the future”.

The perfect storm

Jones added the theatre freelancer workforce is currently facing the “perfect storm of a cost-of-living crisis, and the ongoing impact of Covid and Brexit, combined with deeply embedded structural inequalities”, which the report says is leading to many freelancers feeling the past 12 months have been worse than their experiences during the pandemic.

Almost two thirds (64.6%) of respondents said they have been doing more work for the same or less pay in the last year.

The report explains this growing overwork-underpayment bind is contributing to a sense that lessons learned during the pandemic have been abandoned, and that the last few years have been a missed opportunity for industry reform.

Meanwhile, nearly 80% of survey respondents said they believe Brexit has been a source of uncertainty for their work in the industry.

Brexit was found to be hitting those working in opera, classical music and live events particularly hard, with some saying they feel they have been discriminated against for working in the UK with EU passports, while others say they have had to turn down work over visa free travel regulations.

One of the report’s key recommendations is to introduce a general EU/UK work passport or permit to support short notice creative work.

Other key recommendations include calling for a review of government funding policy and introducing and enforcing fair rates of pay to tackle discrepancies between freelancers and salaried staff.

Issues at every career stage

Freelancers are experiencing different issues depending on their career stage.

Early career freelancers reported feeling a huge mismatch between the roles they are hired for and their experience level, with some reporting pressure to take on roles above their experience, while being an offered a minimal fee.

Meanwhile, the mean income for freelance theatre makers in the first 10 years of their career was found to be £16,900.

The gender pay gap was largest among freelancers with between 21 and 30 years’ experience, with men reporting a mean income of £43,200, compared with a mean income of £22,600 for women, equating to a pay gap of 47.7%.

This group shared struggles in balancing and affording work and childcare, with the report stating a clear narrative of “ageism needing to be addressed in the same way as diversity” formed through responses.

One respondent said: “Ageism and deeply-related misogyny is rife - which means that at the point of having honed skills, deep knowledge and expertise, confident curiosity and the ability to make scaleable work, support by the industry gatekeepers is withdrawn”.

And FMTW’s report says freelancers taking on leadership roles, such as directors and assistant and associate directors positions, are likely to be particularly impacted by the issues raised.

Freelancers in leadership roles shared examples of being expected to do unrealistic amounts of work with unpaid preparation time and working multiple roles beyond their job description.

“As a Director, preparatory work time can equal or exceed the time we are in rehearsal. I am rarely paid for this time, and it means I spend most of the year working hard, for free,” one respondent said.