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Poor pay, a lack of regard for well-being, and a corrosive 'show must go on' culture are the norm for the UK's theatre sector freelancers, a new report says.

Actors on stage


Theatre freelancers across the UK have expressed deep concerns about the way they are treated, with worries about financial insecurity, harassment, discrimination and safety at work among the many issues they are facing.

Poor pay and working conditions are a particular ongoing worry, while a ‘show must go on’ culture has contributed to a general disregard for the well-being of overworked and underpaid freelancers.

As the impact of Covid continues to be felt, with many freelancers yet to recover from the financial disruption it caused, the cost-of-living crisis is now creating even more uncertainty among an already precarious and unprepared workforce.


These views of theatre freelancers are expressed in The Big Freelancer Report 2022, published by Freelancers Make Theatre Work in partnership with Curtain Call and The University of Essex.

With responses from nearly 1,500 theatre workers across all four home nations, the report paints a bleak and problematic picture of the current state of the sector.

It states that the precarity faced by freelancers – who make up 90% of the theatre workforce – combined with a general disregard for their well-being, is creating a growing mental health crisis described in the report as a ‘silent epidemic’ that urgently needs to be addressed.

Insecurity, harassment, discrimination

The report’s authors describe feelings of ‘widespread despondency’ among theatre freelancers.

Career security was a concern for the majority of the survey respondents, with 55% saying they feel ‘quite’ or ‘very’ insecure about their jobs. This figure rises to 65% for respondents who identify as living with a condition that impacts on their working lives, such as a disability.

The same percentage figure applies among those who said they come from a working-class background. The figure was also higher among women (60%) and parents/carers (61%).

Debt was an issue for many respondents. 60% of all participants said either their savings had decreased, debt had increased or both.

Safety in the workplace was another widely expressed and worrying concern. 53% of all respondents had witnessed one or more forms of harassment and/or discrimination in the past 12 months.

These included unfair treatment (25%), sexism (19%), bullying (18%) and racism (10%).

Of those who identified as belonging to the global majority, 70% said they had witnessed one or more forms of harassment and/or discrimination in the past year.

Worse since Covid

The findings of the report stem from a survey carried out in February this year, the second of a planned series of five from 2020-2025. The surveys were prompted by the huge impact of the pandemic on the theatre sector, and on freelancers in particular.

The most recent is ‘Open to all, but not open all hours: Hopes and fears of the future of the UK’s entertainment industries’. It asked about work in the entertainment industry over an 18-month period.

Almost all who responded referred to things getting worse post-Covid, due in part to a variety of new problems such as skills shortages, increased job insecurity and growing inequality.

However, the report’s authors said that rather than these problems being caused by the pandemic, many respondents expressed the view that Covid had ‘dramatically accentuated chronic inequalities across the industry, notably relating to socio-economic background, gender, race, age, regionality and disability’.

One respondent said: “The industry has never felt more economically challenging to survive in.”

Another stated: “I had hoped that the break of the pandemic would have created the headspace for a review on practices, but it seems like things have become only more deeply entrenched.”

The sector’s ‘show must go on’ mentality was characterised by one respondent as a case of many theatres “prioritising profit over people”.

Recommendations for change

The report concludes with 14 urgent recommendations for improving the lot of freelancers working within the UK theatre sector.

Included in these is a call for ‘better voice and representation’ for freelancers in the form of a freelancers’ union.

Other suggestions are an ‘adequate, industry-wide safeguarding system’, better and more consistently regulated work environments, and funding to subsidise better accessibility.

Access to holiday and sick pay for freelancers, alongside paid maternity/parenting leave ‘on a par with PAYE employees’ is another recommendation.