As the theatre sector approaches the potential of re-opening and rebuilding, the question is how?
This week's newsletter is written by Debbie Hannan (picture above) in rehearsals for The Wonderful World of Dissocia at RCS in 2017. Pic © Robbie McFadzean
How can we rebuild better, more inclusively, more sustainably and with freelance workers at the heart of the decision-making process? How can it be a new and ultimately better normal for the 70% of the industry who aren’t salaried? How can we make systemic change that lasts? How can we dismantle the power structures that haven’t served the actual makers of the work for so long? How do we speak to the institutions that need us, and hold them accountable to this change? How can we build wellbeing and mental health into our working processes? How can we think and imagine these futures, all whilst our own personal work situations are fraught and in flux?
Above all, how can we ensure that our conversations about the future turn into real, actionable change?
This week, I’m thinking about the freelancers we’ve already lost.
As a newbie to FMTW, the thing that stays with me after the first meeting I attend is that particularly fiery alchemy, so often present in making theatre, of a plurality of voices galvanised by a united energy. The group spans disciplines, experience, ethnicity, class, genders, sexuality, ability and geography. The group actively questions where the gaps are – who isn’t in the room? Whose voice do we need to amplify most? Who cannot be left behind? In itself, it’s an agile, responsive and evolving model that has broken old structures. When the table is populated entirely by freelancers with shared values and a range of opinions, a lot happens. Campaign work, advocacy work, work on wellbeing – all powered by the need to amplify, elevate and strengthen freelancers. Different speakers introduce a variety of initiatives that are already answering the “how” questions – from TV Mindset’s focus on the mental health costs in the industry to IncArts UK speaking with clarity and power on how #cultureneedsdiversity.
The multiplicity of voices is welcomed – if anything, it’s a strength. New ideas, dissenting opinions, and interrogation are encouraged.
From my end, I bring a focus to Scottish freelancers. For those outside London, for those in wholly different countries with entirely different art councils, a fund to save the ‘crown jewels’ of culture signals a desire to preserve the old London-focussed hierarchies which lead to these toxic inequalities in the first place. As a freelancer who crosses the UK frequently, it’s especially clear to me how no single set of blanket solutions can be applied across the sector. Each country has its own growing conversations about the future that come from its own specific set of problems. In Scotland, speaking broadly, the theatre sector is more fluid – live art, “community” work, activist art, theatre, dance and opera all feed and absorb from each other. Freelancers frequently cross all of these divisions and more – this creates a different set of asks and pressures to put on Creative Scotland. There is a significant divide between rural and city in terms of funding and access – the highland population is at the most risk of losing its access to live art. Rebuilding the mid-scale touring circuit into a more viable model comes up repeatedly. The need for training in digital skills, as well as digital poverty in certain communities are serious barriers.
It is imperative that we allow these significant differences across the UK to not be a burden or lead to broad headline demands, but to specificity and a glorious kind of local focus and detail. There is a momentum building as time passes both slowly and with unprecedented speed. The brilliant Glasgow-based Independent Arts Projects (IAP) has been hosting monthly freelancer meetings, as well as inviting venues and companies to speak to the freelance community – the notes from these meetings pave the way to a better Scottish theatre. Similarly, the Gloucester-based Strike-A-Light, announced last week that it’s response to the pandemic is to pay 3 artists for a year with no pre-defined outcome, to “be artists” in the their communities. What Next? – free-to-access national movement that brings together both freelancers, and small and large organisations to debate and shape the future of the arts and culture – has 30 chapters across the UK, with local guests who speak on what’s ahead. Culture Reset begins this week, with 192 participants from across Britain, partaking in a rapid response programme to inspire ‘impactful cultural change.’
The conversations are growing – they are exciting, expansive, overwhelming, vital. I know I feel the dissonance of wanting some kind of personal version of stability to return, alongside a burning want that the potential of this ‘pause,’ and all the questions that have come with it, to result in true systemic change - change that breaks down white supremacy, sexism, queerphobia, ableism, transphobia and classism.
FMTW has meant that I’ve felt both a community in this moment of disruption, and a unity behind the desire to build back better.
And so this week I’m sharply aware of the freelancers who cannot join these conversations about change for a myriad of reasons. I’m thinking again of the freelancers who have already quietly left the industry because they didn’t have a choice. These conversations speak into remembrance those that left even before Covid-19 - those that burnt out, that weren’t heard, that felt theatre wasn’t for them, or were systemically shoved away. In the rebuild we have to remember them. I hope we consciously rebuild a sector that has the capacity to welcome them back – and FMTW will continue to raise its many brilliant voices to put freelancers at the heart of this.
- Debbie Hannan