By Tom Piper
This isn’t the official update on the progress of Future labs, of which we have now hosted six, rather some observations of common themes that seem to be emerging. The full report and the fantastic visual notes from Julie Miranda will come later.
I was pleased to be part of one of the last series of three Labs, dealing with issues of how we can sustain and support early career freelancers and recent graduates or entrants into the profession. The other two were looking at how to support craft and technical freelancers and how to ensure freelancers are part of a sustainable return to theatre making.
I feel we have woken up to the ‘Uberisation’ of our world in these last months. Ideas that I began my career with back in the 90s, such as the right to fail creatively and the importance of working in buildings that nurtured and trained the people who made the work, have been slowly chipped away. Success now being judged solely through the Market forces of box office take and the star driven system that powers it. Money has been poured into buildings, which needed it, don’t get me wrong, but people and their workplaces have been removed as they cost and don’t generate income. Rehearsal spaces now worth more to a company to hire out commercially than to use for themselves, costume departments phased out etc. We, as freelancers, are also vulnerable as the supply of talent is so much greater than demand.
Apprenticeships and mentoring have always been part of my work, so please forgive a bit of back story. When I set up the RSC Trainee Designer scheme way back in 2004, I would sift through 120 portfolios for 2 places. If anything, there are even more graduates seeking work now than then. Unconsciously many of us have been part of the competitive endless search for the next hot thing; there is no need to invest, take time to train or seek out the voices you haven’t heard, as there already seem to be so many fully formed to chew up and spit out. This absence of the need to invest will take a long time to reverse and is one element in our lack of diversity and unsupportive work environments.
The Labs are the beginning of a way to challenge these trends. At their heart, no matter what the headline topic, there has been a premium on conversation, on equity of contribution where freelance voices have as much weight as those of an Artistic Director. There has been the possibility of sharing good practice and ideas with a commitment to try and implement change. One of the challenges I have personally felt over the last months, with our understandable rhetoric of wanting to build back better, is the risk that we condemn all past activity in our sector to the bin. As if there were no organisations working on issues of sustainability, developing the skills of their workforce or promoting diversity. Perhaps I am more of an evolution than revolution person and I know the sector needs both. But there are great ideas that have been developing for a while which need a wider exposure, while others have been forged directly in response to the situation we now find ourselves in. There is room for both.
The joy of the Labs is seeing the willing sharing of ideas, many of which can be implemented now. Whether it is carbon literacy training offered by large organisations to their freelancers, the sharing of freelancers’ fees scale with higher management to prevent the rates being eroded, or plans to harness the Government’s Kick-start scheme to enable freelancers to employ and give meaningful first experiences to those who are traditionally excluded from our sector, there are many exciting and practical ideas to share.
Freelancers represent 70% of the work force but have had none of the power to affect change, that is beginning to shift as organisations recognise the need to share agency and hopefully create more horizontal structures based on open communication. There has been a commitment to join Associations and unions. We have been urged to talk about the problems of access at every level rather than passing it down the chain for the schools to solve. Action on Sustainability is happening now.
A final quote, that all these conversations are conducted in a spirit of ‘Kindness not shaming’ with an overarching mutual concern for our wellbeing and mental health. I personally came away with a sense of hope – through conversation change is possible.
With thanks to all who took part, many of whom I have paraphrased here (apologies for the many wonderful ideas not mentioned) and to our three chairs, Peter McKintosh, Arran Pallan, and Emma Jayne Park who summarised each groups discussion so well. And to the tireless producer jack Hudson.
Future Labs are funded by the Arts Council.
Tom Piper Freelance Designer