Freelancers Make Theatre Work is run by a small voluntary group of freelancers. The group is not fixed but fluid and welcomes participants who are willing to give time. Each week, a different member of the team writes the newsletter...

What if...

By Mimi Doulton

This week’s newsletter comes from the perspective of one of life’s great worriers. If you are the kind of person blessed with a ‘go-with-the-flow’ attitude, maybe give this one a miss. However, if you – like me – find yourself up in the small hours worrying about the return to work: welcome, you have come to the right place.

Last week heralded my return to work after 4 months out of action, and it came with a lot of questions. They say a problem shared is a problem halved, so here’s some of what was on my mind:

What if…

  • I don’t feel safe at work?
  • I am being asked to work for a lower rate than pre-Covid?
  • One of my colleagues comes into contact with Covid-19?
  • I test positive on a compulsory workplace Covid test?
  • I (or one of my colleagues) opts out of being tested?
  • I am being asked to comply with Covid safety measures in unpaid time (eg. testing, cleaning)?
  • I am contracted by Test and Trace part way through a long contract?
  • My contract doesn’t outline a Covid cancellation fee?

Looking back at those questions, they can be roughly grouped into the following categories:

  1. Safety at work
  2. Fees and contracts
  3. Testing, testing… 

Safety at work

First things first, here’s your ammunition if you’re not feeling safe at work: Performing arts - Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) – Guidance Read it. Use it.

Back in the heady days of autumn – when most of us wouldn’t have seen a second wave coming if it was dressed as the Pink Panther and playing hopscotch on the M25 – I was lucky enough to work on a show in a theatre, with a live audience. We signed reams of Covid paperwork before coming into the rehearsal room and everything looked to be going well. However, as rehearsals progressed and everyone got a little bit comfortable, safety started to slide… 

A quick chat with the amazing Stage Manager and things were soon back on track. A lot of the time, that’s all it takes! Stage Managers: we love you.

But what do you do if that doesn’t work out? I’m thinking now of a horrific story about a colleague who got told ‘if they didn’t feel safe at work then someone else could be found for the job’. I believe unions got involved – but at the end of the day the job still went to someone else, and the resulting performance was lauded online with the public none the wiser of this shameful behaviour.

On the Equity website the guidance for such situations is: Where you are concerned about an engagement being cancelled or a contract being terminated due to coronavirus issues, please contact the relevant Equity Organiser for specific advice about your situation. So I suppose that’s the first step – get your union involved!

Of course, not everyone can afford to join a union, and some parts of our industry are notoriously un-unionised. What then? 

What then indeed? 

(This was meant to be a note-to-self, but I couldn’t find the answer… Answers on a postcard?)

Fees and contracts

This is about so much more than just Covid. I could probably fill ten newsletters with my musings on freelance pay structures – but let’s try and stick to the brief: being asked to work for less; working unpaid time to fulfil Covid testing/cleaning requirements; Covid-cancellation fees.

Just to subvert Julie Andrews, I’m going to start at the end here. 

While we wait for the government to outline some kind of Covid-insurance support for venues, we are rather at mercy of individual organisations and buildings. I suppose one thing we can do is keep celebrating the organisations doing a good job, and keep each other informed of the organisations who aren’t doing well enough. 

If ever there was a time to be hard-line negotiating on contracts, it feels like this is it. The last year has been filled with fantastic conversations about how to make our industry better for freelancers, and it would be great to see that energy snowball into a wider systemic shift as we return to work. However it also feels like completely the wrong time to be negotiating our contracts. It’s been a harrowing year to be a freelancer and we’re feeling vulnerable. We’re desperate to go back to work, and entering into a lengthy discussion about rates of pay/cancellation policies etc. feels like it might jeopardise our chances of getting work.

But it’s important to remember that organisations are figuring this out just as much as we are – and it might be useful for them to get constructive feedback from their freelancers about how they could be doing better. I’ve been lucky enough to have mostly good experiences so far. Being able to hold up one organisation against another (anonymously) has helped a lot in contract negotiation!

From someone whose inclination has always been to just take what is offered without question, here are some tips:

  1. Pick your battles carefully. What’s most important to you? 
  2. Don’t start by making it a fight – instead think of it as persuading someone round to your point of view.
  3. Get advice! We are so bad at talking about money matters, but discussing fees and contracts with colleagues will give you leverage when making your case.
  4. Have the difficult conversations before you turn up to work. The last thing you want is for the show to be Covid-cancelled and suddenly negotiating a force-majeure like it’s 2020.

Testing

This has caused me the most stress as it is the thing that is least in my control. Lots of organisations and buildings seem to have a good testing system set up for employees (test positive, go home and get two weeks’ sick pay). But they haven’t necessarily thought about how it could work for their freelancers. The bottom line is this: as long as freelancers are at risk of losing work/money if they are unwell (or infectious but asymptomatic), some will continue to turn up to work unwell and infect others. 

There is a good example of best practice in the following guidance: If you’re not feeling well on a performance day or leading up to it, please don’t try and pretend or hide it, be honest with us and tell us and we’ll work around it, you won’t lose any of your fee. We need to keep people safe.

Again, the approach I’m taking is to explain this perspective to organisations – gently, but firmly!

***

Hopefully in two or three months there will be a more standardised industry response to all of the above, but for now – know your boundaries, stick to them, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. In the next couple of weeks FMTW will also be launching a campaign to look at how we share good practice and concerns so that nobody feels like they're doing it alone.  Keep your eyes on our socials for more information.

A final addendum to this newsletter – maybe your main worry is that everyone seems to be going back to work except you. I hear you. December to March I was sitting in my flat twiddling my thumbs while every singer I know seemed to be doing a streamed Messiah or recital somewhere. Now I have three weeks of work, and – yes – I’m sharing it on social media (#hustling). After that? Back to nothing. This is the reality of now. Don’t believe what you see on social media. Keep the faith. 

With a big warm hug to you all.

Mimi

Call out for YOUR Ghost Shows

The submissions we've received for our special, final episode of the Ghost Show podcast have been amazing. 

Want to add your story? Send us a voice memo recording of your memory of your ghost show to admin@curtaincallonline.com

Technicians, creatives, actors, producers, Stage Management - all of you.

The deadline for submissions is Monday 26th April at 10am.

 

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