We all love what we do. We all want to get back to work. But the world has changed, and the future of theatre now has to change too.
We want to talk to freelancers in our industry directly. It’s been a really hard year. From the fear that comes with loss of income, the heartache of having shows canceled, the mixed emotions about going back to work, everything you’re feeling is legitimate. That needs to be said.
But also remember that the future of theatre starts with freelancers: we are the hope.
So we called this keynote ‘Small Acts and Grace Notes’. After a year of finger pointing at the wrongs of our industry and government incompetence, we’re looking at ourselves. What are the concrete acts we as freelancers can do to ensure our industry changes for the better as a result of what has happened? If freelancers are what this industry runs on, then we, the freelancers, have the power to drive towards positive change.
STEP 1: Look the Past Full in the Face: The problems and hurts we had before have not gone away.
The future of theatre needs grace. We are aware of the irony. In an industry full of dancers, a woman with athetoid cerebral palsy is going to be the one who tells you we need more grace. But we don't mean physical grace. Grace can also mean putting an issue of injustice ahead of your own inclination to turn a blind eye. Grace is actively seeking opportunities where you can support others towards equality.
We need to look at instances when we’ve stayed quiet when someone needed our support. Everyone can think of a time they should have behaved differently. Likewise most of us have been hurt either by people directly abusing their power or by their inaction. All of us have hurt and been hurt while working in theatre. We are on both sides of that divide. Meaning there’s a lot of things we would like to forget. And here we are saying ‘think about them.’
The situations you are remembering now, happened. They’re not going away, they matter. So don’t ‘get over it,’ or ‘forgive and forget.’ For too long, theatre has survived on brushing things under the carpet to avoid changing.
Being a freelancer, working from gig to gig, having to be ‘easy to work with’, encourages us to keep the status quo and dismiss problems: ‘maybe it was a one off,’ or ‘I can just ignore it, and it’ll be fine.’ As much as this conference is about looking to the future, the past is still there. We don’t have a clean slate going forward.
But it does mean we get to try again. Seeing where we’ve aided a culture of complicity in the past and owning it, is its own kind of grace. Examining the ways you’ve been hurt by people in the profession? That's hard but that pain presents an opportunity for grace as well. You know when someone needs help. You can see it. Your past pain uniquely qualifies you to usher grace into our industry.
Step Two: Have the difficult conversations.
Nobody in this industry likes conflict but the stories we tell depend on it. It is impossible for change to happen without it. If we are serious about unlocking barriers of inequality and making the future of theatre better it means we have to engage in difficult conversations and conflict.
The parts of theatre’s ecosystem that need to change most survive on people not only staying silent, but also perpetuating that silence is a virtue. Avoiding conflict isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes it allows the wrong people to keep the power.
Here is the first place to have these conversations, but it can’t stop here. Take the conversations to the rehearsal room, when something’s not right say something. If someone else needs support, offer it. If you should have handled a situation better, admit it. Become a radar for clarity in order for everyone to do their best work. These moments don’t have to be showstopping. Small personal conversations often have the most power. If you’re feeling anxious about bringing something up, that probably means it needs attention.
If someone approaches you with a conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t shut them down. That person cares about you enough to put themselves on the line. That’s to be applauded and not dismissed.
Likewise, if approaching someone on your own or someone who holds too much power feels unavailable to you, ask an ally for their opinion and support.
As freelancers we’re nervous about not working because we’ve been labeled ‘difficult’ or ‘aggressive’. It’s time to consider that if an individual isn’t willing to have the difficult conversations, perhaps we shouldn’t work with them again.
Step Three: Do at least one thing a year to lobby for the rights of the self employed.
As a freelancer in theatre you are self-employed. Over the past year, it’s become clear the government does not have the same safety net for us as it does for people who are employed.
This issue goes beyond how the government handled furlough vs. SEISS. Freelancers are not afforded the same worker’s rights as employees and this inequality will continue when we’re back at work. We don’t get maternity pay, statutory sick pay, or paid holiday leave: underlining the gender and class inequality embedded in the theatre industry. If another pandemic started today, we would be excluded yet again. Not much has changed. How many meetings discussed the lack of government data about how many freelancers are even working in our industry?
And how many hours have we all spent talking about how the government needs to change? But If we don’t engage with them, how will they know we exist?
As freelancers, the people who have the power to change it, is us. We are asking every freelancer to do just one act to lobby the government each year: making them aware of who we are and what we need. Maybe writing to your MP, engaging with networks for the self employed, sending a tweet or asking your union what help they need. If each freelancer did one thing a year that adds up to a quarter of a million actions asking our government to rethink how freelancers are considered.
Step Four: Talent - It’s behind you!
You know who is in the best position to make your projects more diverse and inclusive? You. Actively find two or three diverse artists whose work you believe in, and say their names loudly and often. Even if you can’t include them on the production you’re working on, go ahead and drop their name anyway. Do it enough times and a door will open for them.
Are you able to name three people to champion in this industry?
Those of us for whom the industry is our main source of employment know we are here because others championed our work. There’s comfort in a team of collaborators you know and trust so why would you want to change? But if we’re really going to challenge and diversify our pool of talent we have to actively champion and employ new talent: talent that may not have had the same opportunities as you. You need to intentionally reach behind you to bring others into your networks and conversations. Get to know the people in the building and on your production who have the least amount of power and then remember what they are brilliant at. Commit to talking about their work and invite them into the creative conversations you are having.
As freelancers we constantly meet new talent and fresh perspectives, we have the power to reach back and bring diverse voices forward. We cannot wait for the schemes and the buildings to do it for us.
As freelancers there are four things we can do now to push our industry forward. Take the time to examine the pain of the past, challenge yourself to have the hard conversations, take action once a year to ask our government to extend the rights of the self employed, and find diverse talent to champion. More than ever, this year has shown that what we do directly control are the actions we choose to take ourselves, as Freelancers, to promote progress.
And then to add a fifth….Don’t act alone. If you are worried then find someone to advocate with you or for you. If you are making decisions then share them. We are weak because we act as 200,000 individuals. But we are all linked by being freelancers. Share work, find surprising relationship, join conversations – actively become freelancers and acknowledge your fellow freelancers. We are a pretty amazing and rich group. And it will help us to be strong particularly if we learn from and listen to each other.
The future of theatre has to be different: it must no longer exist on problems not being addressed, and freelancers feeling dependent on those who hold power. As the industry’s workforce we have power to affect change, and we need to use the power to change where we can. Very often we act as if the root of the word ‘freelancer’ is ‘fear.’
But it isn’t ‘fear.’ The word ‘freelancers’ has at its core the word ‘free.’ Fear and freedom cannot coexist. When we get back to work our instinct may be to act fearful. But now more than ever, take the time to see what small acts you can undertake yourself, to make this industry what it should be. Where can you have the grace to take responsibility for what you can change today? Making those choices, however small they might be, is where our freedom lies. The future of theatre will change when we change. Find the small acts and the moments of grace we all have to refuse fear, and usher in the freedom of freelancers.