By Athena Stevens
Last week I felt alone. It isn't often that I feel alone. In fact, on the whole as an introvert, I'm usually saying 'leave me alone' so that I can sit in the silence of my room, rather than actually feeling alone.
But last week I felt alone.
The week had already started with a conflict between myself and a major West End theatre - the mishandling of a complaint meant that a process that should have taken ten days to deliver some bad news has taken 12 weeks, with an ongoing investigation that shows no sign of wrapping up. My contract has been "paused", although many people are also arguing that I had no contract to begin with. I asked how something can be paused if it does not exist.
Monday saw me emailing Equity for another case, this time a TV production company has asked young disabled women to send a self-tape of being groped for a particular character which has been created for a production that is being filmed. The NDA that we all had to sign insisted that we were not allowed to talk about the scene with anyone. We were not allowed to show the script to anyone, not even our agents; thus, the production company has specifically asked young, vulnerable adult women to perform a sexually explicit scene without any support from their representation or family members in the first round of auditions.
Then came Tuesday (yes, all of this was before Monday afternoon), in which I was informed that the OffWestEnd award reception, where I would be introduced as the 2021 winner for Best New Play for my production of Scrounger at the FInborough Theatre, was to be held in an inaccessible location.
To clarify, I had written a play about systematic ableism and inaccessibility of institutions, and had won Best New Play at the OffWestEnd Awards, which then decided to hold the reception at an inaccessible location and then insisted that this decision was not ableist.
As one of our FMTW family said during our chats, "You couldn't write this."
Except I did. And I won an award for it.
Three major blows by midday on Tuesday had me laid out flat. To be honest, I'm sick of playing this game. I'm sick of being the 'warrior woman' in this industry who is expected to smile and nod and mitigate other individuals' ableism. I am tired, after a lifetime of knowing that standing up for myself meant that hopefully, someday, other people would not have to fight the same battles, of the drain on my time, energy, and resources. I am tired of tiptoeing around the emotions of people in power, attempting to make sure they feel comfortable while they are corrected, and at the same time knowing that every time I do go up against an organisation, such as the OffWestEnd Awards, I run the risk of my work never being seen or praised by those institutions again.
And so, I wasn't going to fight it. I was simply going to allow the reception to slip by and say nothing.
Say nothing, except for complaining to my freelance family.
I have been calling those of us who are fortunate enough to meet and make the commitment of coming to the FMTW meetings every week my 'freelance family' for some time now. Very often, it is because my love and respect and joy of meeting with them on Zoom week after week is so high that it seems the completely appropriate term to call this group of remarkable individuals.
But equally, they are my freelance family because I need a family. I live 8000 miles away from my parents. I am an only child. I have no extended family, and those that are technically blood-relatives remain, largely, strangers. At least with a freelance family, while they can come and go as needed, they are present when it's a job they've committed to.
I forgot that last bit when I went on WhatsApp to complain about the Offie reception. I forgot they were committed to me. And the joy and hope in being a committed community of freelancers who refuse to see themselves as individuals and insist that we all rise and fall together is something that this industry absolutely needs.
What started out as a lament of frustration and pain amongst the chat between us ended up being a rallying cry. Sometimes you need other people - allies - real people - who know exactly what it's like to be dependent on others for your livelihood and survival, who look at your situation and go, "That's not appropriate." It doesn't always happen; there's nothing more heartbreaking than performative allies who do nothing when the going gets tough. But that isn't the way it went down last week with FMTW. As texts trickled in from members of the team reminding me how inappropriate the Offie's behaviour was, I felt supported first, although still unprepared to take action. The lifestyle we have chosen is exhausting, especially if you are a voice from the margins.
That night, Freelancers Make Theatre Work sent out a thread to the OffWestEnd Awards, explaining how inappropriate their selection of venue was for 2021. Reading the responses and the backup on Twitter that had come through by the following morning, I somehow got my energy back. I was willing to fight again, for myself and future Offie winners who should never have to be denied access to their own celebration. It still wasted an entire day of our time, trying to get the OffWestEnd Awards to stop the damage that they are doing. Ultimately, when they decided to relocate the venue at the last minute (after swearing to all of us it was impossible to find an accessible venue when they had planned ahead) there was more frustration. But I wasn't alone, and I didn't feel like I was missing out on some celebration. I had my own celebration. It was a celebration of support from a community who I have learned to trust over the past 18 months, whom I have shown up for again and again, who showed up for me when I needed them the most.
Sophie Williams, in her book Millennial Black, talks about having a 'lady gang' - a group of women around you to rehearse for interviews, ask you questions to hone your skills, and generally have your back. We all need a freelancer gang. This industry, for too long, has been presented as a pie, where one of us gets a big slice and everyone else gets less as a result. That's only advantageous for the people in power, and the system that is dependent on that is ultimately crumbling before our very eyes.
Find a group of freelancers who you are willing to reach out to for support. Show up for them, and let them show up for you. So much of the structure that has kept freelancers isolated and alienated and harmed for so long is precisely dependent on a lack of information-sharing in a scarcity-based culture. Find a family of freelancers who you can trust to cry out, to lament, to express your joy, to come to your events. It's the only way this industry will really start to make permanent change and refuse the schisms that we have inherited .