How do we sustain ourselves and support each other?

By Susan Kempster


In medicine, acute usually means short term and immediate, and something is considered chronic if it continues beyond three months. Acute also has a sense of sharpness and intensity, whereas chronic conjures up something slightly duller, ongoing, something you get used to or learn to live with. We’re well past the three-month mark. Now, as well as the deeply rooted, long standing chronic issues facing freelancers, we find ourselves in a highly critical, push-you-towards-the-edge, chronic-acute state that is extreme, sharp, piercing and at the same time enduring over time. In medicine this might be described as a severe and critical condition, and it is touch and go for many.

So how do we sustain ourselves, how are we going to survive this, and support each other? There are two basic sides to this question. One is financial survival, and the other, perhaps less obvious one, is satisfying a professional need. The majority of us need to be doing our jobs, our professions, as these are not something we switch off when we go home from work. In my case, and I think I’m not alone, my professional work is inextricably linked to my identity and sense of self-worth. Ours is a cruel profession in many ways, where you’re only as good as your last job, and yet it’s also one that we love and are passionate about and can’t imagine stepping away from. And it should never be a question of privilege to be able to make that choice.

Freelancers in essence are collaborators, and we are resilient and adaptable. I was asked last week how FMTW functions, as a group, as an entity, and the first word that came to mind was collaboration. I was not one of the original group of freelancers that started FMTW, and even after 8 weeks, sometimes I still feel as though I scramble to catch up. What has most impressed me, and is why I think so much has been achieved, is that everyone who has committed to this enterprise works as though this were a big production, with the same work ethic, dedication, professionalism, and ability to collaborate that they would bring if this were a show, with the added responsibility and weight of knowing that this particular gig has the potential to impact our sector for the better. This is no run of the mill production, it’s the production of a lifetime.

As with any collaboration, the end result, indeed the daily work, is greater than the sum of its parts. Each individual offers their particular skill set, or learns new skills to fit a gap, and there’s a fine balance between “getting things done” and being mindful, respectful, and open to understanding where getting things done might need to be different to how it used to be. Everyone is prepared to learn, to listen, and put in the work. The collaborative entity that is FMTW is a celebration of what we can achieve.

We’re mindful that this period is perhaps even more difficult than the initial full lockdown, as parts of the world go back to … normal? … while theatres remain closed and recovery is far away in some invisible future, around what seems to be a very long bend in the road. So, as we said last week, we’re seeking those lights in the darkness that help us stay on a path, and not fall off. Examples of good practice, lifelines being thrown to freelancers wherever possible.

FMTW has a series of projects on the go. One of these is about setting up a series of what we’re calling Future Labs which will aim to work with organisations and companies to find practical and immediate solutions for the acute needs, as well as serving mid-term and long-term goals. We don’t want to rush this project, in spite of the urgency we all feel, because this is a chance to get things right, for everyone, and it’s important that all the fine details are considered.

As you’re reading this, we will have had our first Picnic across the country, a project born out of the understanding of our need for professional community connections. Freelancers are missing their collaborators and teams, and living this crisis in isolation only makes it worse. We cannot underestimate the importance of events that help keep morale from dropping too low.

Worth a mention in spite of it nearing its conclusion now, is a project that I was fortunate to be invited to participate in by Jacky Lansley – independent dance artist – and Dance Research Studio. A research project, called ‘The Free Artist?’. This project was an immediate response to a crisis. It was an offer of support, a lifeline, to as many freelancers as was possible given its budget. This project has been a paid opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a freelancer, with all of its personal and political implications. I had the feeling when I got the invitation in June, that this small independent organisation had the thought “what can we do to help right now?”, “how can we best share what we have?”, and actioning the project was the kind of swift adaptation to new circumstances, tasks, conditions, that freelancers are particularly adept at. The impulse to serve, to share, and to be generous has always been at the heart of Dance Research Studio, and is a positive example of what the world could look like in a brighter, kinder future for all.

For more information about ‘The Free Artist?’ project, and other examples of things that are going on, along with writings about individual experiences, please do visit our blog page on the website

At the risk of repeating what was said in our newsletter last week, repetition that is indicative of something that is just not going away any time soon, this is far from being an easy time, there are no immediate and colossal solutions to all of the acute, critical and chronic problems, and we’re in a kind of stasis at the moment, made all the more uncomfortable by the calendar and the seasons, as September looms, normally a time of massive increase in activity. BUT, change is in the air, people and organisations are thinking differently, some wonderful things are happening, people are coming together as they’ve never done in the past, and they’re talking to each other, and listening, and hearing what’s being said and asked for. Some of it might feel like baby steps, or just not enough, quickly enough, deep enough, but baby steps are the beginnings, and progress is being made.

If you know of brilliant things happening near you, or you’re organising something that’s going to help to not only feed but nourish our sector, then do get in touch. Seeing all the good things that are going on gives us all hope, one of the key ingredients to survival and recuperation.

Take care.

Susan Kempster

We had a picnic (across the whole country)

If you have visited our website over the last few weeks you will have noticed a few subtle changes. 

As well as adding in a new Wellbeing section, we've reorganised much of our 'Advice' and 'Resources' sections to make it easier to find the help you are looking for whether it be legal advice, financial support, or union lists, funding bodies, studies and much more.

You can now also find a Practical Resources section on the website. This is a space where we plan to add practical guides to help theatre freelancers understand the ins and outs of funding applications, Arts Council project grant advice and road maps for using the benefits system; Universal Credit, Jobseeker’s Allowance, Council Tax Reduction etc. We've already added (and created) quite a few but we plan to grow this over the coming weeks to provide a resource that freelancers can use and benefit from IMMEDIATELY. 

Great Initiatives

Last week, we highlighted some of the great initiatives that have been launched during these uncertain times.

We've decided to make this a regular feature and we'll endeavour to highlight more great work being done in our industry each week...

  • As part of the Camden and London community, Academy Mews Studios is seeking more artists in the development and advancement of their creative journeys by creating a 2021 Artists Residency Programme. Find out more here.
  • The Welsh Government is being urged to explore the idea of a universal basic income for creatives.
  • The Public Theater (NY) is giving $1,000 “financial relief payments” to 368 freelancers who worked on their last season including technicians and crew members such as carpenters, truck drivers, engineers and programmers; teaching artists, who facilitate classes, workshops and talkbacks; and members of working groups, which support artists as they develop. Read more here.


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