A year in the life

Those who have run organisations, venues and professional bodies have commanded the sector’s public narrative over the last 12 months.

This is the story of the freelancers

This timeline is compiled from the full Big Freelancer Report which can be found here and other key dates.

March 2020

March 12, 2020

Broadway Shuts Down

Andrew Cuomo announces the closure of all Broadway theatres.

March 16, 2020

UK Theatres Begin To Close

In the absence of clarity from the Government, theatres are forced to close their doors to audiences

March 20, 2020

Freelancers are left out

Government support measures designed to safeguard permanent employees in the form of the Job Retension Scheme (JRS).

The self-employed aren’t offffered a lifeline for a further 6 weeks.

March 23, 2020

Lockdown begins

A ban on public gatherings forces the official closures of theatres

March 24, 2020

ACE ERF Announced

An Emergency Response Fund of £160m in sector support is announced.

The communications crisis

Freelancers do not get laid off or made redundant, instead they simply cease to get work. Self-employed theatre makers are proficient in the art of managing portfolio careers, but never before have they been forced to piece together a survival plan in total darkness.

Without access to an HR department, a weekly company meeting or a reliable supply of information, the ‘communications crisis’ experienced by freelancers since March has been a major contributor to the income crisis that followed.

April 2020

April 9, 2020

ACE ERF opens

The fund goes on to award grants averaging £2216 to 1624 theatre makers

April 30, 2020

SEISS launched

Due to flaws in the scheme’s design, 39% of freelancers immediately find themselves ineligible

The ‘excluded’

Given the speed with which SEISS was created and launched, it is inevitable that it would contain flaws and inconsistencies. No financial instrument of this scale is likely to be perfect in its first iteration.

However, when these flaws were made apparent to HM Treasury, nothing was done to address them. To confront the limitations of SEISS and fail to correct them is a deliberate choice, not an inevitable consequence of a complex business model.

May 2020

May 10, 2020

SEISS round 1 opens

This first grant is capped at 80% average monthly trading profit up to a maximum of £7500

May 21, 2020

Freelance Task Force mooted

An open letter spearheaded by Fuel and signed by dozens of organisations commits to funding a Freelance Task Force

May 23, 2020

George Floyd is killed

In Minneapolis, a 46 year old black man is killed by the police

May 28, 2020

Sector submits its case for support to Government

More than 2 months after theatres are closed, SOLT and UK Theatre submit a case for support

May 29, 2020

Freelancers Make Theatre Work

FMTW meet for the first time

Speaking as one

Performing arts freelancers are not represented by a single body but by a patchwork of unions and professional associations.

The inability of this workforce to speak with a single unified voice has undoubtedly been a major obstacle to advocacy, representation, communication and the advancement of a recovery agenda.

June 2020

June 16, 2020

FMTW launches

Campaign and website go live

June 16, 2020

First meeting of FTF

Over 160 members of the new Task Force meet for the first time

June 17, 2020

Theatres host Town Halls

13 weeks after theatres are closed regular formal communication with freelancers begins

June 19, 2020

Big Freelancer Survey launched

It goes on to capture the largest dataset on freelancers ever assembled

June 23, 2020

Anti racism pledges published

Several theatres publish new pledges on their websites

June 29, 2020

Routes to Recovery published on FMTW website

The report details the scale and scope of the freelance crisis

The data deficit

If something cannot be measured, it cannot be managed. The sector has been severely disadvantaged by a ‘data deficit’. Its data collection practices are historically poor, meaning that it relies on a small clutch of figures, primarily financial in nature, to make its case to Government.

Freelancers suffer disproportionately as a result of this data deficit. Operating without a specific tax code, the workforce is all but invisible to key agencies. Organisations are able to evidence the scale of their financial precarity. However, until The Big Freelancer Survey is conducted, the impact of the pandemic on the freelance workforce is largely a matter of guesswork.

July 2020

July 2, 2020

Dowden visits Palladium

New safety measures demonstrated

July 3, 2020

Performing Arts Venue Relief Fund in Scotland announced

A targeted £10 million fund to support Scotland’s performing arts venues is announced 

July 4, 2020

Pubs and restaurants reopen

Daily positive cases fall below 1000

July 5, 2020

£1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund

15 weeks after theatres close, a Government support package is announced

July 6, 2020

Theatre Artists Fund opens

The fund goes on to award grants of £1000 to 4621 individuals and counting

July 17, 2020

Go-ahead for indoor performance

Government permits indoor performances from 1 August

July 22, 2020

ACE Project Grants reopen

228 grants awarded to theatre freelancers in first round

July 22, 2020

Indoor performances delayed

The first indoor performances do not take place until late August

July 27, 2020

Indoor cinemas re-open in Wales.

Some theatre venues turn their spaces into cinemas in order to bring in revenue.

July 29, 2020

Performing Arts Venues Relief Fund opens in Scotland

An additional £2.5m is added to the £10m already announced.

Town Halls

Many organisations invited freelancers with whom they have a relationship to a series of Town Halls. Although an end to what had been experienced as ‘radio silence’ was welcomed, these Town Halls were felt to have varied in tone and utility.

Attempts at ministering to the presumed wellbeing needs of freelancers were thought to be less successful than plain-talking information exchanges. Town Halls which offered little more than ‘we miss you guys’ were seen to exacerbate the sense that the buildings still didn’t understand the specific challenges facing freelancers.

August 2020

August 3, 2020

Job losses of permanent staff across the sector reach 5000

Comprising redundancies and lay offs of casual staff

August 10, 2020

Culture Recovery Fund opens

The CRF makes no direct provision for freelance workers

August 10, 2020

Pantomimes cancelled

Major theatres pull Christmas shows

August 23, 2020

SEISS round 2 opens

This second grant is capped at 70% average monthly trading profit up to a maximum of £6570

August 24, 2020

ONS survey reports arts sector as ‘hardest hit’ by the pandemic

23% arts organisations at risk of insolvency (national average: 11%), over 50% permanent staff furloughed

If a tree falls in the forest …

August sees data on sector job losses within organisations begin to be captured by the ONS labour market reports, published by organisations such as BECTU and debated in the House of Commons.

Due to the nature of freelance employment and the lack of a sector specific tax code, it is impossible to capture the equivalent data for the self-employed. When a freelancer goes out of business they do so so quietly that unless you’re really listening, you won’t hear a thing.

Consequently, creative freelancers continue to struggle to make their voices heard at HM Treasury, by the  media, and ultimately by their own sector.

September 2020

September 7, 2020

Operation Sleeping Beauty

Dowden encourages theatres to open by Christmas

September 11, 2020

Freelance Task Force ends

The three month project winds down

September 18, 2020

Theatres announce indoor shows for England

71% of theatres take up Dowden’s challenge to reopen for December

September 24, 2020

Chancellor’s Winter Economy Plan

Sunak commits to back only ‘viable’ jobs and announces a third round of SEISS at 20% of trading profits

September 24, 2020

Pubs forced to shut at 10pm

The Government assures the sector that it is still on track for the recommencement of indoor shows

Lead times

The live performance sector has longer lead times than hospitality, leisure and retail. Whilst the nimblest organisations are able to get a show in front of an audience in a matter of weeks, most organisations require around three months to bring a production to the stage.

The date for indoor performances to recommence is announced by DCMS with 10 days’ notice.

It is not until September that the majority of theatres are able to get productions back into rehearsal. Many of these shows will only just have met their first audiences when the second lockdown begins on 5 November. Retail, leisure and hospitality will enjoy around 17 viable trading weeks between the July reopening and the November lockdown. Many theatres are lucky if they manage two.

October 2020

October 5, 2020

Welsh Cultural Recovery Fund Announced

Over the coming months, a total of £53m is announced for Welsh organisations to apply for with £7m as direct funding to freelancers followed in November (£3.5m) and February 2021 (£8.9m)

October 12, 2020

First batch of CRF grants announced

29 weeks after theatres closed and 14 weeks after the CRF was announced, the first recipients learn of their awards. Batches 2 and 3 follow over the subsequent weeks.

October 12, 2020

Fatima’s next job

On the same day that organisations are awarded their CRF grants, a Government advert from 2019 resurfaces inviting freelancers to consider ‘rebooting’ their career by training in cyber security

October 21, 2020

National Theatre reopens

The NT joins other theatres in welcoming socially-distanced audiences

October 23, 2020

Round 3 of SEISS increases to 40%

The Chancellor announces that round 3 of SEISS will increase from 20% to 40% capped at £3750

The ‘trickle down fallacy’

When asked to identify the benefits of the CRF for the sector’s ‘supply chain’, including its freelance workforce, the government repeatedly invoke a ‘trickle down’ effect. In reality, however, very little money trickles anywhere.

Many theatres elect to ‘mothball’ rather than risk the impact of new lockdowns. Those that reopen do so with radical reductions in both the number and scale of shows in production.

By January, DCMS will publicly claim that ‘around 12.5% of business costs by CRF recipients will go to freelancers, artists and casual events staff’. The source of this data point is as yet unknown. Figures produced within the sector suggests that organisational ‘spend’ on freelancers has dropped by around 95% on the previous year.

November 2020

November 2, 2020

Round 3 of SEISS increases to 55%

The Chancellor announces that round 3 of SEISS will increase from 40% to 55% capped at £5160

November 5, 2020

Round 3 of SEISS increases to 80%

The Chancellor announces that round 3 of SEISS will increase from 55% to 80% capped at £7500. No information is forthcoming about round 4

November 5, 2020

Second national lockdown

The country goes into a 4 week lockdown, theatres are forced to close, some only days after reopening to the public for the first time.

November 29, 2020

Round 3 of SEISS opens

Only ‘viable traders’ are now supported

The trouble with SEISS

Unlike the JRS which became operational in March, SEISS did not open its application portal until May. On paper, each new round of SEISS is provisioned to cover the subsequent three months. In reality, due to the ‘missing’ 2 months of income support, the self-employed are effectively being paid ‘in arrears’.

The fourth round of SEISS, provisioned to cover February, March and April, was only announced in the March 3 budget. At every stage, the ability of freelancers to plan ahead has been undermined by late announcements and revisions.

The fifth round of SEISS is intended to cover 4 rather than 3 months’ income support. By September 2021, SEISS will fall short of the JRS by 3 months.

December 2020

December 2, 2020

Second national lockdown ends

Some theatres reopen for Christmas

December 11, 2020

CRF loans announced

These target organisations requiring more than £3m to regain financial stability

December 14, 2020

London goes into Tier 3

The shows that opened just a few days earlier now close

December 18, 2020

Round 2 of CRF announced

Once again the Fund is provisioned solely for organisations

December 19, 2020

London goes into a newly created Tier 4

Plans for reopening in early 2021 begin to look unstable

December 30, 2020

Much of the country in Tier 4

New variant of the virus spreads around the country

The small print

The much vaunted £1.57bn ‘rescue package’ was designed to support the cultural sector achieve viability by April 2021. As the pandemic worsened, rather than announce a new injection of Treasury funding, the bailout has simply been spread across a longer timeline.

Rather than using the £400m ‘hold back’ to support organisations who were unsuccessful in their round 1 applications or provisioning it for freelancers, it will now be used to support the organisations regain viability by June 2021. Round 2 of the CRF will not support a greater cultural recovery. It will merely support a more drawn out cultural recovery.

January 2021

January 1, 2021

The UK leaves the EU

The moment deals a devastating blow to a ‘global’ sector

January 4, 2021

Third national lockdown

Theatres contact freelancers to cancel plans for early 2021

January 6, 2021

PM denies Excluded UK

The Prime Minister rejects the Leader of the Opposition’s calls for support for the 3 million self employed who are ineligible for SEISS

January 13, 2021

Visa-free travel row

PM agrees to urgent meeting

January 22, 2021

44% drop in female minority ethnic arts workforce

ONS employment data reveals disproportionate impact of pandemic on women of colour

Toxic optimism

When the third national lockdown necessitates the ‘unproducing’ of thousands of new projects, the sorrow is shared by the organisations and the freelance workforce. But the risk is not.

As freelancers are forced to absorb the financial consequences of cancelled contracts and deferred payments, the optimism of producing organisations pushing for a return to ‘business as usual’ begins to look dangerous.

Producing organisations undertake a risk assessment before green-lighting a new project. However, these risk assessments do not measure the risk of cancellation or postponement to freelancers, only to the organisations themselves.

Little wonder that many freelancers are experiencing the negative consequences of the sector’s positive thinking.

February 2021

February 2, 2021

Mental health warnings issued

Three support organisations report increases in ‘mental health first aid’ calls

February 5, 2021

Pay freezes announced

UK Theatre and BECTU agree a temporary contract variation which freezes pay and lowers overtime rates

February 8, 2021

New York’s Open Culture programme

A 6 month programme of ‘pop up’ art and culture is launched to drive the economic revival of the stage

February 8, 2021

Hardship funds under pressure

Seven major benevolent funds report a significant increase in applications

February 22, 2021

PM announces new ‘Roadmap’

‘Not before’ dates are published for live performance with and without social distancing

An English problem

On February 11, the Welsh government made a further £8.9m available to freelancers as part of its own Culture Recovery Fund. One day later the Scottish government pledged £9m for its Hardship Fund for Creative Freelancers. Unlike ACE project and creative practice grants, the Scottish and Welsh funds are intended solely as ‘hardship’ measures.

Whereas ACE funding tends to privilege certain specialisms such as writing, directing and producing, the Scottish and Welsh funds list over a hundred qualifying specialisms. The lack of provision for English freelancers in technical and craft-based disciplines is likely to impact upon the speed and sustainability of sector recovery.

March 2021

March 3, 2021

Budget day

The Chancellor announces a range of measures designed to steward the country through the next stage of the pandemic.

March 16, 2021

1 in 4 freelancers out of business

A year after theatres closed their doors, a SOLT / UK Theatres survey reveals that at least 25% of performing arts freelancers have gone out of business

One year on

Twelve months on from the moment theatres closed their doors, the impact of the pandemic has exceeded the ‘worst case scenario’ that DCMS had planned for.

The SOLT / UK Theatres One Year On survey reveals that 95% of theatres are worse off because of the pandemic. 1 in 4 freelancers are reported to have ceased trading altogether.

Arguably, however, the true impact of COVID-19 on performing arts freelancers is yet to be felt.