FMTW Newsletter 2 – 29th June 2020

The main event this week was the Big Freelancers Survey. It ran through the week with final submissions on Friday. The deadline was extended after we were generously taught that we had not made the survey accessible: with advice, we tried to put accessibility in place and collected more than 8,000 responses from the community. The results will form a unique database of the impact of the COVID-19 period and will give clear direction for how to represent the freelance position to funding bodies, theatre managements, production companies and government. It is astonishing to me, every day, that we have found ourselves so outside the conversation which will decide our collective future. We make the work, we are the ideas: how have we found ourselves here, outside ‘the room’? Somehow we simply don’t seem to have seen each other until now.

This connects directly to the incredible gallery of individual portraits which has accumulated since the website was launched. Day by day, I have found the visibility of colleagues profoundly exhilarating: the range of unseen skills; the sheer collaborative effort involved in making live performance work. The portrait project has brought into the light the dense human ecology of our industry. Some faces were familiar and dear to me, hundreds were not, but I felt our common purpose with extraordinary intensity and pride in the breadth and reach. I remembered the teams I have worked with, who have taught me so much in my design life, passing on their experience and wisdom… with kindness if older; sharing my evolution if peers; bringing their energy and new vision if younger.

I’m thinking about how to take these portraits further out into another form. They are so powerful and express our multitude with a simple human declaration.

Reading through the emails sent into the website has been equally illuminating. There is so much shared concern for the future. We have all, at whatever stage of our working lives, known the limitations of working practice, talked amongst ourselves about how things can be better, fairer,  more equal, more sustainable. Ironically, it has been those very limitations which have kept us stuck, job-to-job, we’ve been simply making things happen, against the odds. But this COVID time has lent an urgency and brought a collective determination to make change. Now, we need to identify how to make our voices heard. This will take immense work: how do we bring our many-voiced thinking into alignment? How do we consolidate and define the common aims? There is amazing research already done in affiliations and specialist groups; so much knowledge and perspective we previously didn’t know about but which supports us all as we go forward. What form should this action for change take? And how do we give it the strength it deserves, particularly in a future which seems so uncertain and so fragile?

Many of the emails are also about the immediate dangers and the impossibility of survival without access to money. Painful to read. So many of us have had no access to government support, and come October none of us will have any support at all until theatres re-open.  When they do it is likely to be a smaller industry – a narrower industry – for the near future, in which progress risks being lost in the name of expediency.

Each Friday we check in with those who have volunteered time to the project so far. We exchange news about the actions we have taken: these are now collated into updates in the ‘our news’ section on the website. This week we were joined by a volunteer from the dance world, and a representative nominated by the Fuel Taskforce. We also heard from the disability alliance and the We Shall Not Be Removed campaign.

And we looked forward: each week is as unpredictable as the last, and we try to combine the long game with being responsive to events. This coming week is likely to bring as many demands on our shared initiative, if not more, as the pressure on buildings increases, the consultations about the future continue, and many of us struggle to get by.  The focus of our conversation is how might the concerns being expressed by many of the freelancers who have found the website (28,000 individual visits so far) be strongly voiced and have an impact on funding, working practice and immediate need.

This small group of volunteers came together with a collective sense of being outside something… so we absolutely know we have to strive to stay open and transparent, to communicate and to invite collaboration. I will admit this work sometimes (almost always) brings sleepless nights, but it has also been so incredible to really look at how the spontaneous volunteer group have begun this together. I have learnt that our instinct to re-create unhealthy hierarchies can be unraveled by simply putting our hands up to help with a task. Our conversations are robust and generous. We aim to keep ourselves healthy with a revolving door philosophy. None of us are immune to the personal cost of seeing of our lives, our ambitions, our hard work at risk. We are an accidental team doing what we are able to, and looking out for each other.

As theatre makers we share a belief in collaboration – and this spirit is at the heart of everything we do. We know we need help and more perspectives. There is unity in diversity: that’s the great and marvellous paradox…. in fact, diversity defines unity at its best – and we so need to be at our best right now 

Vicki Mortimer – Freelance Set & Costume Designer