The Stage – Opinion – Freelancers forgotten again – I’m beginning to lose hope

I write this sitting near the sea, having been able to escape London to visit my mother-in-law. Which means I’ve had the great fortune to breathe sea air and go for long, socially distanced walks. Lucky me.

I thought hard about sharing this because I know how difficult lockdown and coming out of lockdown has been for some. I realise how lucky we’ve been to get away and I share this not to gloat, but to contextualise what I’m about to say.

Last week my optimism ran out. Since November I’ve peaked and troughed on an axis of hope for the future of theatre. Last week’s low took me beyond rock bottom. First came the guidelines from Arts Council England about the distribution of the £1.57 billion, which exclude freelancers from applying. Then there was Oliver Dowden’s announcement about the November ‘no-earlier-than’ date, which means no Christmas shows and… well, the scale of potential disaster is hard to put into words.

We’ve all tried hard to hold on to hope. I’ve drawn immense strength from watching organisations repurpose so they can serve their communities through this crisis. From Birmingham Rep making meals for vulnerable children, to Slung Low distributing food parcels throughout its community in Leeds, there are so many examples of agility and compassionate leadership being enacted by our industry leaders that make me feel hugely proud to be a part of this sector.

I see actors all around me setting up home bakeries, delivering for Amazon, leading online workout classes – wonderful, resilient creatives

But there’s no escaping that the majority of our workforce is being systematically starved of oxygen. The 70% of us who are freelancers, despite hanging on with grit and tenacity, are being repeatedly kicked off the bottom of the ladder.

Last week, two brilliant, talented actor friends told me they would have to stop calling themselves actors and find new careers. It’s one thing recalibrating the purpose of a building, it’s completely different having to think about how to recreate your life and livelihood having trained (often at vast expense) to do one, specific, professional exercise.

Freelancers Make Theatre Work and countless organisations and senior practitioners are campaigning hard for us, but… I can’t see where the hope is. I am by nature someone who wants to seek solutions, so I’m really struggling to offer plausible, constructive thoughts. It just seems so catastrophic. Sort of like watching a tidal wave gaining magnitude offshore.

And then I remember how brilliant, strong and chameleonic we are in our very essence. I see actors all around me setting up home bakeries, delivering for Amazon, leading online workout classes – wonderful, resilient creatives who I’m lucky to call friends. All doing this without an ounce of support.

So this is just a hymn of love and strength to my fellows in the 70%. No platitudes about things getting better soon and solidarity, just love and strength. In extremis.

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