The Economic, Social, and Cultural impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Independent Arts Workers in the United Kingdom

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex
Department Name: East 15 Acting School

Abstract

COVID-19 threatens the performing arts; closures of theatres and outlawing of public gatherings have proven financially devastating to the industry across the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world. The pandemic has sparked a wide range of industry-led strategies designed to alleviate financial consequences and improve audience capture amidst social distancing. COVID-19 has affected all levels of the sector but poses an existential threat to freelancers--Independent Arts Workers (IAWs)--who make up 60% of industry workforce in the UK (EU Labour Force Survey 2017). The crisis has put a spotlight on the vulnerable working conditions, economic sustainability, mental wellbeing, and community support networks of IAWs. IAWs are often overlooked by the industry and researchers, however it is their very precarity that makes them pioneers of adaptability responsible for key innovation within the sector. IAWs may prove essential for the industry's regrowth post-COVID-19. An investigation is necessary into the impact of COVID-19 on IAWs and the wide-ranging creative solutions developing within the industry to overcome them.

There has been increasing pressure to gather 'robust, real-time data' to investigate the financial, cultural, and social potential long-term consequences of COVID-19 on the UK theatre industry. The impact of the pandemic on IAWs is particularly complex and wide-ranging. A TRG Arts survey stated that 60% of IAWs predict their income will 'more than halve in 2020' while 50% have had 100% of their work cancelled. Industry researchers from TRG Arts and Theatres Trust have launched investigations examining the financial impact of COVID-19 on commercial venues and National Portfolio Organisations, but there has been insufficient research into the consequences for IAWs (eg. actors, directors, producers, writers, theatre makers, technicians) and the smaller SMEs beyond income loss and project cancellation data. In May 2020, Vicky Featherstone of the Royal Court Theatre, stated the importance of support for the 'massive freelance and self-employed workforce' she believed has been 'taken for granted' by the industry. Our study fills this gap by capturing and analysing not only the economic impact, but the social and cultural transformations caused by COVID-19 by and for IAWs. We will compare regional responses across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as variations across racial and socio-economic groups. Our aims are to document and investigate the impact of COVID-19 on IAWs, identify inequalities in the sector, investigate changes in the type of work produced post-COVID-19, and help develop strategies for how the sector can move forward from this crisis. We will investigate connections between the financial consequences of COVID-19 and creative strategies for industry survival including social support networks, communication initiatives between arts venues and IAWs, and the development of mixed-media work in the wake of the pandemic. Our study scrutinizes the economic, cultural, and social impact of COVID-19 on IAWs and the organisations that serve them with the aim of informing strategies for sector recovery.
 
Description Our interviews continued to explore the important theme of how individuals were feeling about their futures in the industry. Despite narratives of 'droves of individuals leaving the industry for other jobs', this was not reflected in our interviews. Where some were considering shifting away from the industry entirely, this was due to reflections on the fundamental concerns within the industry as a whole, including precarious and devalued work, rather than being an outcome of the pandemic alone. Others had paused in their careers or taken on different jobs during the pandemic due to necessity, but were still continuing to plan for their return when able to.

There was often a cautious optimism that things would change within the industry. As one Scottish theatre maker described, the pause of the pandemic might help freelancers advocate for better, and more sustainable, working conditions as theatres reopen:
I'm hoping that there'll be a change, it wasn't pre-pandemic, but I'm hoping post-pandemic we'll really get to grips with our working practices. So I'd spend forever before the pandemic just being like, 'I'd like to work a 4 day week'. I don't know why I need to work a six day week unless it's a tech week. It'snot not wanting to put a shift in, but getting to grips with the fact that if we're rested, we will work better.

The collective moment of reflection, freelancer activism, and broader activism during this period, meant there was a great deal of discussion and reflection around not only worker conditions, but inclusion, access, and what needed to change in the industry. A designer and Equity representative in Northern Ireland suggested:

there's lots of opportunity for us to go: 'right what worked during that time where things were difficult? And what was wrong before Covid that we can take this opportunity to improve?' So there's lots of positives about it as well as all the negatives.

Again, the pause had been a moment for reflection, and a cautious optimism was expressed in relation to the need for things to change. A Black British choreographer and movement director argued for the continued need for both change and industry-wide scrutiny after Covid:

What are we going back to? And because what was there, we all just did itthat's how it is. But the opportunity that this pandemic has offered us, and everything that's happened within the pandemic; the reflection. The people speaking their truth about certain things, you know, it makes us realise that, Okay, it wasn't perfect. And how can we, are we going to rebuild? What we're going to change?'

At the same time, the crisis of the pandemic also meant that there was a degree of apprehension around the industry reverting to how it was before, without any changes. As one director/choreographer from Southwest articulated the problem: 'I'm nervous that, because it's sort of happened with our economy anyway, that shows that as soon as we hit go we revert back to our old patterns'. In particular, the expected financial pressure will push theatre producers and companies to focus on what is seen as more profitable areas of theatre at the expense of diversity and risk-taking.

A Welsh working class theatre maker voiced her anxiety about the future limiting opportunities for under-represented groups in the industry:

I worry that the priority will be opening up and making some money, and then we'll get to all the inclusion stuff, and I just can't, I don't think I have the heart to watch that happen again.

This was a concern amongst many of our freelance interviewees from marginalized communities in the creative sector. A disabled theatre maker from Manchester argued:

I think there is a very real danger that coming back from this, we're going to see a lot of very white heteronormative ableist work going through because it's an easy sell. And I think, and I don't have a great deal of faith in a lot of big companies to challenge that. I hope I get proved wrong.

The continuous debates relating to the status of and responsibilities towards freelancer theatre workers over the pandemic made some freelancers hopeful that their position will have more importance to the cultural institutions and companies they work for because, many argued, the self-employed within the sector are more diverse than the institutions they work for.

As we look forward, how can we learn from the reflections of the last 18 months and make meaningful change?

Changes in working culture and cultural norms are difficult and it should be admitted that this will be a lengthy and ongoing process. Freelancers from under-represented backgrounds highlighted that while the industry may think it knows how to be more diverse and inclusive, less progress has been made than some may have thought. Our research participants argue that fundamental changes need to be made, not solely to what is seen onstage, but to organisational structures, rehearsal rooms, and backstage spaces.

Ongoing lack of evidence of governmental support for freelancers, lack of change as theatres reopened in some parts of the UK, and new stages of lockdown and restrictions, all eroded freelancer's hopes for future change within the industry. By the end of Summer 2021, talk of a great #Reset had diminished. Tones of resignation in focus groups around inclusion signaled that Covid-19 would not be the great leveler of past discriminations and individual freelancers articulated their return to work as defined by the same systems as before - competitive, precarious, and often unsafe.

However, as a freelance theatre director and one of the founders of Migrants in Theatre argues: 'change is not linear'. They explain: 'I think a lot of brains have been steered, and if you know, if 10% of that sticks, it is already 10% that we didn't have before.' The conversations continuing from Freelancers Make Things Work and within organisations and institutions are continuing, if not as radically as hoped for during the Summer and Autumn of 2020.
Exploitation Route We have our final report and public events coming out at the end of March 2022. We have been in consultation recently with British Equity's Head of Diversity and Inclusion who wishes to read our final report and consult with the PI on the findings around these issues in early April. We have also been in consultation with a fellow in the Department of Digital Culture Media and Sport about developing a white paper on the changes to the arts sector by digital innovation over COVID-19. We also are in consultation with working class artist network and women working class group around our research findings on exclusion and barriers to change amongst working class theatre practitioners exacerbated by the pandemic. We are currently in discussions with the Arts Council and other arts organisations to feed back our research and assist in the recovery of the industry after COVID-19 upon the release of our final report. Our project's focus on grassroots, qualitative research, tells individual stories in the midst of mass surveys, and uses mixed-methods to reveal the complexities of COVID-19s impact on individuals working within the industry. We have gathered 135 interviews with freelancers, 10 more with cultural institution managers, focus groups on gender, regional disparity, caring, and working class conditions, and creative focus groups which have developed micro-commissioned artistic projects. We are launching a short film from our creative workshops to share our research findings in an accessible fashion to a wider audience. There has been a widespread movement of advocacy and activism for transformations to the precarity and inequality in the theatre industry during COVID-19, but there is concern this momentum will be lost in the wake of the pandemic. Our study can reveal robust data on the issues to assist in a more equitable, and sustainable recovery that safeguards freelance theatre workers to be more resilient in the future, through government arts policy and industry-led change.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://freelancersinthedark.com/
 
Description Partnerships are developing which will facilitate our research directly feeding back to both industry-specific organisations and arts policy organisations. We created reports for an arts lobbying organisation, Culture Commons which influenced a Metro Mayor Pledge to support the Creative Industries in May 2021. Our research team was on panels with Metro Mayors from London, Manchester, Liverpool, the Midlands, and West Yorkshire in April, and reports from our March focus group data were consulted to help shape these panels. We have shared our findings with the Arts Councils, and other cultural policy organisations, to provide feedback on their policies through our research findings. We have also developed research sharing collaborations with the Creative Industries Federation in 2022 and Jerwood Arts. Our final report is being consulted by British Equity's Diversity and Inclusion Director, and a fellow writing a White Paper on Digital Innovation over COVID for the Department of Digital Culture Media and Sport in 2022. We have developed new collaborations with grassroots organisations, including the Working Class Artist Network, Heart of Glass, and the Women in Working Class Artist group. We also are feeding back to our research participants, and their support and dialogue is also being facilitated to impact the day to day experiences of grassroots freelance theatre workers from the ground up. Our project is ongoing, so further information will materialise over the next 10 months.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

 
Description Citation in Parliament White Paper on Digital Transformation During COVID
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
 
Description Consultation for the Creative Culture Pledge by Metro-Mayors
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Rapid and Agile Project Funding Scheme
Amount £39,739 (GBP)
Organisation University of Essex 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 06/2022
 
Description Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre 
Organisation Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We are mutually sharing our research findings through a sharing of published reports. PEC is publishing an article by our Research Team members from the survey findings in Spring 2021. We are particularly useful for PEC because of our focus on qualitative research and grassroots organizations and individuals. Also our narrow focus on the theatre industry is something of value to their larger, more general creative industries, and quantitative based study.
Collaborator Contribution PEC are sharing their reports with us and promoting or research findings on their study. For us, they are able to provide us a larger context to position our qualitative findings within. As a policy focused research project on the creative industries, PEC will also enable our study to impact cultural policy more directly with Parliament arts policy reports and panels.
Impact Outputs still active. We are publishing an article on our findings with them in Spring 2021 from the Survey findings and will continue with future shared publications.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Culture Commons 
Organisation Culture Commons Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Culture Commons is an Arts Policy Lobbying group who are developing a cultural pledge with UK Metro Mayors in May on their support and contributions to regional arts organizations and the local cultural industries. In May 2021, we are conducting focus groups with regional freelance artists across the country and are developing reports to feed back to Culture Commons to be used in their Metro Mayor Region Panels to be conducted in April which will directly contribute to the development of the Metro Mayor Cultural Pledge in May 2021. The Metro Mayor Regions our Focus Group reports will feed back to are: Greater Manchester, Liverpool, West Yorkshire, Midlands, and London. We also have spoken about future partnerships in their lobbying for the cultural industries in Westminster, beginning in August.
Collaborator Contribution The Cutlure Commons are directly feeding back to regional and national arts policy makers and are providing our research a platform to help inform arts policy for the post covid world.
Impact Regional Focus Group Reports for Metro Mayor Areas (March 2021) Metro Mayor Pledge (May 2021)
Start Year 2021
 
Description "COVID-19 threatening diversity in theatre, research suggests" article in Manchester Metropolitan University Research News 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Article on our findings to date from Dr Josh Edelman on MMU's contributions to the study, particularly in regards to Survey development and arts policy research in relation to COVID-19.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.mmu.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/story/13653/
 
Description "COVID-19 threatening diversity in theatre, research suggests" press release on ABTT website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact ABTT are a technical theatre arts membership organization. This press release on our study was particularly used to recruit for the Survey, using findings from our interviews to help recruit ABTT members to become research participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.abtt.org.uk/new-survey-addresses-the-pandemic-experiences-of-theatre-freelancers/
 
Description "Nearly a year on, UK Freelancers are still in the dark" -article for Exuent Magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Article for Exeunt Magazine reporting on our study to date, also promoting our survey for a wider audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/nearly-year-uk-theatre-freelancers-still-dark/
 
Description 'We have far more power than we realise': Challenging gender inequality in the theatre industry" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A blog post public-facing write up of our research data gathered from our gender focus group especially focusing on the thoughts and feelings of freelancers on gender based inequality in the industry. The post also spoke of recommendations of best practice to assist cultural institutions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://freelancersinthedark.com/2022/02/04/challenging-gender-inequality/
 
Description A press release "COVID threatening diversity in theatre, forcing diversification, research suggests" -published in a number of regional and national press sources and the Stage (UK) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact An article, "COVID threatening diversity in theatre, forcing diversification, research suggests" releasing our early findings and promoting our Survey and focus group recruitment. Published in a wide number of regional and national press sources for the theatre industry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://northwestend.com/?p=2171
 
Description Creative Micro-Commission Workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact In October and November 2021 we held 6 creative workshops with artists developing micro-commissions of artistic practice on themes coming from our research themes. The workshops were held in London, Plymouth, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Birmingham
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Creative Micro-Commissions Blog post 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact This was a general blog post on our micro-commission creative workshops we conducted across the country. We summarized the themes coming from these creative workshops and research participants creative expression of their experiences over the pandemic
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://freelancersinthedark.com/2021/10/27/creative-micro-commissions/
 
Description Cultural Value Conference speaker 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Dr Maples was a guest panellist sharing the research study's findings with industry, academic, and policy-makers on the impact of covid-19 on the arts sector
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.culturalvalue.org.uk/changing-culture/
 
Description Engagement focused Website with Monthly released newsletters and blog posts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Our project website, Freelancers in the Dark, updates our research participants, creative industries workers, and general public on our study. We release a monthly newsletter at the end of each month, on our study findings to date and other information, and blog posts. We have used this to engage research participants, recruiter future participants for our survey and focus groups, and share our findings. We have had interesting feedback and reflection via email from those engaging with our website and newsletters.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://freelancersinthedark.com/
 
Description Identity and Giving Voice 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A write up focusing on themes from our Creative Workshops and Micro-commission on freelancers feelings of identity and perceived value of artists by the UK government and society
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://freelancersinthedark.com/2021/12/15/identity-and-giving-voice/
 
Description International Federation for Theatre Research conference roundtable on COVID-19 and the arts 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The research team presented a roundtable panel at an international theatre research conference on their COVID-19 research study
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://iftr.org/news/2021/july/iftr-galway-2021-programme
 
Description Roundtable on our project for a Cultura Industries Masters Class with students at Queens Belfast & National University of Ireland Galway 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Members of our team, including Dr Kurt Taroff, Dr Ali Fitzgibbon, Dr Holly Maples and our two postdoctoral researchers, Dr Laura Harris and Dr James Rowson shared information on our project findings to date, particularly from the data from 80 interviews conducted in the autumn and our current survey findings, to creative industry postgraduate students from Queens University Belfast and NUI Galway -invited by Dr Patrick Lonergan (NUI Galway) and Dr Kurt Taroff (Queens Belfast)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description twitter and facebook page 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact We have actively been posting on our facebook page, Instagram, and twitter feed (@freelancersITD) to share other studies work on COVID-19s impact on UK freelance theatre workers and to share our current findings. We currently are particularly using these sites to promote our survey and focus group participants, and also to further publicize our study. This has been useful for engaging both industry interest and research participants. I have recently recruited a number of working class artists to our study through social media, a demographic group we have found difficult to reach by other methods.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.facebook.com/FreelancersITD