Theatre is propped up by freelancers — and we left them in crisis

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More than a month ago I took on the role of Artistic Director and General Manager of the British theater. Before that, I worked as a freelancer for 18 years. To say my journey from one place in this industry to another has been a wild ride would be an understatement. More important than ever have been my feelings about the work I and others have done to make the plight of freelance theater workers the headlines in newspapers and zoom rooms across the country. So I am writing this knowing that I am not alone in saying it, but it feels like it is worth repeating. We need to find new ways to support our freelance artists, creatives and theater professionals. Beginning. Center. The End.

And the only way to do that is to change the narrative that we stuck to for the last year. A surprising story. The surprise that our industry consists of more than 70 percent freelancers. It is a surprise that the systems and safety nets do not exist to protect freelancers when something like a pandemic hits hard.

Needed, necessary, and eloquent told by some of the brilliant collectives like Freelancers Make Theater Work, funding initiatives like The Theater Artists Fund, and theater buildings, recognizes the fundamental and very real social, economic, and psychological pressures freelancers are under.

But this story alone is not enough to address the precarious life of freelancers in our industry and in other creative sectors. Or more importantly, with the loss of freelancers in the industry, we have already jeopardized the work we have done in the areas of equality, diversity and inclusion. Before March 2019, the UK had a diversity and representation issue across the cultural sector. In March 2021, the Routes to Recovery Report, which can be found on the Freelancers Make Theater Work website, found that “freelancers make up 86 percent of all black workers employed by NPOs”.

And again it is the theatre’s own freelancers alongside dedicated theater directors like Stella Kanu, Asma Hussain and Shawab Iqbal who have risen to the challenge and tried to slow the effects by launching the #HeretoStay #AllofUs campaign, which much-needed funding and support for freelancers who are some of our best diversity in the industry. The evaluation report is urgently to be read.

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But to be clear, when we talk about losing global majority freelancers, we are talking about losing the very people who make our work and the theater business a more exciting and dynamic place.

Add to this the fact that youth unemployment is set to become one of the greatest challenges as well as mental health and wellbeing in the next few years, and we are beginning to realize that this narrative of surprise just won’t be enough any longer. Surprise can freeze us, and even with the nicest surprises, we can’t remember what happened just before the surprise. And in this case we really need to remember it.

So let’s change the narrative. Build a new story. An action story. A story about the smaller interventions that become transitional opportunities to test new ways to hire, work with, and support freelancers.

We create ways not only for more “conversations”, but for real information exchange. Build a new funding model that allows money to flow more directly to freelancers. Invest in theater organizations that already have the knowledge, insight, and relationships with freelancers to represent this diversity.

Keep investing in theater organizations, especially the smaller ones, to help them get on with what they’re best suited for, including hiring freelancers to speak for their jobs.

We know that freelancers need support regardless of their age. We are again making an opportunity for young artists / creatives / curious people.

We attach great importance to those in our industry who are confronted with racism and still tell their stories, stage our plays, design our sets and sell ice cream in our foyers.

We stop asking for more time. And we’re starting by creating a real plan for transformation. And we realize that there is no such thing as “us” and “them”. There is an ecology that is interdependent, like it or not, and that interdependence is central to our survival. We learn a new language in order to care for one another. We plan ahead for the next pandemic. This is the story I want to hear from now on.

Chinonyerem Odimba is the Artistic Director / General Manager of Tiata Fahodzi and a freelance playwright / screenwriter and theater director

August 13, 2021