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It’s no secret that the pandemic has come down hard on freelancers in the arts. Lindsey Huebner speaks to Leo Wan of the newly formed advocacy group Freelancers Make Theatre Work about the government’s response to the pandemic, and what theatres need to do to support their workers. 

I don’t think that it’ll come even as a remote surprise to our readership that the arts have been a particularly salient casualty of the coronavirus and its subsequent restrictions. Even with the announcement of the UK’s Cultural Recovery Fund of £1.57 billion, it seems that this fraught time has exposed more than a few glaring issues with the way in which arts are funded and valued in this country. This is precisely what the advocacy group Freelancers Make Theatre Work was created to tackle.

Although face-to-face interviews and, of course, live theatre seem to be on an ever-extending hiatus, mercifully advocacy for the arts and the individuals who make it is not. I have the joy of virtually connecting with actor Leo Wan, one of the many artists involved in Freelancers Make Theatre Work. In speaking about the birth of FMTW toward the beginning of the pandemic, Wan says, “Lots of decisions were being made about the future of the industry, and the only people who seemed to be privy to those conversations and partaking in the decision-making were people who were associated with organisations or buildings- who are very vital to the industry as well, but freelancers were excluded from that conversation.”

To understand just how vital freelancers are to the industry, here’s a bit of context: in 2019, the performing arts sector contributed over £7 billion to the country’s GVA. The performing arts directly employ a total of 290,000 individuals, of whom 71% are freelance or self-employed, and on your typical professional show, a whopping 80.6% are freelance (as compared to 16% being the national average for other sectors…). ‘But what of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme?’ I hear you cry: Wan sums it up by saying, “It has been helpful for many, but we cannot ignore the gaping holes that the governmental supports have left- disproportionately affecting the arts.” Indeed, if Olivier Award winning breakout-stars are “not viable” in the eyes of this current government, it is hard to know who is.

We have already seen individuals leaving the industry in droves in search of more secure financial prospects as a result of the coronavirus and, Wan explains, “the people who are the most likely to leave appear to be those from marginalised backgrounds”. Diversity in the arts has been a concern long before Covid19 was a household name. Wan explains how low pay and diversity are interwoven, saying, “People often talk about terms, conditions and pay in one conversation and then talk about diversity and inclusion in another without realising that they are interlinked: if you lower pay, you make it impossible to enter the industry unless someone comes from a certain background.” And with contracts in theatre being famously brief, Wan says that even with regards to the best paid jobs, “the pay isn’t high enough to make the piecemeal-ing work.” This is backed up by FMTW’s Interdependence Report that states that 77.6% of organisations reported that they are extremely concerned about sustaining and developing a diverse freelance workforce. Looking to the future, Wan says, “Unless we make it a more secure job, theatre in this country is just going to be mostly people from inherited wealth or family connections. And that’s not just bad on ethical grounds, but that’s also not very interesting theatre.”

Wan is under no illusion that the task faced by FMTW is an easy or straightforward one. Wan states that after restrictions have lifted, “there needs to be a big, grown-up conversation about how we fund the arts in the UK, and not only the economic good, but also the social good that the arts do.” Particularly pressing with social-distancing so firmly in the zeitgeist… Wan continues, “There are plenty of studies that show how good the arts are for mental health and well-being and how good they are at bringing people together and creating a sense of community. It’s very difficult to make that case in a quantitive way because these are qualitative things.” Fortunately FMTW is on the job.

Although Freelancers Make Theatre Work is known for being an advocacy and lobbying group, their work is varied and reaches beyond the bounds of raising awareness. Wan reminds us, “It’s so important that we stay in touch with the freelance workforce at this time.” As such, FMTW holds space for all kinds of regular events such as tea breaks, choral singing, classes with a fight director- creating a shared experience, albeit distanced. In expressing the importance of this, Wan states, “It’s about feeling like you belong in this industry. This is something the pandemic has robbed from us.”

Looking to life post-pandemic, so much is uncertain for most of the population, let alone creative freelancers. Wan muses, “Any campaign or advocacy group hopes that in the future it doesn’t exist anymore because its aims will have been achieved, but the objective of giving freelancers a voice in the industry is not exclusive to the pandemic. I imagine even as we move into the recovery, we’ll still have to lobby and make the case for freelancers being more involved in the conversations that affect them: their industry, their security and their future. The main thing we’ve been asking and will continue to ask is, ‘can you just involve us in the conversation?’. It’s not freelancers coming together without organisations- quite the opposite! We are interdependent as part the the theatre ecosystem.”

While being firmly rooted in reality, Wan’s perspective on what at first glance appears to be a fairly dire situation is uplifting- inspiring even. I believe this is due in part to a felt conviction of the validity and essential nature of the performing arts which proves itself contagious. Wan reminds us, “Most importantly, the arts, and theatre in particular, originate as a way society talks to itself about itself- which is a really useful thing for a society to do. The arts can play a role in creating active citizens who are interested in the world around them, who want to partake in society: I think that’s a really important conversation; it’s worth investigating.”

Leo Wan is a professional actor and a representative of the advocacy group Freelancers Make Theatre Work. For more information and to get involved, visit the Freelancers Make Theatre Work website