Manchester lecturer takes part in research on the impact of COVID-19 on UK theatre freelancers

  •  Manchester Metropolitan University professor taking part in research project analysing  impact of COVID-19 on theatre freelancers 

When the country went into lockdown in March, theatres and venues across the globe closed their doors, unsure of when they would re-open to the public.

Theatres around the country have been well-documented through the pandemic. Recently, many venues were awarded grants from the Arts Council’s recovery fund. 

Freelancers, including directors, lighting technicians, musicians to name a few, do not receive support from furlough schemes and income support.

Dr Joshua Edelman, senior lecturer in drama and contemporary performance at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “Theatre needs freelancers. Not because that’s the bulk of your employees, but that’s where innovation comes from—most people who work in the theatre industry work on a freelance basis.

“When you depend on gigs, and suddenly all gigs dry up; that can be devastating, “Dr Edelman said. “It’s hard to maintain your income when your income is always changing.”

Dr Joshua Edelman
Dr Joshua Edelman, senior lecturer in drama and contemporary performance at Manchester Metropolitan University

The University of Essex is leading the study and has partnered with Man Met and Queen’s University Belfast to create an 18-month research project.

“We want to find out how this is going to affect freelancers, not just in the next ten or twelve months, but over the course of their careers. This is a generation changing event. We want to support freelancers. And we want to learn what this means for the future of the theatre,” said Joshua.

Over the study, the researchers will track the impact of the pandemic of theatre-makers across the UK, and whether the effects of the pandemic vary, based on factors like age, background, ethnicity and location.

The danger here is that we will lose a generation of theatre-makers.

“The people who will make that choice will be those that don’t have the personal family resources to survive without a paycheck for a year,” he said.

“British theatre needs diversity. We need to be hearing voices and seeing faces from across the country.

“Middle-class folks, working-class folks. People from up and down the country and from all different ethnic backgrounds.

“The danger is that people will simply not be able to sustain their careers and will make the unfortunate choice to leave the industry.”

The research will also explore how theatre-makers are supporting each other, how social distancing is impacting creative practice, and how restrictions are influencing the type of work people are creating. It is hoped that the findings will feedback to the government to help inform future policy. 

“By working with a team of researchers and on-the-ground partners from across the UK, we can find examples of best practice and learn more about what works.

“These are very, very difficult times, but we want to understand how the resilience that freelancers have always had can help us all find a healthy way forward.”

Dr Holly Maples, from East 15 Acting School, part of the University of Essex, who is leading the new study, said: “The entire theatre industry has taken an enormous hit and I think we’ll still be seeing the effects two, three years down the line.

“We’ve heard a lot about the impact on theatres and theatre companies, but what about the actors, the writers, the producers, the technicians, the designers?

The pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on livelihoods, but the impact is not only financial

“COVID-19 is really transforming what it means to be a theatre freelancer, culturally and socially. The current restrictions are challenging established approaches to collaboration, to artistic and creative development, and audience engagement.”

The 24-person research team will be split evenly between networks, including regional theatre networks and Equity, the actors’ union, and individual freelancers.

ESRC funds this grant as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.

If you are a UK-based freelance theatre-maker and wish to participate in this study, you can contact Dr Holly Maples directly.