The power, and also vulnerability, of the way we create theatre is in its transient nature, a coming together of imagery, performance, text and music to create unique moments. This is perhaps why we so often struggle to communicate exactly what our role is; who within the complex ecology of creating a show actually does what? Are we stage designers, set and costume designers, theatre designers, performance designers, production designers, scenographers or artists? What we are certainly a part of is creating a work of Art.
Our form of great art requires collaboration, sharing and trusting in the skills of those around you, but also in good leadership, judging when to make the hard decisions for the sake of the greater whole. Traditionally, we have relied on directors to lead in that role, but in our first community discussion we realised how many of us felt that in many ways we are visual co-directors, shaping the piece in close discussion with our directors.
So our very real fear was that in the understandable panic of trying to save companies and buildings, we were being shut out of the debate we would normally have about those hard decisions. All the conversations were around financial problems, not about artistic solutions. Along side the visual impact of our instagram images, one of our first actions was to help bring the design community into the conversations, as we weren’t in the Zoom and so were unable to help offer solutions. Through a combination of blogs, phone calls and social media posts the tide has begun to turn. The news is no easier, rather slightly bleaker, but we do now see that companies are reaching out to try and support the freelance community. There might not be any money at hand, but information and a sense of mutual support has been extremely welcome. There is a recognition that we have to be part of the solutions for how theatre can transition to reopening however it may be done.
We are pleased that there seems to have been a real generosity of spirit shown by so many theatres who have now begun to have open conversations with their freelancers. So far we have been with The Donmar, Almeida, Kiln, Royal court, amongst others with more meetings to come soon eg Manchester Royal Exchange. The NT are organising a London wide freelancers symposium with each theatre sending a rep who can then feedback to their wider groups and perhaps the most exciting nation-wide initiative has come from Fuel Theatre. They have created a scheme where every theatre or company have been encouraged to employ a freelancer for a day a week to be part of conversations and so inform their wider local group. This is a growing tide of advocacy which is at the heart of our aims.
For all of us this informal lobbying sits alongside the crucial work of organisations such as SBTD, Equity and Bectu of which many of us are members. The formal representation to ACE and the Government has never been more important. The SBTD work on The Value of Design has been building over three years to a very strong position and we wholeheartedly support its aims.
We are aware that there is still a massive problem of representation as we move forwards as a community. How can we make sure all voices are heard across the huge range of theatrical forms, that the improvements in diversity within the theatre profession do not slip back as a result of covid, that we don’t lose a whole generation of theatre makers as the sector collapses without government aid ! ? Our first steps are small, but made with love and openness to all our colleagues across the whole spectrum of theatre making. We need your views and hope to encourage people to join in the debate and help create future actions.