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BWW Interview: Neil Austin and Chinonyerem Odimba Discuss Freelancers Make Theatre Work

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BWW Interview: Neil Austin and Chinonyerem Odimba Discuss Freelancers Make Theatre Work

We had a chat with lighting designer Neil Austin and playwright Chinonyerem Odimba to discuss the vital work done by Freelancers Make Theatre Work, an organisation that advocates for the rights of freelance workers in theatre. We learned their thoughts about the current artistic climate in the UK, where they see the industry going, and what so desperately needs to change.

How did you get into theatre and why do you think it's important for society, especially right now?

Chino: My name is Chinonyerem Odimba, I'm a playwright, screenwriter, and theatre director. I got into theatre in a very non-traditional way and very late in life. For me, it's been a way to tell the stories that I felt were missing in my cultural life growing up in the UK and to find a way to tell those stories that didn't really subscribe to the forms and roles that have been set up about what "good" and "bad" theatre is. That feels quite important to me, and I guess if there were to be only one reason why I think theatre might still matter, it would be more about the potential it has to create something that feels much more democratic in terms of the stories that we tell and the way we tell those stories.

Neil: I'm Neil Austin and I'm a lighting designer. I got into theatre because I was lucky and privileged enough to grow up in the suburbs of London where there was a massive amount of it on my doorstep. It became the most important thing to me: it was all about shared experiences and stories where you could empathise with people and their journeys and needs.

What were you doing when they announced that the theatres were closing? And what were your first thoughts?

Neil: I was in America doing Company on Broadway. They announced theatres were closing on 12 March and I came straight home. I was amazed that it took another almost fortnight for the UK to do the same. The sense of looming danger had been there for a while for me being in New York. There didn't seem to be that urgency here in the same moment.

Chino: It was very much the same for me. Out of desperation for some writing time, I'd actually gone off to Barcelona for what was supposed to be a long weekend. They called their state of emergency while I was there and it took me 48 hours to get back to the UK after several flight cancellations. When I did get back, I was really surprised how casual everyone was here! I live in Bristol, and as soon as I flew back I started my own two-week self isolation, but it took another ten days for the UK to go into lockdown.

I think the initial shock was slightly subsided by the fact that I'd already been somewhere that was taking it very seriously. The defining feeling for the first three to five weeks was that sense of collective grieving that hit us immediately - the way society grinds to a halt very quickly in situations like this. There was a period of just being in shock that this thing was happening and lives were being lost.

What do think about the delayed response of the Government in regard to theatre?

Chino: Those weeks were very difficult. I can't speak for anyone else in the Freelancers Make Theatre Work team, but for me the lack of response in those months was creating a tension between the feeling that as a freelancer you were now on your own and the feeling of wanting to be there for other freelancers. That was certainly what motivated me to be a part of the group. The talking and the feeling that went into creating FMTW was aligning with that tension; we needed to build something useful out of it.

Neil: The lack of clarity from the Government about the closures and the reopening has left a vacuum of tension and upset for freelancers, who are naturally sitting outside of those central discussions. Something that we need to look at as an industry is that whilst being the principal creators, we are all individuals, so not necessarily the first people the Government or Arts Council would come talk to - because they would naturally go to the organisations.

We didn't understand what was happening and what was being said; the messages that were coming through from the Government were confusing. That was one of the reasons Freelancers Make Theatre Work was set up. We were trying to clarify and disseminate information out to freelancers, as well as collecting their needs and wishes to voice them back to theatre management, Arts Council, and the Government.

How was Freelancers Make Theatre Work formed?

Neil: It came about from a series of individual meetings that happened at the London Theatres Consortium - something I didn't even realise existed before eight weeks ago - which is an Arts Council construct of producing theatres in London. From those, one freelancer was sent as a representative to come and talk to a central group. Those freelancers weren't just London-based.

From that came this central conversation about the fact that we didn't understand what was happening, what was being said, and what we could do to influence decisions. The way we thought we could help was to set up an organisation, a website, a social media campaign, and a newsletter to try and empower ourselves and our fellow freelancers to have a voice. Since then, we've worked on adding areas of representation to the central team - we now have Scotland and Northern Ireland too and we already had Wales represented by Adele Thomas - and as many roles as we have in the industry. It's a volunteer force: everyone gives whatever time they have. We're trying to provide information, essentially.

Were you expecting to have such an impact on the industry?

Chino: This is a good example of what happens when people come together organically and all equally have a need to share whatever information they're holding in their own individual networks with a wider community. What started off with an initial conversation then very quickly led to the building of a website. Within a few days, we had a website and a newsletter.

We were starting to collate information from whatever corner of the internet and every newsletter we were getting. We were plugging into our own networks as well as what was already out there, and putting it into this collective space. Wherever you were, whatever your experience, there was a space where you could go to and share your feelings about what was happening to you in that moment - but also see all the information about financial support, templates to write to your MP, every kind of article that was coming out regarding freelancers.

Neil: We started this with 12 people and now we are around 24; people come in and out whenever they can. What's interesting is that within that there are people with different interests and different viewpoints in the industry. It's become a fantastic space: someone's knowledge of a certain area might have a piece of information that we need. I'm currently running the website and populating it with every piece of information, somebody else is doing social media, someone else is an activist, someone else is amazing at political engagement.

Between us all, we managed to make a whole that's most definitely more than the sum of our individual parts. In the first meeting, we decided that we were going to do all this and we achieved it in a short span of time. That's the power of freelancers. You do wonder what would happen if theatre freelancers ended up running the country. We're terrifically fast at moving and providing clarity and sticking to a deadline!

What's happening right now?

Neil: We did the big freelancer survey, which got over 8,000 responses - that data was taken by an unaffiliated group of freelancers and data analysts who collated it into a study that's on our website called Routes to Recovery. That was presented three weeks ago to DCMS and Treasury as hard data and fact, as well as testimony about what was going on and what we need. As we understand it, that had some influence in the size of the package offered to the theatres.

The problem is now that the wonderful package has been offered, it's very unclear how much of that is for freelancers, especially if it's only for buildings - as the Government are saying - or if it's for freelancers too - as the Arts Council are saying. If it is as the Government is saying, the expectation is that freelancers will benefit from that money only through trickle-down.

That's problematic, because without a roadmap from central Government about when theatres are able to reopen, the industry will plan on the worst case scenario. From the plans that we're hearing about in the press, that's not until next March-April. In that case trickle-down doesn't work, because as a freelancer you only get paid when a project is being done.

At the moment, from what we know, one in three freelancers has had no help at all. Come August, which is when the last furlough and SEIS payments happen, no freelancer working in theatre will have any financial support from then onwards until the moment the industry reopens completely. That current situation is already catastrophic, but from August onwards that's hugely catastrophic. Even more people will be forced out of the industry. Again, we are encouraging people to write to their MPs about this very problem.

The fact that £1.57 billion seems to be a safety net for the industry but potentially isn't for freelancers is worrying. It's still uncertain how that money will be distributed. We would like to see freelancers included in that distribution and freelancers at the table in the discussion about how it will be distributed as well. That's one of the things that we're looking for.

We've all also had the time to sit down and stop scrabbling about, having a career, and being too busy running from one job straight to the other, to think about what we like and don't like about our industry and there are many things that need to change in terms of working practices. This is a moment where we could properly reset. It shouldn't be a moment where the financial imperative of the organisations weakens the working practices; we should be able to come back and say "This is what wasn't right before, now's the time to sort it. Right now."

Do you think that the money that's been promised will be able to save theatre?

Neil: I think that as a freelancer, I don't have the ability to answer that question. One of the things that's become very clear is that we're somewhat infantilised by this industry. We are kept away from data, costs, how organisations actually work, and so on. You can't really ask that to a freelancer, but who should receive it? It's a big question. If 72% of the workforce - that's the Government's own figure - is freelance, and that money only goes to buildings and full-time employees, then how much has the industry been saved?

There was a moment of hope with that £1.57 billion, but it's just thrown up so many questions now about who's it for, how it's distributed, and how quickly it will go to places that need it. What we know is that there's a large amount of freelancers who need help now and are not getting it. Around 33% of the industry are thinking of leaving. Out of that 33%, the shocking figures are that the people who are most likely to leave are: 47% of stage and company management who are people of colour, and ethnically diverse sound and video designers. You can see that it's not affecting the industry evenly.

Chino: In terms of Freelancers Make Theatre Work, we don't feel in a position to know what or how far that money is going to go. However, what we're trying to do in the moment, and what we've been trying to do all along, is to empower freelancers to ask to be part of those conversations. All that data and all those stories are feeding towards the conversations and documents that we're trying to give theatre managements and Government representatives. In that sense, we don't know where or how the money is going to be distributed. We definitely feel that we should push forward, that we need to be around the table when these conversations are going on and we need to interrogate who is already around the table.

For me, the key issue here is that if we start losing people out of the industry then we create a vacuum. If we lose people who've built up those years of experience and cultural capital within the industry, we're back to a place of schemes for emerging artists again - which we know don't work. We can't afford to lose more Black, Asian, and Southeast Asian artists again. The push for a more diverse and more representative industry cannot be let go, we can't take our foot off the pedal. Freelancers Make Theatre Work has been very clear that that's one of our key agendas. We have been seeking and finding people who represent all sorts of communities - not only Black and ethnically diverse communities, but also disability, regionality, all those communities that make the industry as well as those roles that are generally unseen.

More so than ever, it's important that we keep asking the right questions. How do we change the system so that we don't go back to trickle-down, which in this situation won't work. We've made it very clear with all the theatres we've built a relationship with, we absolutely understand and sympathise with the position a lot of people are in. They're not getting any sleep themselves, they're working all hours of the day. I'm on the board for Bristol Old Vic, so I know what that looks like from the inside of a building. This is not a them vs us, it's about how we work together to make something that feels much more in the spirit of what theatre is, which is a collaboration. We don't have a top tier of people pretending to talk for everyone else.

Neil: That's what we're trying to make sure with Freelancers Make Theatre Work, it's as representative of and open to all voices in the industry. It's not only these 24 people who have come together. It's just using everybody's thoughts and power as a collective of all workers. The danger is that it's seen as another "Who are these people and how do they have the right to speak for everybody else?". We're highly aware of that.

Where do you see the industry going after the pandemic comes to an end? What do you think are risks?

Neil: The risks are in black and white in the study Routes to Recovery. They're exactly what we've talked about. The people who are likely to leave aren't even throughout the industry - it's just going to affect certain sections. We might lose so much cultural capital and experience.

Chino: I think the biggest danger is that we are in a climate where there's a lot of people feeling very afraid for the future and for careers that they've worked really hard for. We don't want that fear to permeate the thinking of buildings; we don't want them to become even more afraid due to economic pressures and start using the word "risk" even more intentionally. That's the worst thing that can happen to theatre right now. The world, in so many ways, is setting an agenda for change. I think that if we can embrace that change and look at how it can make what we do in UK theatre better from top to bottom, that's the best response that can come out of this. Words like "fear", "risk" and "safe" are what's got the industry in a not-so-great position in the past.

What are your hopes for the future of theatre?

Chino: How can we look at not just what we do, not just the work, but how we do the work and also what that work means in terms of society? I say that because in this moment, one of the things that we've realised is that we're all here as individuals putting in the hours and doing what we can amongst other commitments and other pressure. But there is a bigger question in how we fight for this industry, and how we feel like it's worth fighting for. That means looking at who is around the work we make and around the buildings, looking at the ways in which we - as an industry - serve the community. That's my biggest hope: that we become less insular.

We really tackle this idea that we might be this middle-class thing that few people love and everyone else doesn't get. I don't want to be a part of that industry anymore - that's the truth of it. What I do want is an industry that's championed by the people around it and buildings that are championed by the freelancers. How do we get that symbiotic thing going where we're all championing each other? That's what I would like to be part of in the future.

Neil: My first hope is that there still is an industry at the other end of this. There's an immediate emergency relating to the survival of venues, of the touring network, and local theatres. After that, we need to think about representation and better working practices. At the moment, I can't with any truthfulness advise anyone to come work in this industry because it's not good at all.

As a lighting, video, and sound designer, you will go from tech to tech to tech - that's where you earn your money and where the majority of the work happens - and in the UK that means working from 9am until 10pm or 11pm when the show is over, every single day six days a week. And in America it's even worse - it's until midnight at its worst. That's unsustainable. In order for it to be a good industry to be inviting people to work in, it's got to be so much more caring of the people it employs, because it isn't at the moment.

You can learn more about Freelancers Makes Theatre Work here

With special thanks to the Freelancers Makes Theatre Work team: Adele Thomas, Neil Austin, Alistair Cope, Andrew Whyment, Arran Pallan, Bill Bankes-Jones, Beth Steel, Chinonyerem Odimba, Paule Constable, Vicki Mortimer, Debbie Hannan, Hazel Holder, Matt Humphrey, Jack Hudson, Ola Ince, Peter McKintosh, Polly Bennett, Rachel Bagshaw, Simon Manyonda, Sunita Hinduja, Susan Kempster, Prema Mehta, Tom Piper

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