Context – This event came out of a conversation with freelancers who felt isolated and frustrated at not knowing what venues were thinking or having to consider (and how that would impact them in their careers). One freelancer described the situation as being on a “long haul flight without knowing where you are going or how long you’ll be up in the sky”.
* Freelancers were a Choreographers, Composers, Dance Artists, Directors, Musicians, Performance Artists, Performers, Playwrights, Producers, Production Managers, Sound Engineers, Stage Managers, Storytellers, & Theatre makers.
** Venues/Organisations represented were Cumbernauld Theatre, Dance Base, Macrobert Arts Centre, North East Arts Touring, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, The Barn, and Tramway.
The Meeting was facilitated by Caitlin Skinner.
Welcome music was provided by Sonia Allori.
These notes have been anonymised – removing all names, cities, & local authorities.
We wanted to create a space where everyone could speak honestly about their situation in order to develop our shared understanding of what is happening to our sector.
Questions issued in advance to the venue representatives (submitted by attendees).
REOPENING / TIMESCALES
Do you have rough timescales for:
- For venue staff / programming departments? Box office opening?
- For rehearsals / R&D time and space?
- For audiences to return.
- How are you restructuring your organisation?
- What are you looking to let go of?
- Are you programming work of any sort at the moment?
- For those who programme festivals with an international scope (work, artists, and delegates from abroad), what are you planning for the next few years?
WORKING WITH ARTISTS / FREELANCERS
- Have you started working directly with freelancers, so that you embed them into your future thinking? If so, on what projects?
- We understand that the details of the government’s recently announced support are not yet clear to venues. That said, what are your initial ideas for how you will filter that money toward freelance artists? **May we insert a small plea here to not rely on artist callouts, which necessitate hours and days of unpaid work**
- Which positive practices will you be adopting moving forward, in order to improve how you collaborate with artists?
(e.g. – slow touring, four-day week, allowing working from home)
- Understanding that artists and arts workers will be imaginative and resourceful, what sort of parameters should we be thinking about to inspire ideas?
- The economic crisis has exposed massive inequalities within the theatre industry. What are your plans for involving artists in a more regular, central, and sustainable way than you did before the pandemic? How best can freelancers approach you regarding this advocacy work?
NOTES FROM THE MEETING
Impact of the pandemic
- It leaves us with uncertainty – I think that uncertainty has been for everyone, in every aspect of their life including their health. I hope everyone is healthy at the moment and their families are okay as well.
- I’ve such little connection to artists and freelancers and artists.
- We sit in a sector that is struggling for its very existence. At the moment, everything we do needs to be in the context of that.
- We aren’t in as bad a situation as many organisations, but I wouldn’t want to underestimate either the impact from loss of income.
- It’s such a volatile and uncertain environment.
- We’ve been thinking a lot about how Covid has brought into sharp relief some of the ails of the world that were already there – like artists & freelancers precarity, closures of buildings was an issue before Covid, and also the need to consider new models where travel isn’t possible – in relation to Covid and also in relation to reducing our carbon footprint.
Working with freelancers
- Since lockdown began, we have commissioned over 70 freelance artists – writers, sculptors, designers, performers, musicians, composers – all different art forms to create work for our three-year project.
- The work with our freelancers is all paid for through fundraising.
- We hope to produce some sort of bespoke site specific, site responsive, small, pop-up theatrical experiences for audiences all over Scotland, which will new work, made by and with freelancers. We are fundraising at the moment to make sure that happens.
- In terms of freelance staff, we’ve continued to pay them and we’ve also taken on one of the freelancers whose contract ended pre-Covid in recognition of the landscape that they were left in.
- We are part-time salaried and part-time freelance, so the problems associated with freelance working are in our thinking.
- We paid the Scotland based artists whose work was cancelled 100% of their fees and are committed to showing their work next year at extra costs to the organisation.
- We recognize that artists and freelancers need to be at the centre of our focus, or the entire ecosystem implodes.
- We’re thinking about outdoor activity with a new commissioning strand for outdoor projects.
- We’re doing a remote residency strand, where artists can work collaboratively across borders and digitally.
- We’ve been speaking to artists a lot and have quite a few questions that we have in our mind moving forward. There are four things:
- What is our responsibility of care to freelancers who are overwhelmed and whose mental health is affected at this time?
- How can we centre notions of care in all our working moving forward?
- How do we reconcile artists desire to collaborate and speak to audiences across borders with the effects of climate change, and the very important need to positively impact the local at this time?
- To quote a Scottish artist in relation to application writing, “You have to draw the whole picture, and then you get paid to colour it in.” How do we make visible that invisible labour, how can we provide more long-term commitments to artists?
- Finally, what does solidarity above success look like?”
- We’ve been able to point people towards exciting stuff that’s happening – great work that is happening in other venues and organisations – curating an online presentation for our audience as much as possible.
- In terms of programming we’ve signposted our audience to projects online.
- Our company stayed on for 12 weeks to produce 700 pieces of content which will keep us alive in the audiences minds until Christmas – stories, poems, activities to camera for children, fragments of Greek poetry, short stories, new work, old work, opera – anything that would offer a bit of light, hope and joy.
- We moved really quickly to try and offer things online and we’ve been able to monetise that a little bit more recently.
- We’ve taken professional development workshops online.
- We started curating an online programme. Engagement was really like low.
- We’ve continued to support artists by making an online platform and giving out small pots of money to as many artists as possible.
- We’re aware that digital working does not suit all artists. That’s not the only way we support artists.
- Virtual Reality: We’re thinking and fundraising for artists to be able to work within virtual environment, but also thinking about how VR could encourage audiences into our building – if we were absolutely transparent about what the show looked like, where they were sitting & how close you were to other people. We hope that will contribute to a conversation about safety.
“Shrink to grow”
- The saddest bit is that we’re now in consultation with staff about redundancies, we will have to scale down our operation. There is no way to get away from that. We do have a number of staff for whom we have no work for the foreseeable future.
- Restructuring: I think we’re all in facing similar challenges but we’re not in a position to disclose where we’re at with HR. We’ve been furloughing our team from the start. The leadership team who are steering the organisation don’t have a director. There’ll be more furloughing. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been every effort made to try and retain jobs and to try and retain money for future programming.
- We are currently in a mass consultation process at the moment. We also don’t have work for our hourly paid members of staff.
- We shrink in order to grow. We have extraordinary staff at the theatre, and they are exceptional at their jobs and brilliant humans. So, what we need to do is to make sure we can grow as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that is depending on the growth of the virus.
- If we hadn’t taken action, we would have burned through all of our reserves by December and become insolvent.
- 60% of our staff are on furlough. We are just beginning a first redundancy consultation that will start next week.
- Our largest space can only hold 100, so it does come with economic challenges, but we feel like it’s our duty to really push forward and experiment with work being in those spaces.
- We are quite lucky with our building and the amount of space that we have got for circulation.
- The corridor is only 1 metre wide, so we have a toilet block of 10 toilets that only be used by one person at a time.
- We’ve seen the shows in the programme withdraw themselves. We’ve got a few things that are left but aren’t supportable for us to deliver.
- As soon as we are able to get back to live performance in any kind of credible way we will do that in such a way that artists are supported from the absolute get go.
- I took the choice to pull the panto because the financial risk could have overbalanced the organisation in the blink of an eye. It was the first thing to go.
- We hope to have some kind of Christmas experience, some kind of spring experience to continue to expand our virtual stages.
- Looking ahead, our focus is very much on developing a broader representation of artistic voices within our programme. We’d like to empower that through a much more participatory leadership style, from the sort of consultation process up to for moving towards a more commissioning based model in terms of production. We’re looking to open up the programme and bring a diverse range of voices to the stage.
- We’ve handed over a lot of curation of our 2021 programme to different artists. Again, this comes from asking how we can embed artists and freelancers into an organisation where not everyone can be creating because there isn’t space or there isn’t the opportunity. What other knowledge and skills does our sector have and howe can bring that in?
- We’ve spent the whole of lockdown reimagining our future and we’ve been proactive in creating some unique online learning programmes.
- We’ve certainly been listening to what people had to tell us – we just finished a consultation with artists and freelancers who have worked with us.
- We believe we should be modelling what good behaviour looks like. That could be in rates of pay and remuneration. It could be involving more voices from the sector in thinking and decision making and paying them for this. We should be more transparent in how we work.
- We should provide support packages that don’t try to squeeze as much as possible from limited funds and which are accessible to people from all over the country.
- We’ll be supporting fewer people but supporting them better, and that’s a good way forward. We should bring in some practical support for individuals and organisations. We should work better with our peers to collaborate and complement.
- We should practically seek out people who have the potential to work with, for and benefit from our work particularly beyond the people in the communities we access normally.
- We want to contribute to health, well-being and social care and build a network of artists to deliver this.
- We are talking to facilitators about how we can look at our organisation with artists, funders, people we work with and figuring out how we can collaborate better.
- We’ve been involved in conversations with artists and organisations nationally and internationally bringing in blue sky thinking about what we leave behind and how we can use this pause to make real change.
- Part of the time we’ve been thinking expansively and reflecting and half of the time we’ve been like little ducks padding under the water, really trying to firefight and put bits and pieces of action in place that would positively affect artists.
- The key for us was to create a core group of staff that could lead discreet artistic processes and projects whilst we’re not able to open our doors in the way we did before but also able to resume our charity when it can.
- It’s about making sure we’ve got the senior roles to help make sure that the building is an asset to the organisation, not a burden and helping us to increase capacity for fundraising, but there are likely to be further stages of restructure that will follow that but in this world of uncertainty, we wanted to delay as much as we reasonably could to see what things would look like later on.
- We’re trying to concertina two years of work into 2-3 months. Short term financial stabilisation, medium term getting through the year, but you can’t do any of that without thinking about where you want to be in the long term.
- Our success is, to a large extent, measured by the success of the sector, not just what we, ourselves do. It’s also about ensuring that performance is available and accessible for people to participate in, to watch and as a way of addressing specific health, well-being and social outcomes.
Reopening rural spaces run by volunteers
- We have the benefits of having flexible spaces (with no fixed, raked seating etc) and are able to run events with 1 or 2 volunteers.
- We can respond quickly as the audience pool tends to be within the local community – so we depend more on local word of mouth than other venues’ standard marketing campaigns.
- Both our volunteer promoters and our audiences tend to be older and therefore more likely to fall into vulnerable groups.
- We know that small Covid-free communities are wary of visitors travelling in from out with the local area.
Reopening to artists
- We’ve been looking at an alternative season of residencies for artists working in the venue in the autumn.
- I’m really excited to say we’ll have artists in studios tomorrow. It’s a baby step but the reopening is in progress in some way.
- When we reopen, it’s our intention to make blocks available to artists within studio form Tuesday to Saturday and we’re going to launch info about that for artists.
- We often give micro bursaries to artists who are creating work in the space but this year we’re going to insist that they bring another freelancer along with them (a designer, technician, or dramaturg – whatever it is they need). This is to start a conversation about how we are not just thinking about artists but also the wider sector.
Reopening to audiences
- We’re very fortunate in that we have a cinema. So, we’re able to open for cinema when we can’t open for theatre. We will be open with socially distanced cinema in August. It feels good to be able to bring people into our building in some way.
- We’re really fortunate that we can programme cinema – that has felt like a soft opening for us / something that is manageable in terms of keeping audiences safe. That would be from September.
- So, like many venues without knowing when we can safely reopen, our businesses are at risk. We would go bankrupt in November without a doubt if we didn’t completely redress what we are doing.
We’re now looking at opening in the spring. Viably and safely – working with the government guidelines around social distancing.
- We’ll start off with cinema and build audience confidence. Get people through the doors. Then moving to much smaller scale live work.
- We hope to be able to reopen for our summer season 2021.
- We hope that in September we will be able to have some sort of hybrid class that involves some people being in the building.
- We will reopen in early September with less of a budget, increased costs and reduced opening hours. We’ll stagger activity (multi-artform) to control our capacity & phase in working with artists. Once we’re confident that our systems are robust and safe, we’ll be able to gradually increase activity.
- 2021 is absolutely rammed. We’ve been spending all of our time trying to ensure that all of our partners who have had to let down artists previously because of Covid have an opportunity to put on their festivals or their periods of work. Our first production is in February.
£10 million grant from Scottish Government
- I’m very glad of the £10 million fund from Creative Scotland as it will allow venues like ourselves to work with freelance artists in new ways.
- I’m particularly keen to see if we can access some of this to support freelancers and artists.
Q & A
In light of recent BLM global movement, what are you doing now and planning to be anti-racist and combat anti-blackness?
- We’ve just made a few practical commitments:
- To look for collaborators: organisations and people from groups around Scotland that we are not connected with – underrepresented race & ethnicity. We’ll ringfence money to do some work with them next year. We’ll make a special effort to look for the individuals who might have a relevance and an interest in working with us, but don’t necessarily see organisations like ours as ones that we could work with.
- Proper involvement of artists and freelancers in the selection process & a clear commitment to the diversity in the makeup of those panels.
- Make sure our own teams reflect the makeup of Scotland. One of the ways we’re going to do that is to start running placement and internship programmes because the real challenge is not having an open application process.
- We launched an artistic inquiry with black artists that we’ve been working with for the last twelve months. The inquiry is chaired by those artists. We’ve had initial sessions and have set 2 objectives:
- To create a set of principles which will become embedded within our strategic plan, and also to really help us evolve our induction process to new people who we’re working with so they can understand our values and principles by which we make work.
- To create very clear milestones that will feature in our Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion Plan that help us to deliver positive action, because what a lot of colleagues said before the call was “I don’t want to sit in another conversation if nothing’s going to change.” So, it’s really important that that is heard and understood, and that that comes with a lot of hurt because there have been so many conversations where noting changed. We want to embed our artistic inquiry outcome into governance and all through the organisation and into our recruitment processes.
- We also heard, “Yeah, we’re given opportunities but never the opportunity to lead. It’s always being done to.”
- We’ve been part of an initiative that sets out to include 70% of the programming from artists of colour and it’s very clever because once that’s your goal, you realise that you’re not set up for that at all. So, we’ve been in a process for the last year to consider what happen to make that happen – looking at how we bring in different voices through outside curation, steering groups, curatorial panels, as well as marketing & operations. There’s a commitment from staff to make sure that the output is shifted for ever. It’s an exciting and continuous journey.
One of the common themes that came out of the last venue session, was a wish to focus on the immediate community, and so with less focus on bringing in work from outside, which could impact on touring. Is this something that you have all been considering?
- Our dilemma is that we’re hearing from communities that they’re hesitant about bringing in touring companies into the local area but we don’t have a big pool of artists and companies in our area.
- Our focus is on skills and learning in terms of how we support our communities to be creative and how we engage those more skilled practitioners in that. We want to create engagement and participation with people coming in with all levels of experience, and at every age and stage of their lives.
Two questions that respond to venues who are programming cinema in advance of programming live events:
1. Any of the venues promoting the cinema considered a live element to this … music… a compère… a children’s sat morning cinema with short films and live entertainment in between like the old ABC minors sat morning for children if you are old enough to remember.
2. Several venues have mentioned using cinema as a ‘soft’ opening. That is great from an audience/comfort-development perspective. Obviously less impactful on freelance artists who work in a live medium. Can you imagine supporting artists to create work in parallel to this cinema/digital programming? This feels vital as performance will not be able to ‘spring back’ when theatres can open – not to mention artists will leave the profession… Thanks for this, really good to get your perspectives.
- What has been part of the scenario planning is trying to keep performers safe. We don’t want to rush to put perfomer in an environment where they’re with the public, even in small groups over a period of time as we’d potentially be exposing them to illness. Part of the soft opening / starting with cinema approach is trying to reduce the amount of people at risk of getting sick. Some of the feedback from artists is that they don’t want to perform yet – because of caring responsibilities or relatives in vulnerable positions.
Questions we didn’t have time to answer:
- How open are venues currently to direct approaches from freelancers with ideas for new work/different ways of working (as opposed to call-outs for commissions), and what mechanisms might there be for that? Is there scope to set up mini-‘open funds’ located in/related to specific venues?
- I’ve heard that the £97million needs to be spent in the current financial year, by Apr 2021. If so, what impact could this have upon creating a ‘better new normal’ for venues and freelancers you work with? Would this speed likely have an impact upon the development of new ways of working?
- Great to listen to talk about embedding artists within the organisation. Are other venues/organisations open to discussing this? It would be great to know who?
- I have a question about amalgamating theatres. are venues looking at this? mothballing etc sounds hard to come out of? Will we not end up with more in the long run if the sector makes some tough choices now and does it not honour those made redundant if we build something more streamlined for this period of uncertainty?
Our next meeting will take place on 29 July at 11.30am – 1pm with 6 more venues and 40 more freelancers. If you are interested in attending, in either capacity, please email firstname.lastname@example.org