Written evidence submitted by Stage Sight
• Introduction to your organisation
Stage Sight is working with its members (at the time of writing this in June 2020, this was 80+ members made up of organisations and individuals) to ensure the offstage workforce of the theatre and performing arts is more reflective of our society today, in terms of class, ethnicity and disability. These offstage roles include production, technical, design and stage management positions and are very often short-term, freelance contacts, which offer little in the way of job security, continuity of work, on-going professional training, are relatively low-paid well beyond entry level roles, and have historically been accessible only through personal networks. The sector has struggled to achieve an inclusive workforce, and we work with our members to implement practical changes to ensure we do things differently, and make this an inclusive sector. Our process has always been around three key areas: how the sector recruits; how it reaches out to invite people in; and how it creates new pathways into the industry. www.stagesight.org
• What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?
A greater divide in already existing inequalities - specifically impacted by the varying financial support available for freelance offstage theatre and performing art workers. Some of the organisations who are our members have furloughed their staff – in some instances up to 80%. Some of the freelance artists we represent have been eligible for the SEISS, and some have fallen through the gaps of financial support during the pandemic. Many working-class theatre professionals have had to leave the industry – whether or not their financial circumstances allow them to return is yet to be seen. Their circumstances today, will greatly affect their ability to return, and will increase the issue of great inequalities that were already existing in the sector pre Covid-19. Some of the production artist’s skills cannot be easily transferred within online productions and projects (such as lighting designers), some backstage roles are not needed online such as stage managers etc. This leaves these artists more vulnerable and financially exposed.
• How effectively has the support provided by DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sector’s needs?
The Arts Council of England moved swiftly to provide emergency financial support to organisations and individuals. They also responded fluidly and flexibly to NPO agreements and provided an extension of a year to 2023 which will have a positive impact. The job retention scheme has enabled organisations to ‘hibernate’ which affords some time of grace. These measures address some of the broader challenges faced by the sector in this time of crisis, however they do not, and cannot, without further nuance be expected to address the challenges the sector already faces with regards to making the workforce inclusive and representative and the fact that the steps forward that have been taken are vulnerable as the sector reacts and inevitably retrenches. As one of the industries that will be the last to re-open, the furloughing scheme needs to be considered specifically for theatre and the performing arts and extended. DCMS has responded to the call to increase the diversity of those making up the task forces put in place. However, it really shouldn’t need open letters and pressure to realise representation within a contemporary society must include those from all backgrounds in terms of gender, class, race and disability.
• What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?
The sector is still not representative. Given the challenges of the lockdown period and the ongoing difficulties as it recedes, the lack of employment for many working in theatre and the performing arts could reverse all strides that have been made to make it more inclusive. The sector is at greater risk of returning to being an exclusive sector, alienating those from diverse backgrounds.
In practical terms, those that are already in the industry from more affluent backgrounds may be more likely to be able to return to work in the sector due to their financial security. Those that are ready to step into the industry from a working-class background will have yet more barriers to contend with. Those who are disabled will need to shield for longer, and this will seriously impede their ability to engage and contribute their skills and talent. Medical evidence has shown that those from a BAME background are at higher risk of suffering severe health implications from coronavirus, which puts them at a disadvantage of returning to normality.
There is also a danger that theatre programming and recruitment practices retreat back to older models, including a more conservative and ‘risk averse’ approach. The steps forward that have been achieved have included a wide range of funded and well-supported initiatives to create training and career development opportunities for individuals from under-represented backgrounds. This on-going work would be vulnerable in a time of retrenchment and there is a danger that this work would only continue in those originations that were already exemplars of best practice. While the work of Stage Sight is focused on theatre organisations and the theatre professionals who make up the workforce, all of the above points equally apply to the audience, and work to diversify audiences and participants is part and parcel of diversifying the sector – if people see themselves represented on and off stage, they are more likely to want to engage with the work as consumers and to see themselves pursuing a career in the arts.
We therefore need to ensure that during the lockdown period and as the industry prepares to return that those who are already under-represented in the sector are not further disadvantaged. This is best achieved by ensuring that the sector is supported to achieve diverse outcomes and this is achieved through ongoing furloughing, continued financial support for all freelance artists, ongoing emergency financial support from ACE to see the performing arts sector through a period of time when public gatherings are not possible.
• How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?
While devastating, this crisis could offer an opportunity to re-think the way we make work, who we make it with, and who for. If a significant proportion of our current audiences are likely to be more risk averse and unwilling to return, even to a socially distanced theatre experience, it gives an opportunity to find ways of reaching new and more diverse audiences that were not attracted by the work or the experiences that were being offered before. The creative industries were the fastest growing sector and there should be every hope that this will be the case again. The sector was and should continue to evolve working practices to attract and retain people from all backgrounds. If the DCMS were able to develop a closer and more strategic relationship with the DfE focusing on the benefits of a creative education, including those of the development of resilience and transferable work and life skills as well as increased employability in the sector itself, we could see continued forward momentum towards ensuring equality of opportunity within a diverse and vibrant workforce and talent pool.