The Big Freelancer Survey - giving theatre freelancers a voice

27th July 2023

Since the pandemic in 2020, Freelancers Make Theatre Work have conducted an annual survey to look at the extenuating factors surrounding the industry that affects our freelance workforce.

They will produce a survey each year until 2025 to paint a picture of what our workforce has experienced and endured since the pandemic, how things have changed over time and how additional issues, such as Brexit, funding cuts and cost of living crisis, have been challenged.

The first survey looked at the impact of Covid on theatre. The second looked at the ongoing effects of Covid, freelancers working conditions and environments. For 2023, the survey will continue to support freelancers and focus on their hopes and fears. The team behind the survey say: “it is a call to the creative industries and arts sectors to find ways to build an infrastructure that is fair and sustainable – open to all, and to provide an evidence-base to inform policy and practice.”

Made in collaboration with the University of Essex, ‘Underpaid, Undervalued, Under Pressure - The Big Freelancer Survey 2023 was answered by 1156 industry freelancers.

One of the most noticeable results to come out of the survey was the significant disparities in pay between male and female theatre freelancers. The average annual pay for male workers is £32,600. A whopping 37.4% more than the overall average earnings for female, which is £20,400.

It was noted that the average theatre freelancer salary was £22,900, which is 17.5% below national average salary.

Another very important statistic to be aware of ‘the pay-gap of 17.19% between white and global majority freelancers. People with medical conditions, parents and careers, and from low-income homes also earn less than average.’ This highlights that we still have issues with inclusion and access, which we must work harder on.

Money, and being able to thrive and not just survive, is of course a major factor. Many believe that they are overworked and underpaid and struggling because of the expectation to work for free or for below minimum wage. 64.6% said they had felt pressured to work for nothing in the past year.

This doesn’t help with there being a shortage of workers in some areas of theatre, which means other people or departments are being leant on or forced to work additional hours for free. Roles, such as directors and associate directors are expected to carry out unpaid preparation time, and costume workers and designers are being asked to work multiple roles that goes over and above their job description and paid hours.

Many freelancers continue to struggle with keeping up with rising costs of rent, mortgages, food, travel, childcare and more. A high number feel they are living “hand-to-mouth”.

“I am fed up with having no life outside of work to make ends meet. It has taken away my love for my job and is not what I want for the future.”

“I’m desperately trying to remain working in theatre which is mainly a struggle because of pay and the cost of living but I have noticed that a huge number of my incredibly skilled colleagues have moved into film and television because they simply cannot survive on the money anymore.”

Other key results show that survey participants do not feel that the industry has made any improvements since the pandemic, and 77.9% of participants said Brexit was causing uncertainty for their work.

There are concerns around ‘persistent exclusivity, inequality and inaccessibility’, including ageism and sexism. One respondent said: ‘as an older female actor I have felt invisible and unwanted… The way older women are treated in this industry is utterly distressing’.

Those wanting to start a family are left concerned about support. ‘I’m considering having children in the near future and the working hours, travel requirements and low fees for lighting designers makes me very uncertain that I’ll be able to balance working in the industry with having a family.”

These are only a few factors to come out of the survey. You can read the results here

Many positives came out of the survey, such as theatre is a collaborative place, most of the work force love what they do and don’t want to leave, many are passionately committed to the industry’s future. Sadly, all these points were outweighed by the negatives.

The report made six recommendations, including changing how theatre is funded and making it easier to apply for funding, making it easier for people who don’t live in London to work in the city and create an EU/UK work permit.

Based on participants suggestions and ideas, 15 simple actions came out that if carried out could really improve the lives of freelancers. A handful of these were: introduce and adhere to fair rates of pay, work towards a five-day working week and secure and protect funding for school-age children to have access to a variety of forms of culture every term.

I find these surveys incredibly interesting and useful. It allows me to gauge where the industry is and the areas that we as a theatre company need to implement or even do to help others within theatre.

The surveys also give our industry a voice. Without them, we wouldn’t fully recognise the desperate trouble we are really in or show the Government and the rest of the world just how much support we need.

From the ongoing impact of Brexit, Covid, the cost-of-living crisis, the issues and challenges that surround the industry, the racism, ageism, sexism. Is this an industry I really want to be part of?

Yes. Yes, it is. It is an industry that I love.

We need to make these changes happen now and support freelancers who really do make theatre work.