The last eighteen months has had a devastating and detrimental impact on our workforce. Due to the government’s lack of support to both freelancers and theatres, we have witnessed people fighting singlehandedly for survival, some losing their livelihoods, others being forced out of the industry all together and theatres closing for good.
With all this going on, many of our workforce have had to deal with these challenges and the pandemic alone through enforced isolation. Understandably, our cast and crews have been left in incredibly fragile mental positions.
Even though we’re extremely excited that theatres are beginning to reopen to full capacity, many are returning with fewer staff who are under a great deal of pressure to put on full productions, working with the new Covid policies, and dealing with the returning audiences in a completely new environment.
The situation for freelancers is already tough, but it certainly doesn’t help with the ‘ping-demic’, where it seems every week a show that has just opened needs to close due to a cast or crew member testing positive for Covid.
Seeing a light at the end of the tunnel for your industry and then having that snuffed out at the last minute is heart-breaking, torturous, frustrating. How are people meant to deal with this constant rise and fall of emotions and continuous let down? It is not something that we are prepared for. Many are said to be "at their lowest psychologically".
There was a problem with mental health within theatre before the pandemic, in terms of setting the right working models, acknowledging there is a problem and how to support its people. Sadly, the problem is even greater now.
The institutionalised structures that have been around for years makes for unstable, insecure employment, competition, long hours, unforgiving working conditions, constant pressure to be at your best all the time, burn out and more. The belief that workers were dispensable particularly if they admitted they were struggling mentally is a structure that needs to be knocked down immediately. All elements that already impact hugely on a person’s mental health.
During the lockdowns it has been noted that there aren’t systems or procedures in place for protecting freelancers’ mental wellbeing. It appeared that there was a more open dialogue around mental health, but no real action to support it.
Freelancers Make Theatre Work, an independent community for self-employed and freelancers within the arts industry, set up in June 2020, has showcased the detrimental factors forced on our freelancers during the pandemic, and continued to survey the workforce to see just how they have been affected. In their most recent report, they stated that in February this year ‘three support organisations report increases in ‘mental health first aid’ calls.
Other support and well-being organisations have revealed that their services have also been accessed more than ever.
In an interview with The Stage, Mary Burch, counsellor at Industry Minds, said "the organisation had delivered 116 sessions to clients in January this year, compared with 75 in January 2020." She also said that "anxiety - stemming from fear around the future of the industry, Covid, finances and employment – was one of the biggest issues facing workers, along with depression, feelings of loss, isolation, low self-esteem and the use of unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs and disordered eating."
Raffaella Covino, actress and Founder/Director of award-winning mental health company Applause For Thought, has recently launched a Return to Work Mental Health and Well-Being pilot, which is backed by Cameron Mackintosh Ltd (CML). In June 2021, the team started to implement their scheme with several West End shows, including Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton and Mary Poppins.
In a Facebook post in June, Applause for Thought said: "This is very much just the beginning of the extensive work we are doing with CML. Helping create deep routed and long-lasting systemic change is at the forefront and we look forward to the coming months that will see this scheme roll out across the entire organisation."
A digital mental-health toolkit has also been created by social enterprise The Hub in partnership with the Creative Industries Federation and mental-health charity Mindapples. It's free to access and covers topics, including combat stress and anxiety, and boosting creativity, with the aim of supporting freelancers moving forward past the pandemic.
It is fantastic to see these organisations stepping up and tackling the situation at a time that our industry needs it most. However, it should never have got to this stage. The mental health pressures that theatre freelancers are under should have been acknowledged and supported long before now.
Not that anyone saw this pandemic coming or have prepared for something like this, but it shouldn’t take something this big to make the industry realise that they are not looking after the mental health of their workforce. Training and processes should be in place.
The mental wellbeing of our industry won’t just return to normal when everything else does. The repercussions will be great. Our theatres need to ensure that there is a suitable and long-term recovery process that will help our people back on their feet and continually monitor their mental health and wellbeing. This is so important. Everyone within the industry needs to be committed to this in order for this to work.
There is still a long way to go but seeing how badly our freelance workforce has been affected over the last year, should highlight to everyone just how important it is that we get this right, and quickly.
You can follow ‘A Year in the Life - the story of a freelancer’ on the Freelancers Make Theatre Work timeline on their website to see just what has happened to them and the industry over the last year.
Just to add our Artistic Director, Rosemary Hill, is also a trained Psychotherapeutic Counsellor. She writes "During the pandemic I have worked as a volunteer counsellor for Mind and for Youth Counselling (YiS). Recently, I started also my own private practice. It has been extremely busy in every sphere with clients presenting with anxiety, stress, low self-worth, depression and lately there’s been an increase in clients presenting with PTSD. It’s been very sad listening to what people have had to go through. I hope I have been able to help in some way, but mental health really does need to be taken far more seriously and much more funding is needed. I don’t think many people realise how many counsellors work for free in the most stressful situations. Counsellors also need to take care of their mental health."