“There’s a real love there”

“I’ve learnt a lot through lockdown and I’ve got better and stronger at making the right decisions. Maybe it’s naive of me, but I’m a business and I’m very much a person that believes we’re all equal, so let’s try to understand and support each other during this time.” 

When you think about success what do you think of? Money? Career? A Family? The question often asked is can we actually have it all? We all know that being able to work in a field that brings us fulfilment is not only desirable, but something we expect comes with a serious amount of hard work and dedication. This is true of course, but it’s often even harder work when the industry is niche. Theatre is not only ever changing, it’s over-saturated, uncertain and inconclusive. One thing’s for sure, Louise Dearman is most certainly a woman who has reached success on all of the above. 

Louise needs no introduction. With a seriously impressive West End, National touring and International concert CV, a supportive fan base following on all her platforms and most recently her most important role yet, a Mother, Louise has repeatedly shown her commitment to it all. Additionally, Louise has managed to do all of this whilst ensuring she keeps life at its most real and most importantly, Louise isn’t afraid to call out problematic attitudes and behaviours which continue to plague parts of the entertainment industry. 

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Having worked as an agent assistant myself for five years at leading London agency Global Artists, I’ve had first hand experience working both for and alongside Louise. We’ve shared some incredible moments together, witnessed changes and supported each other continuously. Louise was also one of the agency’s first ever clients, so she’s also grown up with the team, which I for one find rather charming. One thing’s for sure, Louise has always had many different strings to her bow. From starring in Wicked, to creating an album, to publishing a book – she’s always been creative in multiple ways and open for conversations around something new, which is exactly the reason we couldn’t wait to meet with her and discuss Growth. 

Louise’s outlook on musical theatre is incredibly positive and optimistic, and as she recalls the support she’s had from producers and other industry professionals as a new mum we understand her enthusiasm. As she explains, becoming a parent has had a significant impact on how she approaches her career and her choice of roles. Considerations on childcare, workload and scheduling have all taken a front seat in deciding who to work with and when. 

In the midst of a childcare crisis, Louise’s insight into returning to work in musical theatre after having a child is a welcome ray of positivity. Putting aside the pandemic for a second, because we can’t solve everything at once, her experience seems to be a great example of what to do (producers, pay attention!). Offering support with childcare and being flexible with schedules are vital elements to ensuring that, as Louise puts it no one “is made to feel guilty for being parents”. Similarly, the job-sharing system she encourages producers to consider could be a fantastic way to facilitate a more accessible industry, for new mothers as well as many other people who may not be able to work 8 shows a week– or 12, I’m looking at you Joseph.

It’s especially difficult at the moment to picture a time where theatre is back up and running as it was before. But what we should be planning for is a better return, where having a child does not mean deciding to abandon your passion or taking on a role which leaves you neither time nor energy to care for your baby. Let’s make best practice the industry standard, and emerge from this having grown.

“Theatre is part of my identity”

image by Cherry Laithang supplied by Unspalsh

Wardrobe supervisors and dressers turning to fashion, jewellery and mask making. Carpenters unable to build sets crafting furniture instead. Actors projecting onto paint and canvas. The small business directory Not On The West End showcases more than anything that while a lockdown might take away our stages, nothing can strip the creativity and adaptability from theatre professionals. Previously the Wardrobe Deputy on 9 to 5: The Musical at the Savoy, Anna Saunders created Not On The West End to give a platform to the many side businesses run by UK theatre professionals.

It has been five months since theatres closed their doors. The £1.57bn emergency funding announced in July won’t be reaching venues until November at the earliest. Job losses continued to increase; in the month directly after our ‘rescue’ package was announced the number of layoffs and redundancies rose from 3000 to 5000, we can only imagine what this number has risen to now, and these figures do not even represent the numerous freelancers who have fallen through the gaps of government income support schemes, nor the casual staff on zero-hours contracts who might well keep their jobs but will receive no wages once furlough ends.

I used to argue with my ex-boyfriend about the arts. A staunch Tory, he would insist that sacrificing the creative industries was a small price to pay in order to protect the more ‘essential’ sectors. The longevity of that relationship aside, I couldn’t help but think back to those arguments recently as I watched a (socially distant) crowd huddle in the rain, shivering over hot chocolates in paper cups, so desperate as they were to experience a brief, bright 45-minutes of live music after months of anxiety and isolation, and so determined our technicians, producers and baristas were to provide it for them. Theatre is essential, as are the people who create it. Proposed schemes such as Seat Out to Help Out surely have to be realised in order to save our industry, and, as the creative performance protest due to happen on 26th September shows, we will certainly keep fighting to do just that. Not On The West End’s amazing advocacy for those who deserve some recognition and business support through this downtime is just another example of the solidarity and versatility within our community. We are makers, planners, builders and fixers, and we are resilient.

We spoke to Anna to learn more about Not On The West End and her views on what needs to happen to save our industry. 

Anna, please tell us more about the project – why you started, what it has meant to you so far? The commissions must be going through the roof. 

The project is a hub of small businesses, one being featured on the Instagram and the website each day, that are helmed by theatre professionals whose income has been affected by COVID. It’s a way to support the businesses of specifically theatre people and find loads of them in one place. It’s impossible to search for them as a group on etsy, but you can find all their etsys through Not On The West End. 

Before the idea was an idea there were things that my flatmates and I, all theatre types, had noticed happening in our community. The first was how many costume and wardrobe people had jumped into action to make PPE for the NHS. We did too, if you work in wardrobe there is always a problem solving attitude. Tech rehearsals do that to your brain. 

But there was a sting to the government’s PPE tsar making a self-congratulatory announcement that the PPE shortage was over, with no mention of the hundreds of costume professionals and home sewers who had made it happen. It was especially hurtful whilst there was also no sign of any help for the arts coming. 

Once scrubs were done, I noticed dozens of friends turn to selling face masks. It became a bleak joke when I got a facebook notification to guess which of my supremely talented friends had turned to making masks to make their rent. 

I have always done embroideries for friends as presents and at the start of lockdown I was sending them out to friends as little pick-me-up gifts – including one of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, appropriately singing ‘I want to be where the PEOPLE are!”. But I had always been of the ‘my hobby is not a hustle’ mentality. 

Four months into this and that mentality was no longer sustainable. I needed to do something. Anything to fill my days and make some money. Something needed to be done. 

I had the idea less than a month ago. Friday 7th August. It was a joke name. Not On The West End – like Not On The High Street, but we don’t have jobs anymore! I got the email address and I got the Instagram handle. 

Then I got scared. But convinced by a friend it wasn’t a crap idea I sent out six texts. All to friends, wardrobe people that I knew had a creative side hustle. I was thinking about doing this thing, would they be interested. 

Within the day I had ten people signed up. Now it’s about 160. 

I knew there were a couple of things that I needed to make sure everyone knew. 

  1. Everyone featured is a theatre professional. 
  2. I would not be taking a cut of sales or charging to be featured. 

From that point the ‘Not On The West End’ community kind of made itself.

How are you finding this emotionally? Like us, we know you miss your ‘normal’ work and we can only imagine you have been as strained as we have. Do you find yourself engaging with those who send in submissions and hearing their lockdown/missing theatre stories? 

Launch day was a particularly strange one for me. The first three businesses all came out on Friday 14th August, a week after the initial idea. Beth Cousins, the amazing woman behind The Sun and Moonflower, and who would usually be dressing at Pretty Woman, messaged me after only a couple of hours and told me she’d made a sale because of it.

I made a video, that I jokingly called Parish Notices, to go on the Instagram stories at 6.30 that evening, to say thank you for everyone’s support. Day one had been a success and I had businesses lined up to fill every day through to mid-November, but after posting the video I just sat down on my bedroom floor and balled my eyes out. 

Over the previous week I had received so many emails from people who were lost, unsure how to even describe themselves; are they a lighting designer or did they used to be a lighting designer? Do they work at Mamma Mia or did they used to work at Mamma Mia? But they were still fighting. It sounds cliché, because it is, but the show must go on spirit is a part of it. People were using their skills – related to their usual job or not (because I can’t imagine how a trumpeter would usually use macramé in their theatre life) – and making things happen.

It felt like a lot of pressure, to live up to the hopes and expectations of the people who suddenly seemed to be relying on me and my little website and my new Instagram. But the thing is, theatre is so often referred to as a community rather than an industry. There’s a reason for that. 

Theatre is part of my identity – if I have a night off from whatever show I’m on, it’s to go and see a show. I’ve done a morning laundry call, gone to see a matinee and then gone back to work a show. Talking to so many people over the last few weeks I know that I’m not alone. 

We all miss it. Like an ache. I imagine the feeling of standing in the wings at the Savoy and hearing Dolly’s voice start a performance of 9to5 and I get goose bumps and well up. Imagining the call for beginners or hearing an orchestra tune up or sitting in the dark in a crowd of people all brought together for the same reason. Theatre is special and needs to be protected.

Would you like to share any thoughts on what the theatre industry needs this year? We’re all frustrated and feel the Government have let us [the industry] down, but what needs to happen from your point of view to ensure all of us unemployed theatre workers have some positivity/glimmer of hope?

The three things we need from the government are a plan, some respect and insurance. 

We need a plan. More than anything. There seems to be nothing but gossip at the moment. The money promised needs to actually get out of the government bank account and to the places it’s needed. The much-hailed announcement of the £1.57 billion now seems like more of a plan to make a plan and a way to shut us up for a few weeks. That money also seems to be dependent of making as many people redundant as possible. This government cares about buildings but not people. 

We need respect. We are being treated like theatre is our hobby, rather than a career that we trained for and excel at. We are being treated like we are stupid for wanting to have a career in theatre at all. Without theatres the West End is a ghost town. Without theatres every town and city across the country loses its heart – the places people experience their first panto, or play Tree Number 3 in the youth production of The Wizard of Oz, and see elite professionals on the same stage the next week. 

You can’t only save the big institutions and leave everything else to disappear because it won’t be long before there are not audiences starting their love of theatre in a 300 seater in their home town, and they won’t be able to travel to the next big town to see a big tour, and they won’t have the love for it built in. Theatre is a proper industry that should be respected, not just for the money it makes, but for the people it brings together. 

We need insurance. There is no point saying we can open back up if we can’t be insured. They need to be our insurance.  

We know the pain inflicted by the closure of venues and the loss of work. FreeBird aim to also promote the change that needs to occur within the theatre industry, post lockdown. What change would you like to see? The lack of support for Freelance staff has really got us thinking.

The thing we need to talk about and address as an industry is work-life balance. It would be difficult to address this without mentioning the current union negotiations. Sunday shows are being much discussed and demanded by producers. 

I don’t think that thought is being given to the lives of the people who work the performances when this is being put forward. Getting, most likely, only Monday evenings to see friends and family outside of the industry is a brutal change to a group of people who already give their jobs so much of their time and energy. 

When it is just some shows that do this, with double pay for Sunday shows, there will be people who can change their lifestyle, for a while, to do this. If the whole of theatre has two show Sundays we will be forcing experienced and talented people out of the industry for good. 

Before closures there were beginning to be rumblings of ways to make work-life balance in theatre, especially for parents, better, with much publicised job shares and companies giving over dressing rooms for nursing mothers. I think that when we return we need to make sure that this progress is not lost and is actually built upon going forward. Sunday shows as industry standard is the opposite of progress. 

If someone is out there and wants to submit- how can they reach you? 

All submissions should be sent to me via email – notonthewestend@gmail.com

What’s next for this project? Coronavirus is here to stay and so are all those creative makers and small brands- any new developments or next stages?

The next step is the Not On The West End virtual market, organised by Grace Cheetham, of Serotonin Series. Over the weekend of the 21st and 22nd November we will be hosting a special event. Participating businesses will be offering discounts, there will be a raffle (everyone loves a raffle!) and a few live streams to meet the theatre professionals who are behind the businesses and hear from them about their experiences. We are hoping it will be a great event for the community we are building up and give everyone a boost in sales before Christmas! 

Ultimately, we hope that this won’t have to be a long-term project – maybe something we can bring back each Christmas to show off our community. We want to get back into theatres and rehearsal rooms because that is what has brought us together. The love of our industry. Live theatre is not like anything else. It isn’t like films or tv. It isn’t like sport. It’s a group of creative and brilliant people coming together to unite an audience in a specific time and place and story, and then doing it all over again the next night. It’s fleeting and eternal and isn’t something that should be paused like it is now. 

Not On The West End is a coping mechanism, not a cure. We need theatres to be open and full and telling stories. You can find Not On The West End on Instagram and via their website. Keep up to date with FreeBird on all things arts, culture, events and theatre. Read our article with Stylist magazine.

“Diversify your feed”

We chatted to theatre maker Kerry Candeloro about the battle for accessibility off and on Broadway, how she came to work as a voice and dialect coach, and her work at Lincoln Centre Theater, New York Theater Workshop, and Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

Ever heard something complicated explained in a really simple way? It’s memorable, right?

“Education people talk a lot about the difference between equality and equity,” Chana Joffe-Walt says in a new five-part podcast series produced by Serial (yes, that Serial) and the New York Times. “Equality means everyone gets the same thing. Equity means everyone gets what they need.

I was folding laundry when I heard that. Podcasts, I’ve found, are the only reason I get any housework done. It was a rainy Sunday, around a week after I’d caught up with my friend Kerry Candeloro. We’d talked about the differences in our experiences of the pandemic (herself in her hometown, Philadelphia, and myself in London). We re-traced some of the steps she’d taken since we’d first crossed paths (at a theatre in Highgate, North London), and how she eventually found her way to her current job at Moulin Rouge! The Musical. And we’d talked about her perspective on ableism and lack of physical accessibility in New York theatres, as a Disabled artist.

Hearing Chana’s words, I thought back on our conversation. Equity means everyone gets what they need.

Kerry’s lived experience of disability and chronic illness intersects with live performance in a bunch of different ways, but most obviously in the public domain– the domain where artists and audience members navigate physical access to, and mobility within, a huge variety of spaces. In her years working as an off-Broadway House Manager, as well as a freelance voice and dialect coach, she’s witnessed countless instances of theatres failing individuals in very public ways; from an audience member being unable to access a disabled bathroom because the doorway wasn’t wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, to seeing “a well-known Disabled actor be carried up and down the stairs of a theatre where they were headlining because there was no accessible dressing room” (both stories from Kerry’s Instagram, where she’s collated some of these examples).

Kerry leading a coaching session 

“The real privilege isn’t just being able-bodied”, she says, in response to those experiences, “it is the assumption that you automatically have access to any space you wish to physically enter. It is assuming that you can get into/move around any building independently and without ‘being a burden’.”

Beyond the issue of literal access, Kerry also draws attention to the place of disabled people within cultural discourse– from Tik Tok, to the Tony’s. While high-profile productions such as Deaf West’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, and the more recent Public Theatre production of Teenage Dick (which crossed the Atlantic at the end of 2019, with a run at the Donmar Warehouse) go against the grain, big-budget productions continue to overlook disabled actors when portraying their own experiences (consider the casting of disabled characters in shows such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or even last year’s Tony-winner The Ferryman). Pop culture depictions of disability tend to iconise and de-humanise people, isolating them within ‘inspiration porn’ discourse– most recently seen rearing its ugly head in the discussion around the revelation of Chadwick Boseman’s cancer diagnosis (for a great explainer on ‘inspiration porn’, check out Stella Young’s seminal Ted Talk on the topic).

If there’s any reason for hope, for optimism about a more equitable future for disabled and chronically ill people within theatre, it lives in Kerry’s insistence on communication and action. As Kerry mentions, recent movements like the Black Theatre Coalition and We See You White American Theater (who recently published their 31-page list of demands to organisations regarding increased representation and inclusivity) underline this notion— the untapped potential for collective power when individuals all speak with one voice.

That voice is saying ‘this is not good enough’. That voice comes out in hashtags, and scratch nights, and zoom calls; in awards ceremony speeches, in full-company meetings, in Front of House bars. That voice insists that artists are not commodities, and audience members are not buyers. That voice is refusing to accept symbolic gestures, or tokenism, from any so-called ‘gatekeepers’ of the performing arts.

That voice is sounding remarkably like Kerry’s.

Her first year working on the Director’s Lab programme at Lincoln Centre Theater

Kerry is a graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualised Study, where she studied speech pathology, theatre, and sociolinguistics– developing the concentration “Vocal Transformations: Speech as Identity in Theatre and Society”. Throughout her degree, she produced shows and workshops with Gallatin Theatre Troupe, as well as helping to develop original work at Manhattan Repertory Theatre, at the New York International Fringe Festival, and at Dixon Place. She worked as the Digital Assistant for Academy Award winning costume designer Ann Roth on the film The Post (directed by Steven Spielberg) and on the Broadway production of The Prom, as well as the recent revivals of Carousel, Three Tall Women, and The Iceman Cometh. At Lincoln Centre Theater, she works alongside Dramaturg Anne Cattaneo, helping to run the Directors Lab, a developmental program that nurtures stage directors from around the country and around the world. Alongside this, she continues to work as a freelance voice and dialect coach, across the New York theatre scene. And she’s also worked extremely hard as one of the head House Managers at the Off-Broadway powerhouse that is New York Theatre Workshop, and, before lockdown went into effect, as the House Seat and Guest Services Coordinator for Moulin Rouge! The Musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway. She is an electric force in every room, and a wonderfully articulate advocate for disability rights– particularly within a performing arts context. She’s arguably the most widely-read person I know when it comes to play texts, and her romcom reviews are the highlight of my Instagram feed.

Check out Kerry’s Instagram (@kerry_can) for more of her insightful thoughts about theatre and disability, for her knock-out Rom Com reviews— and for her recent take on Midnight Sun (she read it so you don’t have to). 

Kerry’s other recommendations:

“Let’s go back to the drawing board”

We talked to Brooklyn-based 3D Printing leader Christina Perla about the power of community, telling her own story, and enabling the creative process

Ever heard someone talk about diversity through a design lens? Or argue that it’s an organisational asset; a potential source of unlimited possibility?

Chatting with Christina Perlathe woman behind Makelab, a Brooklyn-based 3D Printing company– you realise that the current under-representation of diverse and immigrant communities in 3D Printing– as well as in Engineering, Industrial Design, and their ancillary industries– is actually limiting their potential.

“As an industrial designer, your job is to bridge two things together, and find commonalities– find that common thread. And figure out the way to bridge them together, to make something beautiful. That’s one of the approaches you take, in terms of design thinking.”

She built on this idea, taking the argument from design– the field in which she specialised while studying as an undergrad at New York’s Pratt Institute– to business.

“You don’t want to be in your bubble, as a business leader. The more you’re in your bubble, you’re gonna hit a wall very quickly, and you’re gonna stunt your own growth. So I always find that diverse and different ways of thinking should be welcome into a business leaders’ frame of mind, and their everyday. You should always be exploring. […] That’s why it’s really important to build that into your team, right, into key roles in your organisation.”

As a sector you might not typically think of as creative or artistic, 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing are renowned for not being hugely diverse in terms of gender and race– and Christina knows this all too well. “I think that this entire industry can grow a lot more if we’re a lot more inclusive. I think it’s better for everyone.” Her involvement with Women in 3D Printing, an international network with over 10,000 members, speaks to her beliefs about a more inclusive future for her industry– and that serious action is needed to get us there.

In an interview with TCT Magazine in June, she reiterated, “If we all adopt a pay-it-forward attitude and really put in the work and effort to reach more and connect more, I don’t see how it wouldn’t result in more diversity and inclusion.” On a rainy day in Brooklyn, we sat down to chat with Christina about the power of the Wi3DP network, her journey to becoming a leader and co-founder of two companies, and the role models that inspired her along the way.

One of Makelab’s 3D Printers in action

Christina Perla studied Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute in New York. After graduating, she worked for several companies in design and product development before deciding to go freelance. Around the same time, she and her partner Manny Mota started their own design and development firm, Tangent Design, of which she is Co-Founder and Creative Director. With Tangent, they combined “an artistic attention to detail” with “an engineering approach, to make every design decision functional and purposeful” (Source). They acquired 3DUniPrint, a 3D printing company with whom they’d been working closely; a natural acquisition, as part of the iterative design process they used at Tangent. Within a few months, they had renamed 3DUniPrint to ‘Makelab’, where Christina is currently CEO. A politically and socially-conscious 3D printing company, Makelab strives to simplify the process of realising creative ideas. At last count, Makelab has completed over 200,000 prints, on over 10,000 projects for 6,000 clients– ranging from engineering firms to event producers, including Silvercup Studios, OMA, AECOM, Yahoo, Oath, AOL, and collaborations with Jaden Smith, NVIDIA, and many more. A Downtown Brooklyn article from last November said that “[Makelab’s] primary source of marketing is simply doing a good job”– and they do it with heart.

If it wasn’t enough to have founded a company and acquired a second one within two and half years, Christina is also an NYC Ambassador and, as of earlier this year, a Board Director for ‘Women in 3D Printing’, an industry network that spans 23 countries, with 65 chapters, and over 10,000 community members.

When Covid-19 hit New York in March, Makelab pivoted and dedicated 75% of their machines and resources to the production of PPE– starting with a trialling process, which tested for effectiveness and safety. They now produce a range of PPE, including custom mask fitters, face shields, and mask extenders, and they’ve also helped to prototype ventilator parts and adaptors for more testing. In April, Makelab received a Hello Alice ‘Business for All’ COVID-19 Emergency Grant, to help them continue producing healthcare equipment (Source), and between April and May they nearly tripled their orders for face shields. Makelab worked with “hospitals in New York and New Jersey”.

For all of this– for her tireless passion for elevating women in 3D Printing and Technology, for her love of creativity and innovative design, and her incredible resourcefulness and ingenuity– she is one of our dream Collaborators, and we’re so glad to be talking to her.  

Check out Makelab and the Women in 3D Printing network, and Christina Perla on Twitter and Instagram, to keep up to date with her amazing work. 

“Burn it down and start again”

In keeping with the name of their Freelancer Task Force sub-group, independent producers Ashleigh Bowmott and Laura Sweeney of The Uncultured talked with us about the need for radical, collectivist change, and the discourse surrounding freelancers in the arts

“A pandemic is the perfect time to launch a new arts producing company, right? … Right?” 

In the early weeks of lockdown– in the absence of any meaningful connection with my past or future employers, any of the organisations for whom I’ve worked myself to the bone over the last five years– I started wondering whether maybe I’d imagined an entire industry in my head. 

My work had disappeared; replaced by a new day job, where I felt like an unrecognisable version of myself. Other freelancers I had worked with regularly were applying for entry-level jobs in other industries, filing for Universal Credit, re-writing their CVs. There was an overwhelming feeling that we were parting ways, that this would all last a lot longer than anyone was brave enough to admit. The ongoing weekly redundancy announcements from theatres around the UK which followed, and the continuing lack of a meaningful response from the government with regards to the financial cliff-edge faced by countless organisations and freelancers in the performing arts, only heightened that feeling of powerlessness. That feeling that we were all just bricks in the side of a collapsing building.

The idea that over 200,000 other theatre freelancers were, and still are, experiencing the same feelings of disconnection and isolation, is hard for me to fathom. Maybe it’s because I struggle to recognise and articulate those things when I feel them myself, maybe it’s because in the months since those early weeks, I have managed to find tiny morsels of solidarity in occasional Whatsapps and Zoom calls with former colleagues. I’ve found encouragement in, and tried to keep up to date with, the work of newly-formed advocacy groups like Freelancers Make Theatre Work, the Freelance Task Force, as well as cross-industry associations like the Alliance of Associations and Professionals for Theatre and Live Events (AAPTLE). But listening to Artistic Directors talking about ‘mothballing’, and reading news stories about potential future contracts which would place the financial burden of Covid-19 on the self-employed, that feeling of utter powerlessness, and the inevitability of any positive change unravelling, manages to weasel its way back into my head. 

Enter Ashleigh Bowmott and Laura Sweeney– two independent arts producers, whose refusal to accept the idea that freelancers are anything other than a majority force with the potential to affect massive change, feels like an ice bath for my tired, sore brain. Having worked together for around a year, towards the end of 2019 they sought to formalise their working partnership by forming a company. Undeterred by the national lockdown and arrival of Ashleigh’s baby, they forged ahead with The Uncultured, a producing company within which they aimed to continue to play with and interrogate convention, through performance and live art. 

Often our projects reject traditional definitions of taste, culture and art in order to create a space for social change. These marginal and radical practices are joyful, sorrowful, painful and soulful, but always impactful and powerful.”

Having also put themselves forward to be representatives for the Yard Theatre on Fuel’s Freelance Task Force– which brings together reps from over 100 arts organisations to foreground the needs of the self-employed community– Ashleigh and Laura documented their thinking on taking up the position as a job share, and the contradictions they encountered on their decision-making process. 

 Their insistence on the potential for this moment to be a turning-point in the ongoing struggle against discrimination and insularity in UK theatre, is nothing if not hopeful. In their words below, you’ll hear them mention their own cynicism and pessimism about the industry—don’t let that distract you; there is no denying the innate hopefulness of their work, and their beliefs. And their acknowledgment that all of this is an ongoing project makes me think of Audre Lorde. “Revolution is not a onetime event”. 

Laura: “Things weren’t exactly rosy for us as freelancers before Covid, working within a racist, sexist, ableist and financially unjust system, so trying something new was necessary anyway”

Ashleigh and Laura were a natural choice to discuss the complexity of starting something new in a moment of upheaval—on choosing which course of action to take. Their work is not without precedent, and I’m hopeful about the potential it has to inspire meaningful, widespread change, across an industry that could do with a bit of burning.

Ash is an arts producer and facilitator who has made a purposeful choice to integrate the politics and practicalities of work and life. She combines work as an artist, curator, producer and educator as a vehicle for developing methodologies of care and resistance. She has a PhD in collaborative artistic practices, which considers the intersectionality of creating artworks between peoples, species and levels of sentience. ​Ash has delivered talks, workshops and artworks worldwide. She is a mother of 2 and lives on a boat in London. 

Laura is a creative producer working with performance and live artists to develop strategies for creating new work and sustainability, with artist development at the core. She works with artists in a holistic way, ensuring that care is embedded in their shared practice. She is Deputy Chair of the Board for Home Live Art. She is currently part of the British Council GENERATE programme that connects UK and US producers, curators and programmers. She is also a current recipient of a Jerwood bursary to focus on training opportunities.

“Here we are, enjoying the glamorous life of a producer, in front of the bins in the rain”

We love the way you wrote about your thinking behind starting The Uncultured, as well as deciding to apply for and join the Freelance Task Force. How have you found the experience of working on them so far? 

AB: The Uncultured is our way of working together with a little cape of collectivity on. We’ve worked together for a while now, so in our day-to-day nothing much about our working practices has changed, but the idea behind being decidedly open about our collectivism allows us a sort of buffer. I think in reality, just like everything else dying under capitalism there are just hoards of individuals scrapping around, desperately trying to survive. Working together is a bit of a reaction to this I guess. We’re in a small way dependent on one another to achieve anything. We can be empathetic and responsive to each others lives outside of work. We have to have a lot of trust in one another as sort of representatives of one another’s voice or opinion as that’s how any form of collectivism is perceived. To me that makes us better at our work: we bring two skillsets and a whole new skillset that is formed when those are combined; we have capacity above and beyond what we could individually commit to; and our everyday work is a little less lonely and leads to far fewer existential crises. 

LS: Joining the Freelance TaskForce has been an interesting experiment – with over 150 freelancers involved I’m sure you can imagine it’s a bit like herding cats. It proves how wide the sector is and even though we are all freelancers, we’re finding that we often have very little in common in our approaches to work, hopes for the sector and how we think that should happen. It’s a huge plus point, our difference, but it does pose some challenges in how to ensure everyone can feel heard and also for us to feel like we’ve achieved something that doesn’t necessarily have to be agreed by everyone. We’re halfway through now and it feels like we’re getting somewhere – especially in our subgroup called “Burn it down and start again”… we’re invested in thinking about real change, probably impossible change, but finding the time to think about the seemingly impossible is a valuable exercise in optimism.

With the creative ecology of the UK already being as under-funded and insular as it is, prior to the impact of Covid-19, there’s undoubtedly overwhelming need for structural change in the Arts and in how large institutions relate to their freelancers, audiences, and communities. What I’m wondering is, how do you get past the initial uncertainty around starting a new course of action– the question of ‘is this the right thing to be doing
now, and am I doing it for the right reasons’? 

LS: it’s fair to say that things weren’t exactly rosy for us as freelancers before Covid, working within a racist, sexist, ableist and financially unjust system, so trying something new was necessary anyway – Ash and I used this time to think a bit more clearly about what we want to do and I’m sure other people are in the same situation as well. The right thing to be doing now is different for everyone. Some people have capacity to think about how structural change in the sector needs to happen, whilst others are just trying to keep their heads above water. For us, working together, giving us a bit of a buffer, felt like the right move to make sure we can keep going. To be honest, I was on the verge of quitting pre-Covid so this feels like a lifeline in saving our practices and allowing us space to support others in one of the toughest times we’ve collectively experienced in our careers…as well as acknowledge we are in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC. 

AB: There’s something in the ‘is this the right thing’ bit of this question about imposter syndrome…which I guess could also just be called “Being a Womxn syndrome”, where you feel that structures aren’t set up for you (because they’re not) and preclude you (because they do). Having very little to lose, cheers Covid, and having someone you trust with common interests gives you a bit of confidence in your decisions. It’s another perk of collectivism.

What do you think is the best course of unified action for creative freelancers who don’t want things to return to the pre-Covid ‘normal’? 

AB: There have been so many things wrong I don’t really know where to start. The levels of nuance in designing a whole new model are beyond my intelligence. But people centred co-design, feminist models of economics, amplification of marginalised voices and horizontal organisational structures probably add up to a good start. In my wildest dreams a truly unified action would be if all freelancers withdrew their labour completely. Every single one of us, just as the industry were allowed its precious “reopen”. No artists, no actors, barely any designers, barely any arts workers, just loads and loads of gatekeepers with no point to their bloody gate. All labour withdrawn, all participation withdrawn, a very obvious absence which would prove the necessity of our presence. Of course there are loads of problems with this, not only that it financially hits those withdrawing their labour the most, but also that it would just quickly perpetuate the exploitation of younger workers for whom this would present an obvious opportunity but without any support or structure. 

A step down from that might be full accountability for all the unpaid labour that we do, so that we could calculate, even based on minimum wage, how much all this unpaid work might be worth. Naming that, and naming the jobs that don’t get paid, might help us hint at some of the problems. My hunch is that anything that seems like advocacy, care, relationship building, training and finding more work will be the stuff that doesn’t get valued (paid for). This will disproportionately affect marginalised voices making the lack of value attributed to these tasks just another prop to systemic injustice. 

A really small thing that we could all do would just be shifting our discourse. Recognition that freelancers are the workforce majority in this sector at least linguistically gives us power. I keep thinking about that and the potentiality within it gives me a naughty little power surge. 

LS: What she said.

“We collaborate to draw upon our sunny dispositions and optimistic outlook”

We’re also grappling with the necessary evil of having to work for free, while trying to eliminate the need for it. How do you balance working within the system to bring about change, versus wanting to burn the whole thing to the ground? 

LS: I think unless you want to burn the whole thing to the ground you won’t be able to make change within the system, because you’re already starting from a place of compromise. Nearly all of this activism is unpaid, and if you want to commit to doing that, you have to question where you want to put your energy. At the start of Covid, we had a conversation where we said ‘do we want to work for free to support 1 person, or do we want to work for free to support hundreds if not thousands’. We chose the latter, which meant that we shifted our focus to creating resources to help people access the support available in the existing system, but we also advocate for proper, burn-it-down change alongside this. Change takes time and in that awkward in between period we acknowledge that people still need support, so doing both feels necessary for us.

AB: I like how Lola Olufemi writes about this sort of thing in her book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power. She explains that ‘only work that seeks to shake and unsettle the very foundations of the sexist state is feminist work’ (p. 35). Interestingly for this conversation, she proposes collectivism and working towards common interests as a powerful method of approaching this. I think shaking and unsettling the system is the work. This takes time, but it doesn’t take away from how valuable that incremental work is and allows us to recognise that this is work in progress. We can vision, labour and then manifest, but basically always towards the aim of getting down to those foundations and totally changing it.

And lastly, on a lighter note, what’s something else you’ve started during lockdown that you hope to continue?

LS: I adopted a dog in May so we’ve been enjoying a more PG life. Ash and I have also started to take off Monday’s and Friday’s during this time to try and minimise the amount of unpaid work we do, which feels like a huge achievement and a big wet kiss to our mental health – we have to make sure we keep valuing ourselves going forwards. 

AB: Lockdown has been a strange one for me because I had a baby just as it started. Having a newborn is all about staying indoors and washing your hands a lot, so in many ways I just felt like lots of people joined me in solidarity. When I’ve not been looking after two small kids I’ve been working, almost entirely for free. But lol, this isn’t necessarily on a lighter note so far…The thing I’m grateful for is that because I’ve been working from home so much I’ve been able to keep exclusively breastfeeding my daughter for longer than I probably otherwise would have been able to. Were it not for lockdown, shlepping across London to some pointless and unpaid meeting would probably have stopped me doing this. Now we all know we can just do it on zoom, boob out and pen in hand. I hope that people make it easier for those who cannot attend physically to still be part of conversations at distance. We’ve proved we can do it now so there’s no excuses. 

You can keep up with The Uncultured at their website, and make sure to check out their Twitter for some amazing resources on arts funding, job opportunities, and creative networks. Follow Ashleigh Bowmott and Laura Sweeney to see more of their empowering, world-shaking work.    

“We get to decide what goes onstage”

Penny Babakhani on sustainable producing, the climate crisis, and leaving behind the ‘old world’ post-Covid

Almost a month ago, a strategy consultancy company called BritainThinks published a report on the findings of their research programme, ‘Coronavirus Diaries’. For three months, from April to June, they monitored the mood, news consumption, and opinions on the government, of fifty people– from a variety of backgrounds, occupations, and geographical locations across the UK. The participants ranged from small business owners, to self-employed and gig-economy workers, to non-frontline essential workers, to people working from home. To supplement this more personal level of data tracking, BritainThinks also polled a much larger pool of UK adults on two separate occasions in April and June.

You’ve probably seen the headlines summarising their findings. Only 12% of Britons want a return to life “exactly as it was” before the Coronavirus crisis, and for many, “the worst-case scenario is that the UK returns to ‘normal’”. When looking at areas for improvement, the emphasis was on increased funding for the NHS (60% of respondents indicated they’d be willing to pay higher taxes in order to do so), increased wages for key workers, and an economic revival effort evenly spread across the country (rather focused solely on London).

Amongst other findings about the volatility of public opinion, and division surrounding how to achieve substantial change, one of the most poignant findings came towards the end of the report, in a single phrase. There is a desire to see good come from this. 

Of all the people I’ve spoken to about the future of the Arts post-Covid, Penny Babakhani is one of the few who embodies that phrase. She feels the constant, pressing potential of this moment– for it to be a turning point; a rupture in our attitude to the climate crisis; a time for the radical re-thinking of the organisational landscape of theatre. 

She talks about pressing commercial theatre producers to commit to systemic change in the wry, tongue-in-cheek sort of way you might talk about trying to get a toddler to let go of the remote control. She is limitlessly determined to changing the apparatus of cultural hegemony, and if you haven’t heard her name before, get used to it– you’re going to be hearing it a lot more in the coming years. 

I sat down to chat to Penny about her hopes for this moment, how her values as a creative producer have developed in tandem with her understanding of sustainability, and the cultural legacy to which she is heir– a legacy which lies somewhere in the intersection between Iran, Germany, and the UK. 

Penny graduated with a degree in English Literature from Durham in 2016, before studying an MA in Creative Producing at Mountview– which she completed in 2017. Since then, she’s gone on to work at Selladoor in programming, production and administration– and she’s now on furlough from her role there as full-time Administrator. 

At the same time as doing all of this, she’s continued to develop shows as an independent producer, with her most recent sell-out show, Dual, at the Vault Festival earlier this year, winning a ‘Show of the Week award’, as well as garnering a huge critical response. People called it ‘electric’, ‘powerhouse writing’, and Lyn Gardner said it was ‘a form of liberation’. 

You might know her from a recent Stage feature, in which she discussed her decision to donate her entire furlough salary to funds in support of freelance theatre-makers, and encouraged other furloughed staff to do the same. Or you might know her from her insanely well-crafted and thoughtful Twitter threads, which are truly in a league of their own. 

She’s one of the few people I know who, when faced with circumstances that benefit her, only becomes more resolved to use those circumstances to lift other people up, and dismantle the systems that perpetuate those privileges. 

You can find Penny on Twitter @PennyBabakhani, and make sure to check out her recommended charity, Arts Emergency. You can find the tweet we discussed at 19:38, from Tarek Iskander, here

To find out more about Dual, read about it here, and here

You can also listen to this interview on our Soundcloud

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