We love freelancers at the Mercury. We couldn’t survive without them. Nor would we want to. They are a special breed. Used to working in many different and varied organisations, they are adaptable, open to change, immediately friendly and at ease with new people and surroundings, working hard to integrate well with in-house staff (both new teams and ones that have been established for decades) they raise the game for everyone around them, they bring new skills to a venue and share wisdom (without ever stepping on toes) and they deliver their best work, sometimes in very challenging circumstances – remember our last two Mercury produced shows were performed in a tent in the middle of winter! – almost always with good grace, humour and huge talent. By the time they leave the Mercury (if not long before) they are ‘family’ and we are bereft when they go but thankful that our organisation has been enriched by our collaboration. Yes, we love freelancers!
Employment at our theatre is divided between full-time staff, part-time staff and freelancers. The latter work mainly across the Creative Learning and Talent and Production departments. To give you an example of the amount of freelancers we hire for a show, let’s look at last winter’s production of ‘Cinderella’ in Mercury at Abbey Field (the tent!). All of our ‘Creatives’ were freelancers – the set and costume designer, lighting designer, sound designer, musical director, choreographer, magic consultant, assistant director and even Ryan McBryde first agreed to direct our pantomime before he became our creative director at the Mercury, so he was still a freelancer himself then.
Our fabulous workshop staff Phil and Harriet built the magnificent set, ably supported by freelance carpenter Matt and freelance scenic artists Rhiannan and David. Our in-house technical team Ben, Katy and Roger did a sensational job ensuring the pantomime sounded brilliant, was lit to perfection and, along with our Company Stage Manager Rebecca, ran like clockwork, but they couldn’t have done it without support from freelancers programming and operating lighting and sound desks, operating spotlights, making props and running around backstage completing scene changes seamlessly. Corinna and Chantelle pride themselves on making stunning and robust costumes and making our cast feel like a million dollars but they couldn’t possibly make the 70+ costumes and 37 wigs for pantomime themselves – there are some very specialist freelance makers who create spectacular Dame costumes and wigs for us each year. And all of the above roles are before we talk about the beautifully tuneful musicians in the band and the talented cast bringing the script (written by a freelance author!) to life so imaginatively onstage. I’m sure you’re realising by now that, without freelancers, there wouldn’t be much of a show! Over 70% of all theatre is made by over 200,000 freelancers.
So why have I picked this precise moment to praise all of the fantastically talented individuals that come and work with us in a freelance capacity at the Mercury? Because most of them are having a really tough time right now – obviously very few people are having a good time in the middle of this global pandemic, and our sympathy goes to all of those who have lost loved ones, are struggling to recover from this horrible virus and those who are facing redundancy and hardship because of it but, with theatres closed all over the country and no news of when we will be allowed to fully reopen, we know theatre freelancers livelihoods have been decimated.
The Mercury is fortunate that, along with other arts venues, we hope we will benefit from the Treasury investment package recently announced and we have already been able to take advantage of the Job Retention Scheme and furlough our staff, to try and protect their jobs for the future when we are allowed to re-open, but freelancers can’t access that support. There is a self-employed scheme (SEISS) that should help but, through no fault of their own, thousands are falling through the gaps. Of the 8000+ freelancers surveyed recently, one in three of them has not been able to access funds from the SEISS and CJRS and one in four has received no emergency income of any kind, not even Universal Credit. And from August, all help for the self-employed ceases, even though many theatres are announcing they cannot reopen before spring 2021.
Starting out in this business often involves holding down second jobs, to make ends meet, until you can build a reputation. Often those second jobs are in the hospitality sector – working in restaurants and bars or front of house in theatres – those jobs too have disappeared, compounding the problem. Hard-working people are unable to work and they’re losing their homes and independence. We know that those freelancers who are D/deaf, disabled, people of colour and/or emerging are taking the worst hit. The fear, particularly for under-represented groups who probably had to fight harder and longer to get into the industry in the first place, is they won’t be able to ride out this vast period of drought and may be forced to change career. In that same survey, one in three said they were considering exactly that. Then these talented individuals will be lost to our industry permanently. And that will be another Covid-19 tragedy.
At the Mercury we are doing what we can to support freelancers. Our first priority has to be to our theatre and its employees, but when the Government closed theatres down, we honoured every payment due on freelance contracts issued before the lockdown.
We have created a completely confidential Hardship Fund that can offer discretionary grants to freelancers who have worked with us over the last two years – The take up was slow to begin with as people hoped they could manage but, as the situation continues and people’s circumstances become more compromised, we are seeing more and more applications now.
When Covid-19 struck, we moved a great deal of work online and offered free Mercury Monday Masterclasses to our Essex Theatre Artists Network and all freelancers nationwide at varying stages of their careers, to support their professional development and training.
In August we launch a Digital Festival to celebrate our East based artists, offering them an opportunity to find creative new ways to platform their work, test ideas, start debate and get noticed. We’re thrilled to have discovered an award winning, female digital artist of colour, an Asian teenager who writes and acts her own songs and monologues, a group of female coders from Southend, a new father exploring his fear of fatherhood through a binaural soundscape all from the East of England and we’re championing 10 emerging artists from East 15 and the University of Essex.
Mercury Creatives (funded by the European Regional Development Fund) is a free business support and mentoring programme for small to medium enterprises, freelancers or self-employed artists working in the creative industries and allied to the performing arts across Essex, East Sussex, Kent and Suffolk. As part of our commitment to freelancers during this Covid-19 pandemic we are opening applications for an additional cohort of Mercury Creatives on Monday, 3 August 2020.
Support offered during the project includes:
- Diagnostic Needs Assessment (DNA) process designed to identify strengths, weaknesses and market growth potential.
- Business Growth Plans (BGP) for each business/ practice establishing ‘business growth goals’ and the milestones to achieving them.
- 24 hours of mentoring; partnering with established creative sector entrepreneurs/ industry field leaders. Mentors will provide tailored advice and guidance in terms of business and product/service development, but also act as a gateway to new networks and markets.
- Business Showcase Events providing an opportunity for businesses to pitch for investment, profile a new product or service or simply promote your business offer.
- Peer to Peer Networking and Development Events to stimulate innovation and facilitate product development. These will bring in established creative sector entrepreneurs from across the region and nationally to focus on knowledge transfer and networking opportunities.
In September we are launching Mercury Connections, a fortnightly virtual get together for artists interested in connecting with the theatre to network, share ideas and discuss the issues affecting our industry.
There are many different support groups being set up and we have sponsored Michelle Payne (assistant director on Cinderella) to join the Freelancer Task Force set up by Fuel Theatre. The purpose of the task force is to strengthen the influence of the self-employed theatre and performance community. With the aim to create ongoing points of connection between freelancers and organisations, and amplify the voice of the self-employed in the conversations to come. We look forward to this commitment leading to some challenging, productive meetings about how we can all collaborate better in future.
When we open our new building there will be Hot Desks available for emerging creatives and we will welcome Associate Artists under our umbrella and help early career freelancers apply for funding.
A quarter of our Board are freelancers themselves and many of us in our Senior Management Team used to be freelancers, so we understand the precarious nature of their working life anyway, but to have had all contracts cancelled nationwide with immediate effect on the same day, and to have no idea when anything like ‘normal business’ might resume, must be terrifying and we stand in solidarity with them all.
As soon as we are able, we look forward to welcoming freelancers back to the newly refurbished Mercury to collaborate on new and exciting work that we hope you will come and see. In the meantime, if you are one of the 34 million people who enjoy going to the theatre in this country and you would like to support freelancers, you can write to your MP to champion their cause or donate to one of the many excellent funds being set up to help them. A comprehensive list of the many wonderful arts charities can be seen here.
Tracey Childs – Executive Producer and Joint Chief Executive