Independent Arts Projects – Notes from Venues and Freelancers Meeting 29 July

Notes from Meeting with 35 freelancers* & 6 venues** on Wednesday 29 July 2020

Context – This event came out of a conversation with freelancers who felt isolated and frustrated at not knowing what venues were thinking or having to consider (and how that would impact them in their careers). One freelancer described the situation as being on a “long haul flight without knowing where you are going or how long you’ll be up in the sky”.  

* Freelancers were a Choreographers, Company Managers, Composers, Costume Designers, Dance Artists, Directors, Live Artists, Musicians, Performance Artists, Performers, Playwrights, Producers, Production Managers, Sound Designers, Stage Managers, Storytellers, & Theatre makers.

** Venues/Organisations represented were Byre TheatreCitizens TheatreEden CourtPlatformRenfrewshire Leisure and Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The Meeting was facilitated by Caitlin Skinner.
Welcome music was provided by Greg Sinclair.

These notes have been anonymised – removing all names, cities, & local authorities.   

We wanted to create a space where everyone could speak honestly about their situation in order to develop our shared understanding of what is happening to our sector. 

Questions issued in advance to the venue representatives (submitted by attendees).    


REOPENING / TIMESCALES 

  • What are your plans for phase 3 and phase 4? 

RESTRUCTURING 

  • (How) Are you restructuring your organisation?


PROGRAMMING

  • Are you programming work of any sort at the moment? 

VALUES 

  • How do your plans address the stated desire of so many freelancers to remake theatre culture in a form that is more egalitarian and diverse? 
  • In light of recent BLM global movement, what are you doing now and planning to be anti-racist and combat anti-blackness?

WORKING WITH ARTISTS / FREELANCERS 

  • What plans do you have to work with freelancers?  
  • Which positive practices will you be adopting moving forward, in order to improve how you collaborate with artists? 


NOTES FROM THE MEETING

Responding to Emergency Funding from Government / Creative Scotland 

  • Like every theatre in Scotland we’re reacting to what the government’s telling us to do, and what Creative Scotland are advising. 

Theatre buildings being repurposed or responding to needs 

  • We acted as a humanitarian aid centre. 
  • We’re doing food bank parcels from our main stage. 
  • At the beginning of the school holidays, we got access to the building for the first time, and for a few hours each day we were able to provide breakfast and lunch takeaway to 200 families a day. 
  • We take our civic duty really seriously and we want to be a space for anyone whether you are buying a ticket, whether you’re participating in something, whether you need shelter from the rain. That goes for audiences and artists and collaborators and everybody. That’s where we are with our values now. 

Reopening plans

  • We’re starting to look at phase 3 opening. 
  • We found out this morning that we’ll be out of the building again for the rest of August. We’re an independent organisation but we don’t hold the keys to the building. The keyholders are trying to find a strategy and a way through all this that makes sense and fits with the kind of different levels of organisation that they are managing and in control of. There’s still so much uncertainty as to where we’ll be even week to week in terms of planning. 
  • Our local authority will determine when we are allowed to reopen and are fairly strict on what we’ll be able to do once we open again.  
  • We are in the process of Covid-proofing and completely risk assessments for opening the auditorium and the studio for R&D and rehearsals. 
  • We’ve come to terms with the fact that we’re not going to reopen at all to the public this year because we’re such a small space and foyer. Social distancing isn’t viable. We hope to do some small outdoor stuff.  

Planning / Change / Restructuring 

  • It all depends on money, but we would like to see that we can change and develop and be more at one with our values. 
  • The sector has to be together. We’re not all acting alone. That’s our thinking. We’re interlinked.  
  • We’re quite a small organisation. We’re flexible and we’ve never relied on huge amount of box office. In some ways that’s enabled us to be a bit more able to pivot and offer something different in the short term. 
  • We really want a culture that’s better. We want something that is much more firmly built on foundations of equality, sustainability and love. We’re listening to the organisations and individuals that we’re connected to and also asking who’s not in the room and why? 
  • Some of our staff were redeployed to other council departments. 

Staff on furlough / coming back to work 

  • Our core team of 13 including tech and front of house has been reduced to 3 or 4 and we’re building up to bringing people back to work in tranches at the beginning and middle of August. 
  • The core team have been on furlough since April, there’s a small team of us keeping things ticking over. The majority of staff are on furlough.  
  • Anyone who was freelance and qualified under the governmnent’s furlough scheme, we furloughed. 

Financial impact

  • Our future isn’t as certain as we’d like it to be. There is a budgetary shortfall. 
  • We’re working on the basis that it is unlikely that we’ll receive any income through ticket sales or box office in this financial year. 
  • Much of the money we had budgeted for bringing performance, music and visual art to the venue has been channelled into keeping the organisation afloat. 
  • We’re doing a lot of fundraising to find ways to get money to artists. We’re very aware that people are leaving the industry with every day that passes. We’ve had some success with that and are hopeful that some of the other applications that are pending will be successful too. 
  • We’ll probably lose about £1m in revenue this year, so we’ll continue with furlough until the end of the scheme. 
  • We’re only funded through our local authority until September and we don’t know what’s happening beyond that. We’ll find that out in August. 
  • Our Creative Scotland funding continues until the end of the current year. CS intends to extend revenue agreements for one more year but that’s not officially been confirmed, nor have levels of funding been confirmed, nor what our commitments will be against that funding. 

Programming & Un-programming / Producing & Un-producing 

  • We cancelled 100 events. We can possibly do screenings of live performances and perhaps storytelling sessions. 
  • We’ve rescheduled, cancelled or refunded over 27,000 tickets. It’s been an extraordinary time of un-programming a venue. 
  • There’s absolutely nothing in our programme until 5th December. 
  • Mainly we’ve rescheduled the 2020 programme – rescheduling, cancelling, postponement. 
  • Some programming going in from April onwards. Not an awful lot but some. 
  • 2021 is really, really busy. (Rescheduling plus everything that was already pencilled).
  • It’s like programming on sand. It disappears and changes all the time. 
  • If we can get ourselves more financially stable, we’d be able to do a limited artistic programme later in the autumn, of some sort. It may have to be socially distant. We think that’s going to happen. 
  • To date we’ve mainly been a receiving theatre. We are asking ourselves at the moment – can we start doing more productions? This is being discussed and depends on money, of course. 
  • We are hoping to deliver a programme of performances and gigs in playgrounds and car parks. 
  • We cancelled productions and honoured all the contracts for those productions in full. 
  • Although we’ve had to cancel so much at the moment, what we’ve been focusing on is our community engagement work, which is a massive part of who we are as a company. 
  • We’re not programming anything in a regular way. 
  • We hope to reschedule all the shows that were cancelled this year, but it depends on various factors. 
  • We’ll be programming small-scale work into community venues or non-traditional theatre spaces. 
  • We’re trying to support and work with local artists at this time. 
  • When we closed in March, we cancelled all our programmed work until the end of June which is all that we had programmed in at that point. 
  • We committed to paying all our freelancers and all the workshops that we had planned – everyone got paid for that work. We also had an August programme which quite quickly got cancelled as well. 
  • We are programming small live events in our largest space where we can keep people socially distanced (in last two weeks of October). However, if we’re not allowed to do, we won’t do it. The artists will still get paid even if these events are cancelled. We’re just really hopeful that we can do this.  
  • Always open to ideas. We will have to reschedule a lot of work from this year into next year but as please come talk to us.  

Online & Analogue Engagement with Audiences & Participants 

  • At the moment we’re sharing a lot of online content and we’re collaborating with online content. That’s changing all the time. 
  • I’m sure there may be more live streaming and ticketing. Offering things for free isn’t necessarily the way to go now. People need to pay for things. 
  • When we closed in March we moved as much online as we could, to try and keep in touch with the communities that we were serving, the participants who had been coming into the building, and the communities that were regularly using the building and our programme and, really importantly, to keep the freelance staff team employed and retain as many people as possible. That programme is delivered by freelance teams – they deliver that programme and that is what the building is. That is what people come to us to engage with. 
  • Not everyone in the community is interested or able to join online sessions, so we’re also sending out lots of activities in the post. We do a Mail Art project where we get stories, photographs and artworks from across the community. We collate it, edit it and send it out every fortnight, and that’s proven to be very popular. 
  • We’ll be maintaining our online programme and delivering things by post. 
  • We’ve put classes online; we’re engaging with people in the local area. We are still engaging with the vulnerable groups that we work with, the older groups that we work with – mostly on Zoom. But we’re trying to do as much as we can live. We’re focussing on how we can continue to do that work in the autumn, with hope that some classes for children can actually happen. 
  • As part of our digital strategy there is a hope that we will film a number of shows that we’ve done recently. 
  • We’re trying to work on different ways to deliver the community and local arts programme which is a bigger part than the venue programming. 
  • We split our programming budget for the year into a few mini commissions for socially distanced work and we’re working with 8 artists and companies to deliver that work. They are mostly audio and digital. Some have some kind of interaction. 
  • A silver lining of the last few months is that we’ve broken the bondage of the brochure. Brochures are really unhealthy in terms of programming and timeframes and making companies commit to things that they’re maybe not ready to. It’s felt like we can be nimble and responsive while not working with paper. 
  • I do think people are getting a bit weary of the online stuff now. 
  • A lot of the work we had commissioned is still going to take place online – either as pre-recorded sessions or online participative sessions. 

Working with freelance artists 

  • We’re not a producing organisation. The way we work with freelance artists is in a participatory setting in co-created projects and we have big aspirations to continue that in a better and more meaningful way. 
  • We’re open. We’re working remotely but we’re here and we’re around and if anybody wants to get in touch please email. 
  • In the longer term, we’re having a lot of conversations now – speaking to directors and other freelancers, a lot of commissioning and R&D going on and what the future life of the organisation will be. 
  • Our community and local arts programme producers work locally with local artists as well as working with quite a lot of freelancers to deliver projects – mostly education and outreach. 
  • We had a couple of companies in residence planned for May and we hope that this can still happen later in the year, if we’re allowed to open the studios. 
  • Even if we can’t reopen to public, we may be able to reopen to artists and are looking at the idea of filming things in our performance space to then stream or record but using the sound and lighting equipment that we have there. 
  • We want to be open and transparent, so if you want to get in touch, please do. Budgets are tight but we can offer space in kind & a really brilliant tech team. 
  • We turned to see what work we could do online. Our work really lends itself to this format. We’ve been doing multiple sessions with artists from all over the world. We tried to offer a kind of programme of weekly Facebook Live event. We were paying one of our freelance artists to deliver this that as well as evening activity for adults and pre-recorded sessions. We’ve been trying to keep payments going out to our freelance colleagues who have delivered this work.  There’s been a really positive response to that. 
  • We’re trying to keep the positive message going and support our freelance artists. 
  • We have spaces that can be booked at no financial risk – that’s a huge part of our work. We’re really keen to find a way of getting back into that – everything will be dependent on government guidance. 
  • We have no idea when we’ll be able to plan events as before but we are committed to supporting our freelancers, we are investigating outdoor work, we are also in discussion with some companies about coming in and using the spaces to research or workshop new work, that would be socially distanced. 
  • We’ve been able to use our budget completely differently – we’re not having to pay for international travel and accommodation or on printed brochures – a lot of the money is now being filtered into local community performances and opportunities. There’ll be more coming soon. 
  • We engage about 30 local freelance artists on a termly basis with our creative engagement work. 
  • We’ve got to stop using the excuse that we don’t produce our own professional work for the stage as the reason that we don’t engage more broadly with the freelance community. That’s going to mean significant investment to ensure that we can facilitate and make opportunities with us accessible to people who exist outside of our area as well.  

Christmas

  • We haven’t made a decision about panto yet. That will come. 
  • We haven’t given up on Christmas. It feels like that at that point in the year if it’s possible to host anything for families then it would be nice to do so, and it feels like that might be really needed at that point.  
  • We haven’t given up on Christmas and very much hope to do something in a physical space. 

Equalities, Diversity and responding to the Black Lives Matter movement

  • We are making changes. In the short term we saw our online programme was alarmingly white and made moves to redress that and make it more representative of the world we live in. 
  • We’ve been working with a group of local black artists and community leaders since February to work on a programme for October and we are trying to make this a permanent group that will meet regularly and help input into our programme.  
  • We are making a commitment to ourselves as citizens to be doing things better and educating ourselves better at board level, at staff level. We have a really good EDI plan but it’s being reworked at the moment as there’s a lot of things we could be doing better. 

Paying People

  • Over the last year we’ve learnt a lot about our systems and how long it can take to get paid. I want to apologise for the affect that has on freelancers. We’re doing everything we can to make sure people get paid as quickly as possible. 
  • We’re really looking at restructuring the payment process, because our payment system is such that it can take a long time to get paid. We’re hoping that we streamline and improve the waiting time. 


Q & A

Q: I wondered what venue leaders are viewing as priorities for support from the emergency funds that have been announced? I know there’s no information yet on what the larger sum will cover, so apologies if that’s tough to answer.

Q: Are venues ring-fencing cash within the emergency funding for freelancers? And, if so, will this ring-fenced funding focus on short-term or long-term projects (or both?). And, finally, how would such funding be allocated (i.e. via open calls and / or through commissions)?

A: 

  • Our application for the Creative Scotland money is in (£10m fund for Performing Arts Venues from Scottish Government). A lot of it is confidential. We do have an intention to allocate an amount of money to freelancers / creative practitioners. We have a commitment to do that. I can’t really say too much until we know if we’ve got some of that money and what we’re doing to do. 
  • I don’t really know what’s happening with that other money (£97M fund from UK Government). I don’t know how much theatres are getting of that money, because it is covering all of Scotland and the whole cultural sector – museums, art galleries, everybody. So we don’t really know too much about that other one in order to respond.   
  • On the Creative Scotland ‘Emergency’ Fund – the £10million fund. CS split it into 2 parts – a £7.5M pot which was for existing revenue funded performing arts venues – and a £2.5M pot for non-revenue funded organisations and artists. I don’t know what they’re doing with the £2.5M pot. 
  • In terms of the first pot – we had conversations with CS about whether our organisation could apply and what we could apply for. The £7.5M is for stuff that must happen between now and the end of March 2021. The most any one organisation could apply for is £750,000, which means if you look atthat building wise, that could be 10 buildings getting £750,000 each – that would swallow that entire pot.  

The three priority areas were:

  • Money to avoid insolvency for venues facing the threat of insolvency; 
    • Venues that needed to employ specialists or bring staff of furlough in order to plan and survive; 
    • Employ freelancers to deliver activities that would help you to engage with audiences or participants (between now and March 2021). 
  • We spoke to them about wanting to seed funds for work in future years, but we were told that this was not a priority for this round of funding. 
  • We were told we would hear by the end of this week whether our application had been successful. 
  • I think £7.5M won’t go far enough to rescue the number of organisations that need rescuing. Whatever one’s view on whether or not one should rescue organisations, I think the scale is bigger than the fund. 
  • On the £97m that comes through as a result of the Barnett consequential on the UK Treasury’s £1.57bn– there’s no indication on what Scotland’s going to do with that share of money – other than spending it on arts and culture in Scotland. 
  • What we have applied for is money that we hope will go to freelancers – those freelancers that we normally employ in terms of engagement work – this would give opportunities to them. 
  • The application we’ve submitted would allow us to work more with freelancers. 

Q: I’m aware that even in this chat today we’re a group of predominantly white, middle class, able bodied people. So, what I’d like to know is what are organisations are doing to diversify the artists they engage with in terms of race, sexuality, disability. I’d also like to know what your strategies are regarding digital poverty.  

Q: From my perspective, I don’t see us represented in the programming, in hiring, or in education, and I’m hearing talk of outreach and reaching out to other communities, disadvantaged communities and I think all that taps into the Black Lives Matter energy, and I’m wondering when your circle doesn’t include us, how you intend to actually facilitate those changes? 

A: On Digital Poverty

  • We’re very aware of digital poverty particularly in terms of the work we do in our local area and particularly in the last few months. There are people who we want to reach who we cannot reach in terms of putting that work online so we are working with a local housing association to find ways of enabling people who don’t have access already to get that access, in terms of digital equipment. And also, to find other ways to reach and work with those people that means we doesn’t necessitate having to always do everything online. It’s a live issue for us. In one of our current projects our staff are engaging with people on foot (socially distanced). 
  • We’ve been doing some young persons and students research this summer and we’ve heard from a few voices that actually in terms of access, digital has unique benefits. There are people who can’t get out of house normally who’ve been able to access high quality performance for the first time. 
  • We received a grant from SCVO’s Wellbeing Fund which allows us to support almost a dozen regular participants to get online – it is expensive though and the list of people with no or very limited online access is ever-growing so we’re looking to link in with local and national initiatives to widen reach. 

A: On Diversifying the artists, we work with

  • It’s not something that we can resolve overnight. As part of our strategy that is in review, we intend to engage with a much wider range of people than we normally do. 
  • We’ve just had a conversation with 40 emerging directors and theatre makers that will continue. We’re in conversation with Birds of Paradise and Lung Ha’s and our theatre becoming a home for a much wider range of artists and audiences. It’s very much at the forefront of our thinking and is something we’re committed to putting into practice in the next few months. 
  • We’ve begun commissioning more playwrights of colour and artists of colour. We are committed to doing this. 
  • We’ve been working with Artlink over the last few weeks – they’ve identified people who have been isolated, shielding or on the other side of the digital divide – they don’t have access to good broadband or equipment – we’ve selected artists who would have a real conversation with them to gage their interests then visited them and delivered stories to them through the back door or through the window. We’re going to be expanding that project soon. There are also opportunities to get funding to pay an artist to come into your community group, or your school or your family. 
  • We’re working on an engagement project from mid-October to late November where we’ll work with communities to give them the skills to tell their own stories and we hope they’ll be able to come into our venue towards the end of the project to present their work. 
  • It is our duty to ensure we’re presenting our region to the world and that we are also presenting the world to the people of our region, and for us that surpasses any sort of demographic data that might exist about our region. 

Q: Has no theatre been able to make a saving through furloughing staff or raising funds through ticket buyers donating the price of their ticket back to the venues that they are then able to pivot and employ freelancers? 

A: 

  • Our freelance team who would have been delivering classes right now – their contracts have all been honoured, but in terms of saving through furlough – the minute we closed down we lost 85% of our income. 
  • We were about to open a production when lockdown happened. 20% of our audience opted to donate their ticket that amounted to about £9,000. The costs of honouring all our contracts for that production ran to £115,000. 
  • There was an article in The Times recently that mentioned NT Live and the huge audience (15 million views) that had watched their work via YouTube during lockdown and it amounted to an average of two pence per person! (Donations totalled £320,000). 
  • For us the answer is yes – the jobs retention scheme combined with spending much less on programming music, visual arts and performance means it is possible for us, with additional fundraising, to start planning performance projects in non-traditional theatre spaces. 

QUESTIONS WE DIDN’T QUITE HAVE TIME FOR

  • Struck by how many organisations are supported by council services which are also v vulnerable. Are the organisations able to feed into the strategic discussions there? Has been very problematic in our local area as key arts staff are furloughed. 
  • Trickledown has been raised a lot in freelance community. Can theatres welcome more grassroots artist-led projects? Seems like win-win as we bring our own communities in. Wondering if you can promise an allocation for this in the substantial amount coming from gov?  
  • If theatres we’re not able to honour lockdown freelance agreements can they explain why please?
  • Are any venues or organisations considering creating ongoing strategic career pathways for freelancers, (Citz / Untitled Projects Main Stage Directors opportunity being a previous example) that can provide some kind of stability and consistency for freelancers after lockdown?
  • Can any venue reference specific support programmes (actual money, commissions, food parcels or mental health programmes?) they have implemented for Freelancers please?
  • There’s been some talk about transferring work outdoors. For those venues who are considering this – are you aware of and have you chatted/reached out to organisations in Scotland (e.g. SURGE, Articulation) who do this who could guide this conversation and point out artists in Scotland who have been working in this form? From what I am aware of, there are conversations happening in that community as well. 
  • Absolutely essential not to overlook Black and brown Scotland artists and to not leapfrog them to commission/bring work from down south in the first place as a way of diversifying.  
  • Articulation will soon be publicising and hosting online meetings regarding the practicalities of creating and programming outdoor work and also partnerships between artists, and programmers interested in this.

REFERENCES from chat & mentioned in conversation during the meeting: 

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