Independent Arts Projects – Notes from Venues & Freelancers Meeting 11 August 2020

Notes from Meeting with 40 freelancers* & 6 venues** on Tuesday 11 August 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, Lighting Designers, Live Artists, Musicians, Performance Artists, Performers, Playwrights, PRs, Producers, Production Managers, Sound Designers, Stage Managers, Storytellers, & Theatre makers.

** Venues/Organisations represented were Brunton TheatreCapital TheatresEdinburgh PlayhouseNorth Edinburgh ArtsSummerhall, & Traverse Theatre

Facilitated by Caitlin Skinner
Welcome music by Niroshini Thambar (Website / NT Bandcamp / PS Bandcamp). 

This event was produced in association with Edinburgh Performing Arts Development (EPAD), as part of their work to facilitate connections, encourage exchange and share expertise across Edinburgh’s performing arts community.

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. 

This conversation took place on the day of the Red Alert planned to highlight the crisis facing the live events sectors in UK. We stand in solidarity with our brilliant, skilled theatre production workforce. We cannot lose you. 

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

  • If you were told that no live performances could happen in your venue building till the end of 2021, can you imagine other ways that it could be used that would still promote/support theatre and the venue? 
  • If you have been awarded emergency funds, how has this affected your plans? 
  • (How) Are you restructuring your organisation?  
  • Are you programming work of any sort at the moment? 
  • In light of recent BLM global movement, what are you doing now and planning to be anti-racist and combat anti-blackness?
  • What plans do you have to work with freelancers?  
  • Are you including Technicians, Stage Management, Designers in your plans for freelancers as well as artists? 
  • Which positive practices will you be adopting moving forward, in order to improve how you collaborate with artists? 
  • Given the mix of skills in the room, how might we help you?  

NOTES FROM THE MEETING

Closing / Cancelling / Rescheduling  

  • We closed our doors on the 16th March. 
  • We’ve been closed since mid-March. 
  • We closed our doors in the second week of March. 
  • We’ve refunded £2.3m worth of tickets. 
  • Panto has been rescheduled for a year. A huge loss for us. It represents 30% of our annual income. 
  • We’ve cancelled or postponed 120 productions. 
  • Our building has been closed to the public – even though some staff were in. 
  • We also closed our building in March 2020. 
  • We’ve been working to cancel or reschedule all our events from the autumn into spring 2021. Some of those events are scheduled for early 2021 (February & March) but this feels a bit too optimistic. 

Reopening / Planning / Planning again… 

  • Scenario planning is a real thing – every day. 
  • We don’t know when we’ll be able to open properly. 
  • Opening will be dependent on government phasing / guidance, the science, programming and audience confidence. 
  • There’s a spread of responses about when our audiences will want to return to public venues. 
  • Our audience members say that the kitemark / ‘we’re good to go’ mark of safety for people to come back will be a very important component of venues being able to reopen. 
  • Our scenario planning says that we would like to reopen again in March 2021. We believe it will take that length of time for the science to catch up and let’s hope we don’t have a second wave that will not allow that to happen. 
  • We may do some small-scale test events just to see what audience confidence is like in late autumn/winter.  
  • We’ve reopened our outdoor bar. 
  • We’ve reopened our café with limited outdoor seating. 
  • We’ve done some work with families in our outdoor space. 
  • In September we hope to move towards limited indoor working. 
  • We’ll be looking at a blended way of working – some in person and also online. 
  • The first phase has been about firefighting – about survival of the organisation. 
  • Like very venue the sands have shifted on a day to day basis and plan after plan after plan has gone in the bin as the context has changed. 
  • We’re probably looking at March-April 2021 for reopening, but it’s a massive jigsaw. I can’t see us at 100% programming for quite a while after that. 
  • The whole picture is largely unknown. 
  • I’ve been working with Scottish Government on guidance for performing arts. By and large we’ve followed the DCMS guidance as we didn’t want massive differences between England and Scotland. It’s not helpful. 
  • The guidance currently says you need an entire auditorium clean in between audiences – what will that do to matinees?  
  • It’s been really difficult to really plan anything. We felt a bit in limbo.  
  • Depending on what happens on the 10th September – as from 14th September onwards is to try and do some smaller scale work, socially distanced work and begin to test things out and have that engagement with our audience again. 
  • Our research with our audiences, schools and community groups. There is a keenness to come back if we can reassure all of these people if we can deliver our work in a very safe way.  

Purpose & Values  

  • We are rethinking not just the building and how it works but what is the role of culture and healing as society moves hopefully out of the phase we’re in now. We don’t have a contribution in critical care but we do have a contrinution in aftercare and rebuilding. 
  • We’re looking at our civic role as much as our artistic role and what deep changes we need to make in our work to achieve that community engagement is much more prominent in our thinking.  
  • The way we’ve made and toured in the past isn’t environmentally sustainable. We need a Net Zero carbon emissions policy in 25 years’ time. So what do we need to do and how do we need to change in order to achieve that.   

Digital 

  • To keep our mission alive through creating a digital presence around all of our creative engagement activity. We’ve had 62,000 online engagements and participations in the activity. 
  • In the autumn we plan to move to a hybrid model of our creative engagement activity where some of our activity might be back inside a building and some of it will remain online. 
  • There’s some really big and immediate learning curves and opportunities within all that from learning about safeguarding online to where the economic model is within all this. 
  • We’re looking to really explore how we can use online and digital spaces. There are real barriers to digital access in our community. It’s something that we want to look at and ensure that we are as open and accessible as possible We need to reach the community in the same way as we would if they were coming into the physical space.  
  • In terms of performing work, we’ll seek to engage partners to offer research & development space for companies and assess if we can commission any new work independently or in partnership. 
  • Our open submissions workshops have had well over 10,000 hits. 
  • Our youth programme has moved online. 
  • We’re looking at whether our schools programme can be a mix of in person and what we might be able to do more virtually.  

Staffing & Freelance workforce 

  • 90%+ of our staff are on furlough right now. 
  • We’ve furloughed 95% of our staff. 
  • Everyone is furloughed apart from me. 
  • We don’t get any subsidy at all. 
  • Being involved in a behind closed doors recording meant we could bring some of our technical team back, we could bring some of our front of house and stage door staff back into the building and the boost that gives you when you’re able to have something happening on your stages – it’s a tremendous feeling. 
  • Aside from creating a flexible working model with some staff working from home, some staff working on site and some staff on furlough, we haven’t had to furlough the organisation in a major way.  
  • We’re doing some crowdfunding in order to pay our bills but also to help us support our freelancers and zero hours contract staff and our salaried staff who may be struggling with he reduced income on furlough. 
  • In March/April we moved the majority of staff onto furlough as soon as we were able to do so. 
  • We’re in a different phase now – with some people back on furlough and actively working on digital programme.  
  • Depending on their status, a lot of staff won’t get any more money from us after the end of August, and another group won’t get any more after the dend of October.  Some of them will simply come off the books and others will be put on lay off. 
  • Our big worry is that when we are able to reopen – we simply won’t have any staff to it – which could cause further delays to reopening. 
  • We’ve been unable to furlough any of our staff which is good in some ways, but it means our organisation has taken a huge financial hit. We’ve had to dip into our reserves to make sure that the organisation can continue. 
  • Many organizations are struggling to keep in touch and keep open lines of communication between our own staff members. We’ve gone from busy venues where information is shared naturally over desks, to being miles apart in our kitchens. I appreciate we absolutely need to ensure our external communications are clear, regular and transparent, but we are also on a similar learning curve on how we keep these open between ourselves.  

Emergency Funding

  • We are a large theatre charity and have been resilient as an arts organisation up until now and built up a fund – we’ve been ineligible for emergency funds so far. 
  • We hope that some of the £97m (from DCMS’ £1.57bn) that is coming to Scotland will be able to come to us so that we can get our model up and running.
  • We’ve been successful in receiving Emergency Funding. Things are starting to feel a little bit more hopeful now. 
  • We don’t receive any core subsidy.  
  • Some of our fundraising will be put towards an artists’ bursary fund.  
  • We’re unable to access Emergency Support. We’re entirely dependent on an income which has completely disappeared.  
  • Funds we have received have been focused on food provision and support for those in need. We’ve also been able to provide creativity packs and supplies to help families stay creative at home. 
  • We’ve worked with funders to make provisions to honour all commitments to our freelance artists and facilitators. 
  • We have no access to emergency funding. We’re trying to lobby for support. 
  • We’re trying to lobby DCMS to get the message through that with very few exceptions, theatre isn’t viable with social distancing. The numbers simply don’t add up. 
  • The commercial sector is important – the commercial producers – they are a hugely important part of our ecology. 
  • CS emergency relief fund had 3 strict criteria 1. keeping organisation solvent until end of march. 2. Bring back business critical staff from furlough for future planning and programme delivery. 3. Strategically engage freelancers to deliver work for audiences and community.
  • Lack of insurance is a massive issue. We’re lobbying UK Government to underwrite insurance for the theatre world. (They do underwrite insurance for lots of other sectors). 
  • We’re applying to the Creative Scotland Performing Arts Venues relief fund. 

Producing & Programming 

  • I want to develop a strategy around local co-producing. 
  • We want to create our own small-scale programme and build a new strand of audience for small-scale work. 
  • We can maybe look at small-scale artistic work sooner than larger scale work. 
  • We’d like to build more opportunity for small-scale producing with freelancers. But we’ve got to get through the pandemic first.   
  • We will be developing an artistic policy around programming and helping the sector understand the kind of offering we’d like to create in the future. 
  • Other than 2 or 3 short rehearsal period bookings – we’ve got nothing in the diary in 2020.  
  • We are not programming anything at the moment. 
  • We have run some one-off events with individual family groups in our outdoor spaces. These are all pre-booked with families that we’d usually work with from the immediate area. 
  • We’ve fundraised for a project that will run from this month until March. Again, that is about engaging the freelancers that we usually work with on the project. 
  • The majority of our partner events, festival performances etc have been rescheduled for 2021. 
  • We’re working on delivering a downsized version of our regular programme in autumn & winter, which looks like it will run with complementary online activities. 
  • This is Covid & weather-dependent but we want to make the best use of outdoor space. 
  • We’re beginning the process of starting to think about what the future looks like artistically. This conversation comes at a really good time for us. 
  • Programming is really difficult. We currently have a Christmas show planned. I don’t expect that to be the case in a couple of weeks. 
  • We’re in discussion with producers and freelancers about working together later in this year – funding dependent.  

Space for Freelance Artists 

  • I think just before lockdown we’d just started offering free rehearsal space. 

We hope to offer writers space to write in and local companies free rehearsal space. 

  • We applied to Creative Scotland to the Sustaining Creative Development Fund to try and continue our artist development programme.  If we get that, we will be able to run a couple of labs – where we invite artists to come together – socially distanced – to make a new piece for a week.  
  • We’ll be able to offer a free rehearsal space. 
  • We want to be committed to the development of new work and supporting freelance artists. And so, we’d like to be able to put out an offer to provide access to studios and theatre space for practitioners who need to develop new work, test ideas and new ways of working and also possibly for live streaming or recording works to be shared online. If we’re able to do that safely then we will try and do that in the best way we can. 
  • We’re really keen to start engaging with artists and audiences and communities to reinvent what it looks like. 
  • We’re offering space to artists who can use them for research and development. 

Diversity 

  • We worked with Wezi Mhura on the BLM Mural Trail. (x3) 
  • We’re looking at our programming to be more diverse in future and we have a lot more work to do on that. Dance tends to be our most diverse genre and we need to develop this out into other artforms too.  
  • We aim to diversify the theatre workforce. 
  • We’ve set some equalities targets in terms of improving the diversity of the artists that we support.  
  • We are participating in a local authority governance training initiative. (x2)
  • We serve a diverse community which faces a range of social and economic barriers.  
  • We have a really diverse community who visit our space, who attend workshops, and participate in events. We aim to be a welcoming, safe and supportive creative space for everyone living in the area. 
  • The board is undertaking a situation report on the diversity of the organistaion from participation to board membership. 
  • We work with an organisation that aims to create more opportunities for friendship between different ethnic communities and tackle barriers which may prevent those people from accessing local services. 
  • We aim to extend our programme’s remit, ambition and sprit into autumn and to the end of the year. 
  • We’re developing a new digital, virtual space as a new permanent addition to our programme. We’re going to commission for this space and seek to work with partner companies and artists in the same way we would work in physical space. 
  • We do have an Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion strategy; however I do tink we could do more in terms of presentation and participation. 

Responding to Crisis

  • We started working with partners in our area very early in lockdown for an emergency response in relation to food provision and well-being. At the height of this, we were delivering 1500 hot meals per week to the local community.
  • We’ve distributed creativity and wellbeing packs as well as online activities, working with our regular freelance artists and facilitators. 
  • We’ve given about 450 art packs out locally to date. 

Working with Freelancers 

  • It’s been a tough year for us. It’s been a tough year for everyone and I’m acutely aware that it’s freelancers who have been at the sharp end of that. 
  • Throughout lockdown, we’ve been in regular contact with freelancers via video calls, emails and more recently in person at a distance.  This has allowed for a significant reflection on how programmes are run. What support has been in place and what is needed going forward. It’s been a way for freelancers to share their experiences. And while time for reflection, review and development has been a part of the projects that we run, there’s a clear benefit to this happening more regularly – and for time to be set aside for cross project discussions across the freelance team and staff. The time required for this should be built into budgets from inception so that reflection and collaboration is prioritised, and everyone involved is paid for their time. 
  • We employ a huge amount of freelance staff in our sector – designers, wardrobe staff, dressers, technicians, stage managers and so on. That work is gone. 
  • We committed to working with upwards of 90 freelance individuals and artists between now and the end of 2021. That’s on work that is already in the pipeline and new opportunities. 
  • We’ve engaged 2 freelance creative producers to work with us on our schools programme. 

How can Freelancers help Venues? 

  • Communication – how is it best to reach everyone and come to us with opportunities. 
  • What other support or training would be available at this time? We have given space but giving time is possible too. 
  • We’re really open to your ideas. 
  • Tell us what you need, what joint applications we might be able to work on where you can develop new works in our spaces. 
  • Site specific work, and how we might be able to work together to develop those. 

Q & A

Q: What are organisations doing regarding digital poverty? 

  • A: It’s absolutely part of our thinking. We’re looking at project budget lines – at how we might provide hardware and dongles so people can actually get online. We need to address fair access online.  

Q: What are your plans to diversify the artists that you work with and how do you plan to connect with and support freelancers who identify as being from a minority group? 

  • A: We think there’s huge opportunities within digital for that. There’s huge opportunity for us to be really multicultural in that offer. It’s very much part of our long-term restructuring and rethinking. We will be seeking to rework our recruitment, programming and procurement processes to address a number of inclusion and diversity issues.
  • A: If we get the money we’ve applied for, we aim to do more around trying to identify artists who aren’t currently working with us and how we reach them. 
  • A: Part of our fund-raising is for artists’ bursaries to help underrepresented artists to be part of our future programming.
  • A: Part of the fund we’re currently applying to asks to diversify who we work with and how that might attract different audiences and hopefully different types of work.  

Question/Comment: I just have concerns around this move that everyone seems to have made to connect digitally – to maintain relationships with audiences. I’ve been trying to do it myself – reimagine a physical performance for online, but it’s a totally separate art form. I just have huge issues with this – on top of the accessibility issues that it brings.  

Question/Comment: I have been noticing how digital is being foregrounded as an answer to ‘access for all’ in the arts, however alongside digital poverty ‘digital doesn’t work for everybody… There’s lots of neurodiverse people who this space doesn’t work for. So, I’m curious as to how we are all working together to cultivate ways and confidence in to return to sharing live space, carefully. 

  • A: Obviously there’s an awful lot of digital work online and the National Theatres have all been doing high profile good work. I find it’s only among my theatre friends that has any interest at all. I don’t think people who don’t work in our sector are even noticing that it’s there at all. 
  • A: I don’t think we’re trying to convert live performance into digital. It is a way of keeping ourselves and our mission out there until such times as we can come back. 
  • A: There’s no assumption that digital work is ever going to replace the live. It’s a special, moving, wonderful experience that we all want to get back to. Digital is keeping us open and enabling us to still do the work that we do, that we’re funded to do, that we want to do. It’s a short term means to an end.  It feels to us as if there is a lot of opportunity within that online space in terms of reach and who we work with that I would be reluctant to throw all of that learning and possibility away when we do open our doors again. 
  • A: It’s one of a raft of different artistic outputs that we can use. I’m interested in whether there’s an artistic opportunity to create a new form that preserves that liveness but uses the kind of new technology out there. 

Question: I wondered if we should be looking closely at radical solutions to how we approach our crisis. I wondered if we can draw from other coutries’ experiences and radical approaches to big challenges. The Federal Theatre Scheme in America is one that really jumps out to me – that provided mass employment to artists but also through that gave access to a whole range of different voices that been really underrepresented up to that point. So I wondered if a radical solution to our radical problem could be to look at mass employment through venues to go out to places like hospitals, schools, care homes, etc?  

  • A: We want to be working across the sector and working but also working across sectors with artists in multiple contexts and communities. Community is a broad term for us – it could be in the scientific community or the healthcare community. We want to work across communities and bring an artistic voice to those collective conversations around public sector leadership. You’re absolutely right. Radical times need radical solutions. 
  • A: Yes, we want to work across multiple sectors and services where artists can make a massive difference. The theatre space becomes a community hub with all sorts of education activity and activity from a health and wellbeing perspective. Artists can play a key role in the recovery of the city. 
  • A: Being connected to the local authority gives us avenues into education, social work – to link up and develop different approaches using the arts to link up a broad cross section of the community.  

QUESTIONS WE DIDN’T QUITE HAVE TIME FOR

  • I’m thinking of nurseries and how they currently work in bubbles of, e.g., 8 children per bubble. does that make social distancing easier for larger audience numbers because groups of children are allowed to sit together? I don’t know what it’s like for schools. does anyone have information on that?
  • We were due to start a mapping project funded by CS to determine what drama provision [classes, training] is available in Scotland for those with learning disabilities and venues were part of that. My question is – when is the right time to start that dialogue with you all? 
  • Freelancers are keen to support. We have so much at stake in organisations and venues and so much expertise and probably time right now and it would be great to know how we can help. Even it’s things like fundraising or lobbying. The lobbying has been a bit like working out what’s happening on Twitter and following the leader. Be great to know how we can help. Don’t know what that would look like though.
  • I feel it’s crucial to work with freelance practitioners to contribute to working with organisations and venues to recover, reimagine and deliver work through being in spaces together again. Eg. – Who better than dance artists and stage managers to advise and guide on how to be together, physically and carefully. 

REFERENCES from chat & mentioned in conversation during the meeting: 

We haven’t shared any email addresses that were shared in the Chat function but if any attendees would like to be introduced, please do get in touch with Mhari and Ailie by emailing producing@independentartsprojects.com

COMMENTS FROM THE CHAT 

  • So not a solution and no replacement, but then help me understand why the digital option is keeping venues open or operating if people are on furlough and the tickets are not being sold. Help me understand why we don’t re-direct the resources to care and nurturing? What it is we can do as a sector? Help me understand given comments about zero interest for it, (which I agree with from my experience) why are we focusing on it?
  • Digital is a very broad church that goes way beyond film. Cultural heritage / Archive and legacy / audience engagement / education / increased return on investment / data strategy and on and on…  
  • I think we lose a large percentage of audiences because they don’t have access to the internet and currently the go to is to put things online. 
  • I understand people are trying to save staff, of course they are, but the language enforces an idea that artists are not woven into the structures of organisations
  • Programming free, poor quality video is not good for the sector.  I think we risk a great deal in the short and long term in doing that.
  • I feel similar. Digital work might be all we can do at the moment but it has huge issues and if it is going to be needed long term (rather than a stop gap) then a lot more thought is needed into how to make it creatively valuable and worthwhile for both creators and audiences
  • I’m also interested in whether the digital first/meantime/etc conversations have considered traditional broadcasting vs internet as the medium? Have any conversations been had with STV, BBC Scotland, Sky Arts about providing slots for ‘digital’ programming?
  • I have and will be involved with digital work, but at the same time am concerned about this
  • BBC are supporting all the NTS Scenes for Survival programme, which is a significant programme of commissioning and production.
  • Yes. I think there are huge issues to consider when making digital art/performance. What I’m thinking about how it is a new art form, how it can feel immersive, how it can take care of its audience. It might be a good idea to set up another conversation, to think about what the duties of care are when theatre makers make digital work
  • Can I add Digital Exhaustion?  Since we are spending our lives online if we are working, and I for one can’t face much digital creative/leisure at the end of that. I so need to see humans in 3d.
  • Also, on a selfish note, if everything is online forever, that’s me out of work forever.
  • I understand why we’re shifting to make digital art/performance at the moment, but I think we’re losing some talented people along the way – digital doesn’t offer many (if any!) opportunities for people like myself. I’m a Lighting Designer and Production Manager, and there’s no role for me in most of these digital productions.
  • There’s some interesting interrogation about digital in relation to arts going on in academia at the moment. There’s been a big sharing and discussion of this via a research project run through Kings in London across all art forms.
  • I’d like to see orgs taking work to communities but that takes time to get to know a community- we can’t just parachute in with work and then go again. So this needs to be a longer conversation and strategy
  • Does anyone have examples of theatre makers doing digital really well, anywhere in the world right now?
  • If work is going to be digital it needs to be accessible but it also can have an IRL context. This is a very small example of that and an first attempt to connect at the beginning of lockdown https://www.imaginate.org.uk/artists/projects/ideas-fund-my-aunties-a-vandal/
  • I think there is definitely a new art form to be found, but it’s taking time and money.
  • There is also an ageism within digital. We have a lot of older, loyal audiences who are highly practised at engaging with live performance and don’t want to access online.
  • SYT created a show over zoom to be performed at the start of July, it gives an idea what can be done. 
  • Maybe it’s a hybrid artform we needing to create.
  • Outdoor theatre and bringing people together I think is key. I think digital is wonderful but if we think of people’s social needs it’s about bringing people together.
  • There’s also the issue of access for people with learning disability – a lot of our community, both performers and audience, find it difficult to engage with digital work, either through lack of access to the hardware, or lack of confidence in using it. It’s something that we’re examining carefully on one of the projects I’m involved with.
  • Outdoor work is definitely something I’d be more interested in than digital, but it does limit the possibilities with some departments, much the same as digital. 
  • I think Javaad Alipoor has been making some interesting digital work – but his practice involves a lot of digital and unusual ways of connecting with audiences in any case.
  • I’m looking at the production processes for a large-scale outdoor project for next year at the moment – it would also be good to be a part of the outdoor theatre discussion. 
  • Just to say that Scottish Government is not expecting/permitting any artistic work in care homes to take place before 2021. Family members have only been able to visit their relatives outdoors since the end of /June and indoors from this week.

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