Theatre & Live Art Records at Risk due to COVID-19

We are currently undertaking a project to find and support significant theatre & live art records placed at risk due to COVID-19.  We are looking to help individuals and organisations that have been affected by the pandemic and need help with caring for their archives.  If you are concerned about your records or know of any records that are at risk, please have a look at our Records at Risk page and get in touch with Siân Williams, Project Archivist: sian.a.williams@bristol.ac.uk

With the Theatre and Live Art Records at Risk project well underway, our Project Archivist, Sian Williams reflects on the project so far and the conversations we’ve had with funding bodies, organisations within the theatre sector and other collecting institutions.

The theatre sector has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.  The effects of the pandemic continue to be felt and are still not fully realised, but it is clear that this period will have a lasting impact on the industry.

The Cultural Recovery Fund and furlough scheme have only recently come to an end, and there continue to be uncertainties over future additional financial support.  As well as ongoing restrictions, there are other issues to contend with, including audience confidence, reduced performances, whether group bookings will be revived, insurance costs and cover for COVID disruption, and what audiences want to see during and following these challenging times.  There are many factors that will affect recovery and whether or not the theatre industry can and even should be returning to pre-pandemic models.

During the pandemic, there were conversations within the industry about how the theatre sector was going to recover and ‘build back better’.  The voice of the freelance workforce was more loudly heard with the formation of Freelancers Make Theatre Work and their subsequent Big Freelancer Report highlighting the ‘inequities deep rooted throughout the industry’.  The desperate situation many freelancers found themselves in during the pandemic shone a spotlight not only on the immediate need for financial assistance, but the need to confront and remedy the core problems faced by the freelancer workforce that were growing long before the pandemic.  As the Big Freelancer Report states, ‘for freelancers in the performing arts, COVID-19 has acted as a force multiplier on an employment system that was already under strain… The theatre workforce do not want to return to an already broken system, therefore the income crisis need to be addressed’ (2021, p.129).  With the ESRC-funded Freelancers in the Dark research project soon to be published, which investigated the social, cultural, and economic consequences of COVID19 on independent arts workers across the UK, it can hopefully help to inform plans to support the sector as it rebuilds.

It seems that the pandemic was not exclusively the reason, but an accelerating factor forcing some theatres to permanently close and some professionals to leave the industry.  The financial impact of the pandemic meant theatres that were already facing financial insecurity closed or transferred ownership.  But the pandemic also offered the opportunity – or forced people – to re-evaluate their situations.  People reconsidered the hours they worked, their working conditions and their worth.

Over 70% of the theatre workforce are freelancers, and many were unable to claim financial assistance from emergency funding or financial schemes during the pandemic.  It is not known how many people have already left the industry due to financial insecurity or if they plan to return.  The film and TV industry was able to restart production much sooner than the theatre industry, offering some freelancers the opportunity to return to work.  But what impact will this have long-term?  Now theatres have reopened, there are reports of a ‘hiring crisis’, with productions unable to fill vacancies.  A recent article highlighted that it is roles requiring skills transferable to other industries which are proving difficult to fill.

Many of the problems that were once backstage and less apparent to audiences have now been revealed and brought to the foreground.  For the Theatre Collection, this project has highlighted how important it is for us, as a collecting institution of theatre and live art material, to understand the theatre industry in the present, so that we can better prepare for sustainable collecting in the future and try to prevent the loss of vulnerable collections that are vital to the cultural history of Britain.  As a collecting institution that has seen an increase in donations of archival material since the start of the pandemic, we must plan for potential donations, but also raise awareness of the Theatre Collection and other collecting institutions within the industry, so we can provide support and advice to those currently looking after their own records.

If you would like more information about finding a home for your records and advice on caring for your own records, please have a look at our updated ‘Caring for your theatre and live art records’ pages: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/caring-for-your-theatre–live-art-records/

 

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