Award-winning playwright Beth Steel is the Writer in Residence at the National Theatre. As part of Marie Claire’s #savethearts campaign, she explains how a crisis-hit community of freelancers inspires her every day
Lockdown was announced a week before my new play, The House of Shades, was to begin rehearsal. It’s a play I’d spent three years writing and was due to open at my dream venue, the Almeida Theatre in London, starring the brilliant Anne Marie Duff. That play, like so much else, has been postponed. I was gutted, but I also knew I was fortunate: many shows have been cancelled altogether.
To see the whole theatrical landscape shutdown and then to realise that the lights weren’t coming back on for some time was daunting. Creatively, I felt completely disconnected. Writing is not only how I communicate with an audience, but with myself: to write is to understand what I really think about something. For the first time in my life, I was blocked. It was as if someone had poured cement into my skull and left it to set. Nothing sparked.
Freelancers are the lifeblood
But in May I was invited by set and costume designer, Vicki Mortimer and lighting designer Paule Constable to join a bunch of people I’d never met before on a Zoom call. There were lighting designers, choreographers, directors, stage managers, actors… a really diverse in every sense rag-tag of people who all shared one thing in common: we were freelancers who worked in theatre, dance, opera – and without us there wouldn’t be any live shows.
Seventy per cent of the workforce needed to make a production you see on a stage are self-employed freelancers, so we can’t be furloughed and many of us were financially on the edge. Out of that meeting Freelancers Make Theatre Work was born.
We campaign on behalf of freelancers, are a central source of information, and support freelancers’ wellbeing and creativity where we can. We are a voluntary organisation and a rolling cohort. Every week I’ve been inspired by these brilliant people, many of which I’ve still not met in person. Their boundless thinking and generosity has been a gift during this time. In a crisis you forge bonds, you scramble and pull together, in a way that’s not dissimilar to the act of putting a play on.
We must come back bolder
My hope for theatre in 2021 is that we don’t come back timid and scared, but bolder than ever. Both in the work we make, who makes it and how. There has been a pause on stage, yes, but lots of activity has happened off stage: conversations and thinking around how our industry can be better. There’s been a huge appetite for culture – just look at the millions of people watching plays streamed by the National Theatre.
But having been isolated from people for so long I am craving to sit in a theatre and live intensely and intimately with others. Unlike watching something recorded on a screen, theatre is an unstable art form: anything can happen and it’s that aliveness that makes it more intimate for me. Theatre isn’t a news story presenting you with facts, it is people living the experiences of those facts on stage in real time.
Government needs to fill the gaps
Storytelling is how we empathise with others and make sense of ourselves, and we need that more than ever. We need to gather together and share, every healthy society does.
A third of freelancers working in theatre have had no government support throughout this entire period: not a penny since March. I find it appalling that once the gaps in the government’s schemes, understandably hastily put together, became glaringly apparent no attempt has been made to rectify them.
Theatre is not a well-paid industry and many people earn very little, although our industry contributes billions to the economy. How can we be diverse in the stories we tell if the people who are leaving the industry are the ones who cannot afford to stay?
* Beth Steel is a recipient of the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright and shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn prize. Her plays include Ditch, Wonderland and Labyrinth. Find out more about at Freelancersmaketheatrework.com, and @freelancersmaketheatrework on Instagram and Twitter, #freelancersmaketheatrework has had 12 million interactions since its launch
* Get involved with our Save The Arts campaign this week via our social media platforms @marieclaireuk #savethearts