Ensuring the backstage gets back to work: The Lyric Freelance Collective
FREELANCERS MAKE THEATRE WORK
Joanna Scotcher, Freelance Theatre & Live Arts Designer, designer for the Lyric’s production of ‘Love, Love, Love’ and member of the Lyric Freelance Collective:
As so many theatre stages lay dark and empty across the country, behind the lush velvet curtains of the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre however sits the rather stylish living room of a large country house. The final set design for act three of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love. A dingy 1960’s bedsit and a lurid 90’s suburban front-room sit dimly gathering dust in the wings, all having been hastily abandoned with the abrupt closure of theatres on Monday 16 March following the announcement by Johnson at 5pm that day.
I last stood in the building on the show’s packed opening night, back in early March. A chilly clear evening after a long final week of work on the production. Finally able to step back, take a breath, pause for a moment and admire the immense collective effort that had gone into opening the show.
The house was full and the seats filled with a buoyant, expectant audience. To be lost in that febrile crowd is an experience I have dearly missed and come to yearn for so deeply. That visceral connection of sitting alongside a fellow human to witness, engage and to be subsumed within an auditorium filling with the sound of applause, is a truly unique one. One that encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behaviours.
My immediate behaviour on this packed Press night was to join Rachel O’Riordan, the director, at the heart of the raucous celebration in the Roof Garden bar. Filled with guests and press, but also the with the individuals who’s work had gone into that night’s opening show; all blissfully oblivious of the impending announcement and joyfully raising toasts to all whose talents had come together to make the show.
Four days later, on Saturday 14, the final curtain closed on the show.
As a jobbing designer it’s always fascinating to pitch up and join forces with the collective talent I encounter within each of the theatres I visit. It was my first gig working at the Lyric; the ‘In-house’ team in this case were especially dedicated, open and generous with their expertise. So too were the wider self-employed team hired to work on the production. As the Lyric staff find themselves still furloughed, three months on, I find myself asking what of the small army of freelance professionals that also crossed my path in the lead up to that night?
To put those freelancers in context, of the 25 credited in the Love, Love, Love programme, approximately 75% can count themselves part of this silent workforce. To start with that’s all 5 actors in the show, the writer, Mike Bartlett, who is again a freelancer. I also fall into that camp, along with the rest of the team, who were:
Lighting Designer – Paul Keogan
Sound Designer & Composer – Simon Slater
Deputy Stage manager – Charli Unwin
Assistant stage manager – Tash Holdaway
Makeup & Wig Supervisor – Suzanna Peretz
Costume Dresser – Annabeth Fernley
Stage Crew – Maddy Colins
Scenic Artist – Emily-Rose Minshaw
Voice Coach – Edda Sharp
Fight Director – Bret Yount
Production Photographer – Helen Maybanks
Those freelancers whose nights shifts, unsociable extra hours and obscure scheduled technical calls, all slowly but surely build up to the fine tuning of the production, cementing itself into a functioning whole. We schedule our work and juggle our jobs and ‘make it work’ without the envious safety net of a monthly pay cheque falling into our bank accounts.
It’s seemed bewilderingly unsettling to step outside the living hum of that shared space and fall into the vacuum of Covid-19 silence. There has been so little industry focused guidance, especially given the uniquely painful position Theatre is in as a whole. Then doubly so for the 70% of my freelance that make up the UK theatre workforce!
As individuals we’re so used to creatively fixing problems, and with a drive to make these voices heard, we’re aiming to do just that. Groups have sprung up across the theatre landscape to stand up and ask questions about our collective future. Along with our Lyric collective, this has gone someway to the formation of Freelancers Make Theatre Work, set up by the group of volunteers to give theatre freelancers a voice, as well as a network and support system.
This new website is testament to the urgent need and the grassroots drive we hold as workforce. It is aimed at making the theatre freelance community actively visible: to each other, to the wider public, and to those in government.
A founding member, the designer Vicki Mortimer says, “Freelancers Make Theatre Work aims to be an accelerated directory and live resource for theatre freelancers across the sector. The website aims to facilitate links between the many self-organised groups and individuals who have initiated conversation during COVID, so that the work being done can be mutually supported and amplified…The drive is for a swift, unified voice in urgent, unsettled times… as key decisions about the future of live performance are being made right now.”
The stories created within that empty black box hold the culmination of untold hours of collaborative dedication. That’s what goes into the magic that happens backstage. Unseen by the public, they provide the muscle of the illusions we create. FreelancersMakeTheatreWork’s objective is to ensure there remains a force still here to flex it!
I urge you to take look at the website, see how you can help and benefit from this community.
All suggestions are welcome for how to make this initiative as effective as possible.
The Lyric Freelance Collective is: Tinuke Craig, Tanika Gupta, Nicholai La Barrie, Joanna Scotcher, Simon Slater and Adele Thomas.