On the 17th March, it will be exactly one year since UK theatre came to an overnight standstill. Every day as we approach the anniversary, Theatre Bubble will be releasing personal accounts from theatre makers across all areas of the industry, telling us what this unexpected and unprecedented year has been like for them. See the full series here: Hands Face & Empty Space
Athena Stevens: playwright, performer and activist
I came down with what we later found out to be Covid-19 the first week of March. All of my attempts at a flurry of quick lockdown productivity was thwarted. Turns out long covid can make you want to sleep 20 hours a day for 4-5 months.
In many ways I put my self worth in my productivity and so when I was finally able to work again, my colleagues and I both went ‘how do we use this time to create, both create stories and create change so that the cracks in our industry no longer left the vast majority of freelancers as vulnerable as they had been before.’
Creating new work, at first glance, seems relatively easy. I had a group that I loved to collaborate with, lead by Lily McLeish off the back of Scrounger at the Finborough Theatre. I also had a script that was written for two women in isolation and a background of creating online storytelling before. How hard could it be to do again, particularly under these circumstances. The Arts Council had been generous enough to give us funding for a new iPad Pro which allowed us to film using relatively little equipment. Alright so our director was in Germany, our composer was in Australia and our designer wasn’t able to visit our sites, but we can make this work.
And we did after several months of trying to figure out how to coordinate a zoom meeting with a camera. Very often the iPad would be recording in real time but show a lag on zoom meaning that both Lily and Anna Reid were often flying blind until they received the footage from the cloud. Sometimes the iPad would fall asleep when it was uploading footage causing us to have to re-upload the footage and essentially babysit it in order to have it not go to sleep mode.
Working together with Ant Doran onsite, we very quickly found a new form of storytelling was possible if at a slower pace than we anticipated. Thus we produced Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels for the Finborough’s YouTube channel.
I’ve always had a mind that wasn’t satisfied just being creative because of my own background in self-advocacy, I’m very comfortable in the political arena as well. In June, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre approached me to become their representative on the Freelance Task Force and ultimately work with Freelancers Make Theatre Work to see the origins of the schisms within our industry and how freelance creatives can have more stability moving forward. Our industry was considered viable for thousands of years, since the time of the ancient Greeks and yet all of a sudden worldwide, nearly overnight, all productions stopped.
But when everything stops, you’re able to see exactly what you’ve been turning a blind eye to for so long. see exactly what you’ve been turning a blind eye to for so long.
I found myself in sometimes as many as 20 hours of Zoom meetings a week, listening and understanding the power imbalance that has been allowed to fester between freelance creatives and institutions for so long. The reason for this happening was clear: raise your head above the parapet to ask for change and you run the risk of never being employed again. While theatre administration were fortunate enough to be protected by the furlough scheme, the very artists that were promoted within those administrative offices had to wait to be given support from the government if they were lucky enough to qualify for it at all.
That’s just one example of how our industry fails its creatives, the very motor that produces income, in jeopardy. With the power imbalance within the industry and a lack of understanding in the government, those in Freelancers Make Theatre work including myself have spent the past several months lobbying both the government and the institutions who in theory should have always been on the creatives side to begin with. I can’t pretend when we get back to work the situation will be solved but at least maybe we’ll have a better understanding of how we’ve become complicit in it.
Several years ago I built my own production company under the given that no creative should work for free. In my mind if you cannot pay a creative properly you should not be producing the project. This point in human history has served to solidify in my mind the importance of the standards through the creation of Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels we were able to pay ten freelancers to work when the industry was considered ‘stagnant’. If that’s possible, what other opportunities to stabilise the theatre industry and protect those who work in it are we missing?