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As printed in The Stage, 9th March 2021
Caro Newling: Theatre Artists Fund highlighted the generosity of the industry in its greatest time of need
When everything shut down last year and the entire national theatre ecology was faced with choked-off box office income and imploding reserves, mobilisation across the industry was impressively collegiate. By May 28, 2020, the Society of London Theatre had collated intelligence and data from a storm of industry-wide surveys to present a coherent and compelling submission to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in support of an emergency relief fund. By the end of the year, 70% of theatres would have run out of cash.
Equally clear was the impact on the cultural workforce. Of that vital constituency of freelance artists – responsible for every particle of what goes on our stages – 38% were locked out of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme tailored solely for full-time employees, as well as the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. That meant thousands of practitioners had their livelihoods abruptly halted, were catastrophically cash-starved and forced to consider leaving the profession. This dire situation was also a headline of the SOLT submission.
When the government announced the Culture Recovery Fund, the cultural workforce went entirely unrecognised. Could it have been that the term ‘freelancer’ was a misnomer in the context of Treasury thinking? Was the combination of ‘peripatetic’ and ‘creative’ indicative of an easily replaceable entity? This outcome was harsh indeed, and not a little disrespectful – also perplexing for its lack of holistic approach. What is the point of a theatre that can house administrative structure, but without the people that make the productions? This wasn’t unexpected. Let’s just say it’s a long time since some of us were lucky enough to start out in the after-glow of Jennie Lee’s visionary 1965 white paper.
Clearly there was urgent need for a fund that could respond with speed, specifically designed to support practitioners with multiple skills from across the UK, and with updated criteria. Starting such a venture would need firepower, commitment and a figurehead who meant business.
Sam Mendes went on the front foot, writing in the Financial Times to put an open question to the streaming services to use their “Covid windfall” to help the very people that fuel their content. One big donor could set the ball rolling and it did. Netflix stepped up following a phone call between Mendes and CEO Ted Sarandos, who not only offered £500,000 to get us started, but also the time of his advisory team. It had already put 24 similar support funds together across the US.
Then came a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment. We were pummelling the Neal Street Productions address book to good effect, but we needed to match the Netflix team with a fully operational outfit that could run the fund and promote it from the epicentre of the industry.
Sam was introduced to SOLT chief executive Julian Bird and within days a bespoke SOLT squad, led by the indefatigable Katie Kerry, was working with the Netflix advisers, building the mechanics to launch the operation under the umbrella of the Theatre Development Trust. That the Fund is so inclusive and reactive is a testament to their input. Not long after, Susie Sainsbury made a substantial contribution from the Backstage Trust, crucially offering to bring in fundraising consultant Morag Small.
Donna Mills from Premier PR and Ben Chamberlain from Bread & Butter PR gave their unerring support, which is still ongoing. The upcoming Turning Point campaign is the result of a collective effort to bring together the invaluable and amplifying support of actors far and wide.
The Theatre Artists Fund will have raised £6.5 million by March 16, a year to the day since theatres shut down. This is due to supreme generosity from across our industry and far beyond. The website is the best way to glean the extent of largesse: public donations, eye-watering personal contributions and stalwart support from a clutch of major foundations.
Equally important is the care this shows to those who find themselves so isolated. An example of this is the entire Talking Heads team collectively deciding to reroute their income from onward TV sales. The London Theatre Company – owner of the Bridge Theatre – quietly dropped £296,000 into the fund on Christmas Eve and Arts Council England has contributed a game-changing £1.25 million.
The TAF is designed for fast turnaround. It pays out whatever has been raised, usually every six weeks, sometimes less. So far 5,359 emergency relief grants have been distributed and later this month another round opens, with a further £1 million now pledged. Each round is carefully analysed and the stats are harvested to check criteria have been met. The fund will need to keep raising until the industry is back to full strength, at least until late autumn, probably through to January 2022. We need to keep landing £750,000 every month to meet the 2,000 applications coming in as each round opens. It’s not over yet.