From this graph of my pace while running the Helvellyn Trail 15k in October, you can see the moment I fell. The graph falls too, from occasionally touching six minute miles to a total standstill. The grey graph in the background represents the elevation of the terrain and if you look closely at the point where I fell you’ll notice two things: firstly, it’s at the end of a period of fairly steep downhill running. Secondly, after that point the graph is an exact mirror, because after establishing that I couldn't continue the race, I turned round and hobbled back to find a race marshall. As you can see, not quickly.
I had stitches across my knee joint. I was on crutches for two weeks and couldn’t bend my leg until January. A series of infections developed in my leg, which at one point ballooned out to about a third more than its usual size. Mud and lacerations don’t mix, especially if you’re in the Lake District and it takes five hours for you to get to a hospital and get it properly cleaned up.
TRIGGER WARNING: towards the bottom of this post there is a picture of my bloody knee. It probably doesn't look as bad as I've made it sound, but still, if you don't like blood I'd find a way of disabling images in your browser. Or just stop reading when my thigh hoves into view. They cleaned the wound out with a brush, certainly the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever experienced, much worse than the fall itself.
When I’d finished falling, I got up to continue running. But my leg wouldn’t go. I remember, during the fall, being surprised that I was still falling. I waited quite serenely for it to end, so I could catch up with the bloke in front of me, who I'd been thinking about trying to pass. Needless to say, I never did.
A few months ago I posted the first instalment in what I promised would be a series of blogposts about freelance theatremakers and money. You can read it here. This, the second instalment of that series, has been heavily delayed by that fall. The pain, the infection, the difficulty of getting around on crutches, the total exhaustion of it all, meant that everything non-essential had to be dropped. This isn't just an elaborate excuse, although it is also that. More pertinently, it's relevant to the argument I'll be making.
A couple of weeks after that first post in this series, I also posted this, about parenthood as a freelance theatre-maker. I wrote optimistically about the fact that I was finally starting to get on top of things. Reader, it did not last.
From the moment of my injury until Christmas I was locked into a desperate race to stay on top of the bare essentials, delivering the projects I was absolutely committed to delivering. Some things were easy enough to shift from my list for the time being: I’m not being paid for this blog series, for example, and there’s no hard deadline, so it could go. Other important but not essential things, like updating my website (many of them still pending), were likewise struck from my list. I abandoned planning for two projects I was hoping to start proper work on round about now, and decided not to write three separate applications for commissions and opportunities. I just had to make it to tomorrow.
Five days after the injury I was on stage in Error 404, albeit sitting completely stationary in a stool, high on painkillers, guts twisted by antibiotics. I got through two shows and collapsed asleep for an hour, before heading back into A&E because my leg had ballooned again. Even then, in the couple of days before that I'd had to cancel several shows, because I was unable even to sit without intense pain. These shows were the most substantial, but they weren't the only bits of work that I was simply unable to do, or which became considerably more expensive to undertake because I couldn’t walk anywhere.
At a conservative estimate, this injury cost me just over £800 in lost work and increased expenses. That's a little shy of two weeks' living. This figure assumes that I wouldn’t have got any of the commissions or opportunities I ended up not applying for, and that the projects I had been developing wouldn’t have led to any paid work. As my hit rate for commission-type applications is about one in ten, the chances are I wouldn’t have got any of those. But of the two other projects in the pipeline, I think at least one would be at the stage of paid work by now, so I think the real cost to me is in fact well over £800. This is especially so because in October, before my fall, I knew that March to June were looking a little thin for work and I was focused on trying to find something for that period. March to June are looking a bit less thin now, but I think they’d have looked a lot healthier if I’d spent any of October to December trying to do something about it. I think the real cost of that fall will be more like £2-3000.
This isn’t an invitation for you all to join me at my personal pity party. I’m aware that my hobby is a moderately dangerous sport and that injuries are not unheard of. It was hella muddy and people were slipping and sliding all over the place. I was the one unlucky enough to put a rock through his knee. Fundamentally this is of course my own fault.
It nevertheless illustrates the precarious balancing act of maintaining a freelance career in theatre. However well you're doing, it only takes one thing for it all to come tumbling down a hill. It only takes one thing for you to be in serious financial trouble. Whether that one thing is to some degree self-inflicted is neither here nor there. If I had a desk job and fell down a hill I'd take some sick leave and gradually pick up the slack.
That it only takes one thing, whatever it is, to knock a successful freelance career into a very deep hole, can be illustrated by any number of examples from the conversations I've had in this series.
In one case, it was a relationship breakdown. This tremendously increased financial pressure on my friend – he faced house moving costs, near-doubling of rent and living costs, and loss of the potential support of his partner if faced by a tough month or two. Coupled with profound emotional stress, considerable loss of time, and diminished ability to focus clearly on generating work, he had a massive hole blown in his finances. When your partner also works in the industry and many of your connections are held in common, this gets even worse. My friend is still in considerable debt as a result of this period, now several years ago, and is still rebuilding from the semi-enforced career break.
In another case, parental bereavement was the trigger for an enforced leave of absence. In others it might be injury or illness.
In most cases, it’s as banal as one failed Arts Council application.
I heard this story from almost everyone I spoke to and in two cases, as I detailed last time, it led to serious debt.
Of course you’ll say that it’s stupid to rely on Arts Council funding so heavily that one failed application can blow a huge hole in your financial year. But seriously, what’s the alternative? Plenty of funding is always raised from other source. But it’s a rare project that doesn’t require at least some ACE subsidy. Due to precisely that requirement to get other partners and other money on board, it’s only possible to plan projects so far in advance. If you're lucky, you might have time to rewrite and resubmit a failed bid once before the dates sail by. You can't put another project in place just in case the bid doesn't come off: to do so would be in incredibly bad faith with anyone else involved in Plan B. You submit the bid for Plan A and hope the project can go ahead. You're well-established and you know the bid is strong so you have reasonably high hopes.
From time to time, though, they don't come off. The reason ACE give is always "competition for funds", but that's not much useful as developmental feedback. What you want to know is why someone else won that competition this time. And there you are, having imbibed the idea that artists are in competition with one another, as though it's a race and you were hoping to pass someone but instead you took a nasty fall.
We operate in a system where one failed funding bid can have established internationally touring artists unable to pay their rent. It’s all very well to say that we should have better financial planning or more of a financial safety net. Where is that safety net going to come from?
I had a safety net equivalent to just over two months’ living, accrued very slowly over the previous five years, until eighteen months ago, when I spent most of it on six weeks paternity leave. If ticking over on roughly the UK median, as is the case for me and pretty much all of my conversational partners, you can, if you're frugal, squirrel away maybe three weeks' worth a year. If you're lucky and get one big project you might manage more. Last year was a very regular one for me, so I was in the process of building my safety net very slowly back up when we had to move house for Sarah’s work. In order to enable Sarah to take a full-time job without it destabilising our then very young baby, I volunteered to do an increased volume of childcare.
Due to the house move and the reduced capacity, I whittled my safety net back down. It doesn't take long. In the autumn I was once more in the process of starting to painstakingly build it back up. Then I fell down a hill. The next few months being as they are, thin, then unless something big and surprising comes in, I’m going to remain on the precipice for most of this calendar year and probably some way beyond. And I'm doing fairly well.
This year, two separate projects of mine are reliant on Arts Council funding about which we’re currently waiting to hear. I will never learn my lesson, because the real only lesson is "don’t choose this career". And if this level of precarity is true of the apparently comfortable, how much worse is it for the obviously precarious?
Some of us might have backup work for fallow periods, but when this pays at anything like a decent rate, it is not easy to magick a full-time living out of it at barely two months notice.
Seriously, what is the alternative? None of the people I've spoken to so far have had an answer to this, any more than I have.
Meanwhile, the precarity of this career is quietly intensified by the incredible level of invisible labour necessary to sustain it. It takes an experienced bid writer around twelve hours to prepare a £15000 Grants for the Arts application on which six or seven people might rely for maybe a month's work. That's approaching two days' work that might never be paid, and that's just one example of the unpaid work freelance artists do to keep going. This invisible work has to fit in around the actual work, so if you're already working beyond full-time, as is the norm in this career, it remains a mystery how it ever gets done. Lunchbreaks aren't taken, evenings disappear, weekends are vanishingly rare, exhausted collapse is never more than weeks away. Then what?
It only takes one thing to push you over the brink. With no holiday pay, no sick pay, no compassionate leave, no paternity allowance and the joke that is statutory maternity allowance, you only have to teeter to fall hard. Find yourself in need of any of these benefits and you're in serious trouble. Find yourself in need of them two years in a row and you're fucked. And not only are you fucked, but your knee hurts, you're still single, and your dad's still dead.
It is surely neither necessary or helpful for artists, established or otherwise, to be so precariously balanced. And this precarity is too endemic to be a matter of individual planning and management. We're not talking about poor lifestyle choices or moral failings here; take two months wages from anyone earning roughly the UK median and they'd be in serious trouble. This is systemic.
I'm aware of how privileged I am even to be in a position to make this complaint; I'm aware of how much worse it could be for me if I hadn't been dealt some pretty good cards. This is true to very varying degrees of my conversational partners, but the feeling of precarity and the experience of having falling over the precipice at least once is close to universal.
We've all entered this career fully aware of these risks, but the cost of a fall doesn't need to be this high. Can we not, as an industry, as a culture, find ways of making the trail less muddy, the hills less steep, the rocks less sharp?
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will