Workforce: A slow recovery from Covid for performing arts

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Workforce: A slow recovery from Covid for performing arts

Image of stage lighting shining on to a red theatre stage curtain
© Photo by Wesley Pribadi on Unsplash

By Ben Walmsley, Centre for Cultural Value
Tal Feder


In this post Ben Walmsley and Tal Feder look at recent data from the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey to assess what’s happening in the performing arts workforce.

This article brings together data that was shared at the recent Future of Theatre 2022 conference, hosted by The Stage

Our most recent analysis of the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Labour Force Survey data shows that the performing arts workforce hasn't recovered yet from the shock of the pandemic.

As illustrated in Figure 1, in terms of the size of its workforce, the performing arts is recovering much more slowly than other sectors of the creative industries, lagging behind publishing, the screen and media sector, museums, galleries and libraries.

Indeed whilst music and the performing and visual arts was actually the second largest of these sectors before the pandemic, we can see that it has lost over 40,000 workers since its peak at the end of 2019. In terms of the total number of hours worked per week, it is also still behind pre-pandemic levels, showing a sharp decline in the final half of 2021 – but notably not as sharp a decline as museums, galleries and libraries.

Figure 1: Number of workers in different creative sectors (2019–2021)

Fewer workers working harder

However, as we can see in Figure 2, levels of activity as measured by average hours worked per week recovered substantially in 2021, just tailing off again in the last three months of 2021. This essentially means that those people working in music, performing and visual arts who weren’t made redundant or didn't leave their occupations are now working harder than ever.

This has significant implications for the future infrastructure of the sector and specifically for:

  • Diversity – there are fewer jobs around
  • Recruitment – how can we attract new people to work in an overworked sector?
  • Retention – how many more workers will choose to leave the sector?
  • Burnout – how will those left behind be able to sustain these levels of work?

Figure 2: Mean hours worked per week in music, performing and visual arts (2019–2021)

In order to take a more micro view, we explored what was happening to actors in particular, and we ran an analysis of the occupational category “actors, entertainers and presenters”. Although the numbers are too small here and the confidence intervals too wide to draw any definitive conclusions, we can see in Figure 3 that this particular creative workforce has decreased steadily throughout 2021, despite a positive end to 2020 as some venues reopened and panto season took off in force.

Figure 3: Number of actors, entertainers and presenters (2019–2021)

What’s going to give?

This recent ONS data was borne out by the interviews we conducted with 238 sector professionals between October 2020 and November 2021. Several performing arts leaders we spoke to said they were trying, or at least planning, to do less better. But when pushed, they struggled to articulate exactly what was going to give.

Meanwhile, we spoke to technical directors and production managers who were doing three people’s jobs after up to twelve months without a break. And despite long and successful careers, some of them were considering moving out of the sector to enjoy better pay and working conditions and to enjoy more quality time with their families.

We heard tales of how traditional stagecraft skills had been lost, perhaps forever, as older generations were made redundant. We heard about a very real recruitment crisis, especially in Northern Ireland, as performing arts organisations struggled to replace staff in many technical, administration and managerial roles. We also heard and saw how the film, TV and screen industries were booming in 2020, in spite of the pandemic, and attracting production and technical staff out of the performing arts.

Green shoots for a fairer future

We called our report Culture in Crisis as this is the picture that emerged over the course of our research in 2020–21. However, we also encountered some positive stories and data. For example, in one of our earlier articles, we showed how cultural workers in late 2020 were upskilling rather than reskilling, arguing that Fatima’s next job probably wouldn’t be in cyber after all.

We interviewed 20 recent creative arts graduates and heard that 18 of them were still planning a career in the cultural sector despite the pandemic. Indeed thanks to free webinars and networking events, they were able to upskill and had managed to create national and even international networks more quickly than they felt they would otherwise have been able to do. It seems that Zoom calls were far more accessible than traditional office doors…

So it isn’t all doom and gloom – but the performing arts sector is undoubtedly at an existential crossroads. It can choose either to go back to the bad old days of poor pay, poor training, inequity, over-production and overworking or to move forward in a very different direction to a more equitable and regenerative sector that offers fair pay and conditions and a good work-life balance as well as the ineffable promises of excitement and passion. If it makes the wrong call, its glory days might finally be over.


This research was part of a larger-scale programme led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency. This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid rolling call.

Published: 2022
Resource type: Research