Sheffield fundraiser giving thousands of pounds to arts workers in crisis – and this is how

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Sheer luck, says Bethany Wells, is the only thing that prevented her descending into serious financial hardship when the coronavirus crisis worsened and lockdown was imposed.

The award-winning performance designer from Stannington in Sheffield works on theatre productions, dance shows and installations across the country – meaning she lost £9,000 in freelance earnings when Covid-19 brought culture to a standstill.

Bethany discovered that she fitted the criteria for the Government's grants for self-employed people, as well as emergency funding from Arts Council England. But she is acutely aware that the situation could have panned out very differently.

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“I knew that if this pandemic had fallen earlier in my career, even just a few years ago, I would have been ineligible for both avenues of support,” she says.

Bethany Wells with a Terrible Rage bag.Bethany Wells with a Terrible Rage bag.
Bethany Wells with a Terrible Rage bag.

"I knew that the fact my situation felt like 'luck' meant something wasn't right in the way the schemes had been designed. And I wanted to do something to help.”

Bethany, 35, decided to make and sell tote bags printed with a slogan taken from playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2016 drama Escaped Alone. A character in the play delivers a monologue consisting of the repeated phrase ‘terrible rage’, which is emblazoned in white on the black canvas bags.

Proceeds from the £20 bags are being used to pay for ‘micro-grants’ of £200, which Bethany is giving to others in the arts sector she says are in dire financial straits.

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So far over £19,000 has been raised – more than 70 artists have been helped, with the same number on a waiting list for assistance.

Bethany Wells has made hundreds of her Terrible Rage bags - for £20 donors receive one bag.Bethany Wells has made hundreds of her Terrible Rage bags - for £20 donors receive one bag.
Bethany Wells has made hundreds of her Terrible Rage bags - for £20 donors receive one bag.

“It's been tough reading the notes people have put with their applications,” says Bethany.

“There are a lot of recent graduates who haven't yet got self-employed records, people who work on zero hours PAYE contracts and were ineligible for furlough, and more experienced theatre-makers with longer employment histories but are recently self-employed, often at great financial risk.”

Others applying for micro-grants were migrant workers, or those who have no recourse to public funds for visa reasons, she adds.

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“Some have mental health or health conditions which have meant that their work history isn't regular enough to claim, and some had coronavirus early on so were unwell when the deadlines for ACE funding came through.”

Bethany Wells' Terrible Rage bags raise money for people in the arts ineligible for income support, or those who have applied unsuccessfully.Bethany Wells' Terrible Rage bags raise money for people in the arts ineligible for income support, or those who have applied unsuccessfully.
Bethany Wells' Terrible Rage bags raise money for people in the arts ineligible for income support, or those who have applied unsuccessfully.
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Bethany designed the bags after hearing the Government advice to ‘stay alert’, which replaced the original instruction to ‘stay at home’.

“I felt angry that we'd been left with such vague advice,” she says.

“I couldn't sleep and this phrase just came into my head. By mid-morning I had the design ready and had made the crowdfunder.”

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Caryl Churchill gave her blessing for her play to be quoted.

“It has been great that Caryl was supportive. I know that phrase resonated with so many people in theatre during lockdown, especially as it's taken so long to get any kind of sector support or advice.

“I think everyone who works in theatre and performance is aware of how difficult it is to make a living in this industry. Our audiences might think that theatre is star-studded but the reality for most of us on and off stage is a very insecure career, but one we do for the love of creating magical cultural experiences.”

Seventy per cent of the workforce in theatre and performance is self-employed. Bethany says this explains why the demand for her micro-grants has been higher than the amount of donations so far – donors get one tote bag for every multiple of £20 donated, but some have opted just to give money without receiving any bags.

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“It's a precarious career, working project to project, often on low salaries," she says. “The knock-on effect of a venue closing means hundreds of technicians, casual staff, front of house staff are unemployed, as well as the directors, designers and performers; all self-employed with no job security, sick pay or holiday pay.”

The Government has announced a £1.57 billion support package for arts, culture and heritage groups, billed by ministers as the ‘biggest ever one-off investment’ of its kind.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the funding in grants and loans will protect most jobs in the culture sector, but not all – Nuffield Southampton Theatres has already gone into administration, while the National Theatre has made all of its front-of-house staff redundant.

“The real question is whether the venues will be able so survive long enough to start making shows again," Bethany says. “Until there are rehearsals or shows being planned, there will be no work for freelancers.

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“There's a massive, scary ‘fingers crossed’ that this financial package from the Government will keep venues afloat until they are able to employ us to make shows again.”

Performances can take place outside from July 11, but only with ‘a limited and socially distanced audience’. Mr Dowden said the Government was ‘working hard to get indoor audiences back as soon as we safely can’.

Bethany says she is unsure as to when her crowdfunder will close.

“There have been other funds set up recently such as the Netflix-supported Theatre Artists Fund. However, people have really appreciated the simplicity and trust with which I've distributed the money – without too many hoops to jump through or criteria.”

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