Dani, a 31 year old freelance lighting technician from Preston, shares her story
Dani says she’ll remember the 16th March 2020 for the rest of her life. A freelance lighting technician, she’d spent most of that day driving across the North of England for a theatre job she was due to start the next day. She was at a friend’s house, chatting and catching up, when her phone buzzed with a BBC News notification: Boris Johnston was going to make an announcement at 6pm. It sounded important, so they turned on the TV.
“And then the prime minister told everybody to avoid theatres, and that was it.” Dani tells us from her home in Preston. “Literally 10 minutes after that announcement had been made, the email came through from the theatre explaining we can’t continue. The whole industry was gone overnight. And I had to drive home 100 miles the next day to nothing.”
Dani drove back to the town that she’d moved to just a few months prior in order to take up a “dream job” working in theatre. Before that, the 31-year-old had mostly worked at white collar jobs that were well-paid but left her feeling unfulfilled. “Theatre was what I wanted to do, it’s what I was passionate about,” she says. “Some nine to five office job where I can’t be creative and I can’t be me… it’s soul destroying.”
When Dani decided to take the plunge to go freelance full time, she knew it would be hard, and a bit of a risk, but it was one she was willing to take. Plus, she felt like she’d taken plenty of precautions: she had some savings, she had financial support from her partner (who also worked in theatre), and she’d cut down and budgeted all her outgoings to make sure she could live off less money than she was making previously.
At first, everything went better than Dani had ever expected: “Within two weeks, I was fully booked up for the following three weeks with good money, solid money, that was more than I’d ever earned in my life.” She estimated that her yearly earnings would end up at about £35,000, which is above the Preston average of £30k. Combined with her partner’s income, that left Dani in a comfortable financial position at the start of 2020. Then the UK went into lockdown.
While many industries have been affected by the restrictions the UK government brought in to combat the spread of COVID-19, theatres have been particularly badly hit. Dani explains why: “Socially distanced audiences… it’s not financially feasible. You cannot put on a show with 30, 40 per cent capacity.” So even once other businesses started to open back up, theatre staff like Dani and her partner were left in limbo. Her partner, being a full-time employee, was put on furlough, but as a brand-new freelancer Dani wasn’t entitled to any of the government’s income protection schemes. “I’ve fallen through every financial crack that there is,” she sighs.
For a couple of months Dani lived off her savings, hoping things would go back to normal. When they didn’t, she reluctantly turned to jobseekers allowance, a government benefit for the unemployed. “I hated the idea of it because it felt like I’ve lost everything that I’ve achieved these last ten years,” Dani says. When the benefit eventually came through it totalled just £73 a week. “It didn’t even cover my bills. I’ve worked all my life and I’ve paid my tax, my national insurance. I paid everything. So what do I do now? I can’t go back to work. The industry is not there to work in.”
The stress of Dani’s financial situation became so bad she thinks she had a bout of depression. “My whole life changed overnight,” she says. “I’m a strong, independent woman and I can take on anything. But I’ve had my meltdowns these last few months. There’s days where I don’t want to get out of bed because what am I getting out of bed for?”
To cope, she turned to crafting: stickers, stationery and leather crafts. At first, it was just something to keep her occupied while stuck at home. But after getting positive comments from people who saw her creations online, Dani decided to try and turn her hobby into a small business called DD Practical.
Running a business by herself with no experience turned out to be full of challenges. “My partner and I had the conversation of do I just give up the business and go and find a job at Aldi or something like that?” Dani tells us. But she didn’t feel like it was much of an option. There are few job openings around, she says, and those that are available have hundreds of applicants: “I can’t imagine even how to get a job right now.”
So Dani feels like she has no choice but to make the business succeed, especially as, financially, things are about to get much more difficult for her. Dani’s partner is being made redundant in a few weeks, at the same time her benefits are being stopped. She could get credit from the bank but is reluctant: “It is just a black hole… would we ever financially recover?”
“I’m stressed, if I’m honest, I’m stressed,” she tells us. “The money runs out in a few weeks’ time and it’s trying to keep on top of everything. All of the finances of the business… I have no idea how people keep on top of that. I had to literally just Google and wing it and I don’t know where to start, I don’t know what to look for and I don’t know how legitimate the information I’m getting is. I can’t pay my bills. That’s where we need to get to so that we can at least survive… I don’t even feel like we’re surviving at the minute.”