For as long as it takes us to come through this, then, the theatres are closed. As in many other industries that disappeared more or less overnight as a result of the coronavirus, this has had an immediate, catastrophic impact on thousands of people. It feels slightly uncomfortable for me as a playwright to outline this in too much detail — to work in theatre, after all, is to accept that sometimes you’ll be out of a job, to commit to an uncertain way of living. But it’s a fact that many are now struggling to pay their bills; many don’t know how they’re going to come back from this. Not least because, while it’s too soon to know what the theatre’s going to look like when it returns, it seems unlikely it will look like it did.
How the sector comes back will be determined in large part by the policy government takes towards restarting the economy. A serious programme of investment to stimulate the UK out of recession will prompt a dynamic response from the theatre: it’s one of the sectors where the UK leads the world, full of brilliant people who can be relied on to respond to energy from government with energy of their own. The alternative route, saving our way out of debt, will create a slower, more cautious environment. Whatever happens, though, the sector is going to be worse off.
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Senior figures at the Arts Council have publicly acknowledged that some organisations will go to the wall. Indeed, this has already started: Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax went into administration a week after closing its doors. Some of the diversification that’s taken place across the sector in the past decade, resulting in a proliferation of excellent theatre venues each with a distinct artistic identity, could be undone, as quality is concentrated into a smaller number of organisations still able to pay top rate and pull a crowd. These theatres will continue to make great work seeking to interrogate the world we’re living in with the same fierce purpose that’s characterised the industry for so long.
But of course, other producers will respond by cutting corners and cutting staff, paying less and playing things safer. The nature of ‘playing it safe’ may be unexpected, though. You’d assume a steady diet of revivals led by sit-com stars, but rather than a conservatism of tone, we could see a conservatism of scale, catering for smaller audiences. Some theatres may also seek to safeguard their futures and demonstrate their relevance by redoubling their commitment to their local communities, acting as social hubs where our atomised country can reconnect. A theatre is a place where workshops happen as well as plays, and it may be that an increased emphasis on this is welcomed by people looking for places to process what they’ve been through.
The West End and large-scale touring theatres could face major challenges. Even before the coronavirus, touring theatre in the UK was reaching a critical point, with productions having to be pulled due to lack of sales. If audiences are cautious about coming back to the theatre, this, allied with an inevitable fall in the international tourist trade, will make the books much harder to balance. This may mean we end up with white elephants around the country — large theatres that can’t find shows to keep them open.
This would hit many regional theatres reliant on touring, but there may be ways in which regional communities also benefit from this crisis. Artists who’ve sacrificed quality of life in order to live in flats or rooms too small for their needs in the major cities where there’s work may choose to review whether they’re doing the right thing; many more will be forced to, as scarcity of work drives them to cheaper postcodes. If that happens, it will impoverish the cities those artists leave, but it will make the places the artists move to livelier. Creative people make things, and investment and subsidy do follow, even if they sometimes take a while. There may be towns that catch fire as a result of this crisis.
The industry will have questions and concerns. The theatre has been doing great work in trying to broaden the range of voices we hear from, and represent the whole of society on its stages. It will take careful, targeted investment to ensure this remains at the top of the agenda. The better heeled will inevitably come through this stronger, and underrepresented groups seeking to overcome socioeconomic imbalances in order to be heard will need additional support.
Many artists, and indeed the Arts Council, may also wish to reflect on the fact that when the music stopped, it became clear that what arts subsidy principally really funds in the UK is buildings and administrators; almost all the people who were suddenly destitute were artists, and almost all the people who still had a means of paying the rent worked in the production offices. The current emergency may draw more attention to Art Council’s efforts to find ways of funding artists more directly.
This is a vulnerable moment for an industry in which the UK is the envy of the world. The theatre is going to need to restate its value as we face straitened times, because the subsidy model all the great art and revenue generation of the past 70 years is built on is a recent invention, and could easily ebb. It’s heartening to see MPs and peers lobbying on behalf of the creative industries, with calls for a forum to explore specific government interventions on behalf of the sector; it is to be hoped that these calls have the desired effect, because the theatre, like every other creative industry, is going to need support.
What the theatre will need above all, though, is an audience which recognises that shared experience lifts us up out of loneliness and makes our lives more than they can be on their own. In that respect, this is a once in a generation opportunity for the theatre to truly matter: to provide a traumatised nation with exactly what we need. The theatre is a space where one person listens to another. That’s all it really is. The rest is windowdressing, sometimes even profiteering.
John Heilpern’s book Conference of the Birds, following the director Peter Brook across Africa as he developed his show of the same name, shows us that many of the trappings of the professional theatre are additional and separate to the central act. The return of live theatre, whenever it comes, could be an opportunity to set some of those trappings aside, and take a central role in reconnecting the world.
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