Theatres across the UK have been closed due to the C-19 lockdown. Performances require the assembly of groups of people and the rehearsal of theatre requires close proximity. All touring work has stopped dead. Drama school graduation shows have been cancelled. Some venue staff have been furloughed and some freelance creatives (the lifeblood of theatre) have received support from Rishi Sunaks Self-employment relief fund. Arts Council England has been swift and effective in supporting companies and individuals with emergency funding but still many creatives have no income whatsoever. Nuffield Southampton has closed; Birmingham Hippodrome has made redundancies and more than a few regional theatres teeter on the brink of collapse. The Young Vic has already used up half of its reserves. The National Theatre warns of imminent catastrophe. Theatres of all scales can’t bank on producing Christmas shows, most of which accrue 50% of annual income in the eight-week festive period. The impact of swingeing cuts in government and local subsidy over the past five years has led to an increased reliance for survival on ticket sales, which stand currently at zero.
This isn’t just an interval, it’s the final curtain because whatever happens next both micro and macro-economics dictate that ‘business as usual’- a picking up of the action in the second half after a hiatus- is impossible. Theatre as it was pre C-19 is gone.
And do we want a continuation of that first half anyway? Or can a revolutionised second half take us to a better place? A stronger show?
Prior to the crisis many theatres in the subsidised sector struggled to marry a healthy bottom line with a commitment to the fullest representation of humanity on stage. Studio and identity specific silo-ing of BAME, disability and LGBTQ+ focused work meant general audiences could have been deprived of seeing high quality diverse theatre. Main house programmes- in spite of diverse casting choices and disability specific initiatives such as Ramps On The Moon– perhaps leant into the bias of main house audiences, reinforcing the lived experience of affluent people who could afford high ticket prices. The classical canon may be re-interpreted to include diverse experiences, but the voices and stories and lives entire from those communities were not as well integrated into main house programming as they could have been.
Indicatively in recent years work featuring actors with learning disabilities – my area of specialism with Separate Doors – found itself labelled ‘community-focused’ and moved into the smaller spaces or became ‘event theatre’- where once actors with Down’s Syndrome and other neuro-divergences worked alongside other actors in the headline programme.
Pre the C-19 interval there was too often one show in the main house, for those able to afford the ticket price, and one in the community centre – for everyone else.
People have died and suffered immensely in this pandemic and continue to do so. The function of theatre and story is to make meaning, entertain and inform and it will be needed to both make sense of – and divert from – so much loss and hardship in the years ahead. It must, more than ever before, be relevant to all people emotionally and economically distressed.
Today statues of slave traders, racists and colonialists are being torn down and offensive TV comedy is being removed from view. Never before have we had the ability to witness the prejudice and verbal violence of previous generations on an endless digital loop. Theatre- with the exception of the classics- always reinvents and speaks to new generations, new thought, new debate and new world views. This is our strength and our possibility.