As Covid-19 continues to fuel uncertainty about the future of the arts industry, some agents have found themselves fielding more questions from clients than they have answers for, with a noticeable shift in emphasis from a facilitative to a therapeutic role. Nick Smurthwaite hears their views on the prospect of a ‘new normal’ for theatre post-lockdown
When will theatres reopen? How is social distancing going to work in practice? What future are we working towards? These are some of the questions agents are fielding from their clients on a daily basis. Not surprisingly the emphasis has shifted from a facilitative role to a therapeutic one. “It is imperative we keep talking in the current climate,” says Oliver Thomson, one of the directors of InterTalent. “One of the things we’re employed to do is offer guidance and insight, but offering guidance on the unknown has been a huge challenge.”
‘I wish I could add fortune teller and epidemiologist to the list of services we offer’ Helen Clarkson, Curtis Brown
Helen Clarkson from Curtis Brown says: “I wish I could add fortune teller and epidemiologist to the list of services we offer. Our clients want to hear positivity from us. You can never not be positive, even on the days when you’re not feeling positive at all. We’re not trained therapists or financial advisers, but we’re often in the position of having to point our clients in the right direction.”
Clearly staying positive when the growing likelihood is that theatres will not reopen until next year has been hugely problematic for creatives and agents alike.
“Agents are essentially problem solvers, so it is quite difficult not to have any solution within your grasp,” says Mel Kenyon of Casarotto Ramsay, who represents many of the UK’s top playwrights. “I really worry about our future and how many people will be casualties of this when we come back.”
How has the anxiety caused by the pandemic affected her clients? “There are the lucky few who are financially secure enough to get through a period of unpaid non-productivity,” she says. “Then there is the mid-range category who may never have had a hit show but who earn a decent living year in, year out. They’re already having to make big decisions about remortgaging the house. Then you’ve got young people at the beginning of their careers who are really in trouble. You’d love to be able to put your hand in your pocket, but you can’t do it for one and not everyone else.”
Kenyon fears pandemic anxiety is undermining creativity in many of her clients. She says: “Not everyone is finding it easy to create under these circumstances. Low-level anxiety is quite invasive. Even prolific playwrights have good days and bad days. You need a kind of freedom in order to be creative and we are currently being denied both physical and psychological freedom. One of my writers who has been at it for 40 years or more, told me that for the first time in his life he has been unable to sit at his desk and write.”
For others, it has been an opportunity to cultivate creative urges they didn’t even know they had. InterTalent’s Thomson says he has been “blown away” by the outpouring of online content. “Actors have suddenly become writers, producers, film-makers. Others have taken this time to hibernate, and that’s okay too. We must all do whatever works for us.”
‘The novelty of online shows will wear off. It’s lovely PR, but that’s all it is’ Mel Kenyon, Casarotto Ramsay
The proliferation of online streaming seems to have divided the agent community. On the one hand, they applaud the resourcefulness and industry of their clients, but on the other, they are concerned about the lack of remuneration.
Clarkson says: “It’s great that so much theatre is being streamed, but we need to protect our actors against the work just being thrown out there willy-nilly. It’s quite difficult for us to keep tabs on all the shows that are being put out there. Some theatres, like the National, are offering financial contributions to the actors.”
For Kenyon, the online content doesn’t cut the mustard even though she admires the spirit in which it has been conceived. She says: “During this crisis, our artists have shown exemplary stoicism, generosity and compassion even if they themselves are struggling to keep their heads above water, but my view is that online content does not sustain us artistically or financially, and everyone is giving it away free. It’s great that people are rolling up their sleeves because we’re in a crisis, but we must not take advantage of this to the detriment of the theatre ecology. For me, it’s like having a phone call instead of meeting up with someone. I think the novelty of online shows will wear off. It’s lovely PR, but that’s all it is.”
It seems one of the more positive things to have emerged from the crisis is the mutual support agents have shown towards one another. “There is no rivalry among agencies at the moment,” says Clarkson. “It’s all about the bigger agencies, like ours, supporting the smaller ones so that we all make it through the pandemic together. Curtis Brown has firm foundations but some of the smaller agencies, as well as supporting their clients, are naturally concerned about their own future.”
‘Now more than ever, we need to come together to work out how we’re going to move forward’ Lola Williams, New Wonder Management
Lola Williams of New Wonder Management, which has 65 actors on its books, says she has appreciated the regular group video chats with other agents in recent weeks. She says: “Now more than ever, we need to come together to work out how we’re going to move forward.”
So how does each agent view the prospect of what’s being called “the new normal” – how live theatre will look when the lockdown is finally lifted and what difference it will make to their operations?
“Despite the terrifying impact Covid-19 has had on us, it has also given us a chance to pause and reflect on the past, consider the future and what makes us happy,” says Thomson. “I’m not yet sure how this will change the way we operate going forward, but I feel very passionate about the industry I’m part of and I think this passion will drive us through the struggles that will inevitably follow.”
‘I feel very passionate about the industry I’m part of and I think this passion will drive us through the struggles that will follow’ Oliver Thomson, InterTalent
Williams is optimistic about some kind of return to live performance: “If the government can come up with some kind of immunity passport, theatres may be able to reopen later this year. But if they’re not going to reopen until next year, I think we’re in real trouble. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a really slow and gradual process. Realistically, I think film and TV will start work again sooner than theatre.”
Reopening in September is looking “more and more unlikely”, according to Clarkson. She says: “I can’t see any return happening this year. It is not financially viable for a theatre to run a house at 40% capacity, and social distancing in those Frank Matcham theatres is almost impossible. They may be beautiful, but they are not the roomiest of buildings. You have to keep reminding your clients that this won’t last forever, that theatre will come back, even if it’s going to be tricky and slow.”
Kenyon thinks social distancing in theatres is likely this year, but remains unconvinced it is the answer. She says: “If by late autumn we can resume some form of theatregoing, wearing smart watches and having temperature checks, we’ll have to get used to a new reality. I don’t know how it will work, if the Olivier can only seat 300, and the Royal Court can only seat 100. At present, I don’t feel the industry can survive social distancing. I cannot imagine sitting in a theatre, with a mask on, with four empty seats around me, and no bars to retreat to in the interval.”
She continues: “The beautiful thing about British and European theatre for me has always been that you can sit in the bar afterwards, or in the interval, and talk about the performance. The whole thing is about communication and connection, stimulating you emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. I can’t see how the new normal is going to be as nourishing.”
Social distancing, ultimately, won’t work either economically or for that desired communal experience, Kenyon adds. “All those people going into a single space to share an experience is an act of trust, it’s all about community and collaboration.”