‘The voices of our communities should inform everything we do in the future’
I want to talk about hope, because when something this unfathomably huge happens it forces you to stop… it asks you who you really are. And in this asking, you whisper to yourself: “What is the point in us? Are we needed?”
And I believe the answer is yes: theatres are needed. We are needed by our communities, by participants, artists and audiences, and by those people who’ve never been before. Because we exist to make connections between people, to create an environment in which collective experiences occur. Where people who may never ordinarily meet come together, and where space is shared.
As an industry it is vital that we invite our communities not only to ‘take part’ in our work but also to ‘become part’ of our decision-making processes.
It is our responsibility as organisations to create spaces in which people feel empowered to speak up, and to feel like they will be heard and valued. Ultimately the voices of these communities should inform everything that our organisations do in the future, ensuring that we are truly relevant to the people we serve.
As artistic leaders, it is up to us to create the mechanisms that will enable this to happen. This time has afforded us a space in which we can all become more transparent – about who we are as leaders, who we invite to make our work, about what our boards look like, about how we create our programmes, about how we respond to injustice and brutality and how we use our platform and power to be useful.
We are simply custodians of a civic space – our theatres belong to everyone and we need to open them up as widely as we can. As I think about the Royal Exchange Theatre, I can imagine our Great Hall as a place where we hold town hall meetings and people can share their aspirations for the theatre. I imagine open mic nights, raves, choir practices, meeting friends, moments of spontaneous creativity.
Our theatres are so much more than the productions we put on
Because our theatre buildings are so much more than the productions we put on, we’re asking ourselves what else can our space be for. How can we re-inject community, where it has been stripped back due to funding cuts, years of austerity and now a global pandemic?
Simply understanding what our communities’ hopes and fears are and giving them ownership of our spaces will inform how we programme, what we commission and who is reflected in our work. If communities can see themselves, it makes spaces that once felt inaccessible accessible and slowly we’ll start to find the people who haven’t thought that their local theatre was a space for them. And we can be a huge part of the recovery process we’re all going to need.
We are at the beginning of this journey and I know that there is so much more to do. If we get this right, we can make a space that is empowering, uplifting and truly belongs to everyone. Our theatres will become more inclusive than ever before – informed by their communities and made resilient by necessity.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.