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Long Read: As Brexit chaos reigns, what does it really mean for theatre?

A scene from My Country: A Work in Progress, the National Theatre’s response to Brexit, in 2017. Pho
A scene from My Country: A Work in Progress, the National Theatre’s response to Brexit, in 2017. Pho
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Performing arts exports to Europe – alongside music and visual arts – are worth £360 million to the UK, but that and numerous jobs are under threat from a disorderly departure from the EU. Mark Shenton talks to senior theatremakers and festival organisers about what happens next for an industry they fear may become isolated and insular


Two years on from parliament’s move to trigger Article 50, and Brexit is in chaos. At the time of going to press there is no deal in place for an orderly departure, no direction and no certainty. The news changes by the minute, allegiances are formed and broken, and much of the discourse is toxic. Is the nation divided or just bored of it all? This week everything was supposed to be clear, and Britain was supposed to leave the European Union on March 29 with a brilliant future ahead of it. That was before it all changed again.

So what happens now? Across the nations and regions, the borders and future relationship with Europe, confusion reigns. For Britain’s artistic leaders, the position has been particularly troublesome. Arts and cultural exchanges know no borders and many theatres, companies and performers have developed deep and longstanding ties with counterparts on the mainland.

Britain’s cultural influence and exports have long been a global success story. No wonder then, as parliament debated when to trigger Article 50 and formally initiate Brexit in January 2017, in his role as chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, Samuel West campaigned for a set of six assurances to be agreed before the process to leave formally started “to safeguard the future of UK audiences and artists”.

Samuel West launches campaign urging MPs to back the arts as Article 50 vote looms

Among the assurances the NCA sought was that Britain should retain tariff-free access to the EU market for goods and services and the government should support showcasing opportunities for arts and culture in other current and developing global markets. It pointed out Arts Council England stats that showed 56% of the UK’s exports of music, performing arts and visual arts went to Europe in 2014 – worth £362 million to the economy and invaluable to thousands of artists who rely on exporting to the EU for their livelihoods.

As West said at the time: “It is vital for the future of audiences and the arts in the UK that Brexit negotiations take into account how important being a member of the EU has become to the health of the world-leading sector. The future for the UK arts, and for the UK’s artistic reputation around the world, could be very bright – but only if we know that the current position on everything from arts funding to copyright does not suffer from us leaving the EU.”

Impact on creative industries

Yet here we are, exactly two years later, and there is no clarity on these or really any other issues at all. Speaking to West now, he isn’t hopeful: “People are confused and bored and that’s a tragedy; we are sleepwalking into a nervous breakdown.”

Today he speaks of the impact on all the creative industries, not just how it affects him as an actor. “The need and ability to move people fast, at short notice, in large numbers, for short times, is essential to a cultural hub like London, particularly with something like visual effects or video games. The work is extremely itinerant – the hubs are London, Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver, and if [we] can’t get them into London, they will go elsewhere.”

Almost a third of those working in the visual effects industry are EU citizens, he points out, “plus our citizens get fantastic jobs in the EU that they won’t get now. Of course it’s easy to say that those jobs should go to British people. But we should also be training them. If the government put creative subjects into the curriculum, and worried more about creative subjects at GCSE dropping 20% in 10 years, I’d worry less about where these creative UK citizens of the future – that Mrs May says she wants – are going to come from.”

‘People are confused and bored and that’s a tragedy; we are sleepwalking into a nervous breakdown’ National Campaign for the Arts chair Samuel West

Meanwhile, British actors and creatives will be denied opportunities in Europe if and when the shutters come down. “I can well imagine a very important strand of the profession drying up,” West says. “Specifically for me, I’m a medium-range actor who might, if I’m lucky, get a few days’ work in a Euro film that shoots in Bucharest, for instance. I might get the script on Tuesday, the audition on Thursday, and if I get the job I fly on Friday – if I don’t need a visa. If I do need a visa, they’ll give it to the French guy. So the money I would have got for that job and the tax I would have paid on it go to France and not to Great Britain. That’s why we won’t be as competitive post-Brexit.”

He offers a purely commercial rationale for why this competitive advantage needs to be maintained: “It has to be said that one of the reasons we want this industry treated specially is that we’re especially good at it. Whether its classical music or building sets for films or acting in them or making video games, we’re really world-beating at this. The GVA [gross added value] of the creative industries hit £100 billion for the first time in 2017, it employs more than two million people and is the second fastest-grossing sector in the economy.”

Ideas without borders

But it goes deeper than just money, to the philosophical basis of why and how humans make art in the first place. As West says: “At heart, we believe in the artistic principle that ideas have no borders. They don’t worry about things like visas; if the people who come up with them do, you’re putting barriers in the way of thoughts and freedoms. We will go back to being an insular, inward-looking country and our art will be less exciting, and people will want to see less of it and come here to see it less often.”

Composer Howard Goodall also fears the impact of the end of freedom of movement on musicians, saying it will affect them particularly badly as so much of their work is across Europe. “There are no arrangements of any kind for work permits or visas for UK players in the EU – where 60% of our music is sold – after March 29 in any scenario. That work, which also impacts dancers, opera singers and stage technicians who, for example, work on touring shows of musicals across the EU, simply becomes instantly impossible. There’s a further impact across the creative industries in terms of incoming skills and talents. For example, with my Mr Bean animated movies, 20 to 25% of the workforce in high-skilled sectors of film, TV and video games are EU citizens whose niche talents are not replicable by the UK workforce in anything under 10 years.”

Photo: Jane Cox

‘There are no arrangements for work permits or visas for UK players in the EU – where 60% of our music is sold – after March 29’ Composer Howard Goodall

He points to the international television phenomenon Game of Thrones, which is filmed in Northern Ireland and Croatia. Its pre and post-production is in London, with EU tax breaks and ease of movement between all the locations making it cheaper to produce here than in the US, the market for which HBO originally conceived it. That model, says Goodall, ends if or when Brexit happens. Game of Thrones has shot its last season, but were a similar show looking to replicate the model, it would have to be relocated elsewhere, and all the jobs and revenue around such a project would disappear.

“Most modern British films, such as The Favourite, are the result of pan-EU funding and casting,” Goodall continues. “Where there are co-production deals between countries, a certain number of jobs therein are divided up across the sector. So it could mean the music is recorded in one place, the design team is another nationality and the cast is made up of several. As we drop out of co-productions with EU members, so the jobs will go. All the outfits associated with post-production, at which London excels, will now face layoffs and at worst bankruptcy as that work goes elsewhere. That includes our fragile, world-class recording studios that employ so many musicians. The only people I know in the film business who are fully up to speed with the implications of this are those at the top of the producing pyramid. I’m not sure the rest of the workforce has woken up to it yet.”

Walter Meierjohann is a German director, now based in London, who presided over the theatre programming at Manchester’s Home when it opened in 2015 and stepped down last year. He is certainly alive to the changes that are imminent. “A lighting designer I know who normally works half the time in Britain and half on the continent told me he has no offers for work in Europe for the next year. And a Danish producer has told me he is not inviting any British work for the next year.” The impact is already real.

Meierjohann trained in Berlin and lived there for 10 years before moving to Britain, where he first worked for David Lan at the Young Vic. “He made internationalism part of its ethos, with directors like Luc Bondy, Patrice Chéreau and Peter Brook working there. He was keen to mix British and European work. And when I went to Home, I felt like I was carrying that torch to the regions,” Meierjohann says. “Within the constraints of our budgets, I really wanted to have a European way of work; I introduced a dramaturg to work on different productions, not just my own, and brought in European designers. I thought that two theatre cultures that are both very rich but very different should speak to each other more.”

Those conversations are likely to be constrained after Brexit in whatever form that takes. On the one hand, “the biggest innovator for British theatre was EasyJet and Ryanair”, Meierjohann says. “It meant that young theatre directors from London could travel to Berlin more cheaply than going to Manchester, and were able to see a completely different aesthetic.” Yet on the other hand: “International work is expensive. With shrinking budgets, internationalism is the first thing to go. So suddenly there’s an alignment between Brexiteers and leaders in theatres who are forced to make their programme more national instead of international.”

The biggest question for him around Brexit now is how British theatre responds. The National Theatre staged My Country; A Work in Progress based on a listening exercise around the UK, “but I was surprised there was not one European voice in it”.

Meierjohann adds: “I know that plays are being read or interpreted through Brexit – for example, the National’s Tartuffe – but where is the positioning to show the possibilities for more exchange and that theatre can make a positive change? We need now to do more international work, not less.”

Nowhere is that ambition to bring UK and international artists together better shown than in the biennual programmes of the London International Festival of Theatre and Manchester International Festival. LIFT’s two most recent festivals, in 2016 and 2018, have involved 95 artists, companies, funders and partners from across the EU, including the 2016 co-commission of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s) at the Barbican, co-produced with Odeon-Theatre de l’Europe; and more recently Creation (Pictures for Dorian), Gob Squad’s latest show at the Southbank Centre, which was produced by Berlin’s HAU Hebbel am Ufer and supported by six different European organisations.

Gob Squad: The unruly Anglo-German theatre collective still evolving after 25 years

Creative Europe projects

Kris Nelson, the incoming artistic director of LIFT, who is now planning the 2020 festival, says: “I’m glad I’m not presenting a festival in 2019, and my heart goes out to those that are. The uncertainty and the political climate are really unfathomable. I’m working on half a dozen scenarios at the same time. It particularly affects our Creative Europe collaborations. Over the last three festivals, our involvement in four Creative Europe projects has directly supported more than 30 shows, events and residencies and seen us meet, share ideas and collaborate with around 40 European festivals and venues, from the Balkans to the Baltics.

Photo: Stephen Moloney

‘The uncertainty and the political climate are really unfathomable’ Kris Nelson, incoming artistic director of LIFT

“Around 60% of the UK’s national portfolio organisations have international activity. So we’re looking at versions where Creative Europe isn’t involved at all, or programmes are cut or moved elsewhere. There are all sorts of opportunities that could be lost. In a ‘no-deal’ scenario, freight and carnets for goods and movement of people will become a lot more difficult. I fear there’ll be a cooling off across the board of international and European artists coming to Britain because it will all seem more complicated, and as austerity continues to dole out its goods, international programmes among our colleagues could diminish too.”

Nelson adds that the “general atmosphere” needs to be addressed. “There are odd signs coming from the Home Office. For example, last year I was a signatory to a letter from the sector about how they were rejecting more and more visas, seemingly arbitrarily.”

MIF works to a different template and timetable, creating mostly new work with partners from across the world that is premiered in Manchester before then heading to other festivals and venues that co-produce with them. “So we’re used to dealing with complex travel arrangements and visas already,” says John McGrath, artistic director of the festival. “Ninety-five percent of our work is newly created, so by and large they will already be rehearsing and in tech in Manchester for their final stages. So we’re not expecting Brexit, whenever it occurs, to have a real material impact on the festival, even though it’s happening in July.”

Photo: Tarnish Vision

‘We live in a very complicated world and to some degree our job in the arts is to address and respond to that complexity’ MIF artistic director John McGrath

Cross-continent artists

The festival draws on artists from across five continents, and although McGrath says it is “very committed to our European collaborations”, that is not its sole focus. Brexit may make things harder but, even so, McGrath is sanguine: “We live in a very complicated world and to some degree our job in the arts is to address and respond to that complexity. I think we can’t expect to live in a world separate from the complexity others are having to deal with.”

Photo: Trevor Leighton

‘To go back to borders, boundaries, passport controls and making it much harder to collaborate with each other is an insane, retrograde step’ Actor Juliet Stevenson, earlier this year

But at the launch of this year’s MIF, Juliet Stevenson, who will be appearing in the festival in Re:creating Europe, an evening of texts and speeches that have shaped Europe, told The Stage: “To go back to borders, boundaries, passport controls and making it much harder to collaborate with each other is an insane, retrograde step. I spent last year filming a series called Riviera, which had a French crew, Belgian director, German cameraman, English, Swiss and American casts, and it’s particularly those sorts of things that are going to be much harder.”

Bradley Hemmings, who presides over London’s largest annual free festival of outdoor work as director of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, also worries about the impact of work both arriving here and seeking a European audience from here. “UK artists rely on touring to outdoor festivals in other countries, and that could become a lot more difficult,” he says. “But also what happens when we invite international companies to come here is that we commission the haulage and freight from their local suppliers. What’s difficult now is the lack of information: there’s only guidance about avoiding the route across the straits of Dover. So we’re having to find extra money to bring companies earlier, using alternative routes into the UK to mitigate against stuff not arriving in time. Our festival opens on June 21, so even if there’s a three-month delay to Brexit, we’ll still be in the middle of it.”

But he hopes the festival will, whatever happens, provide a public place for sharing an experience and healing some of our divisions.“The job of a festival, in the midst of this divisive moment, is to bring people together and heal this rupture that has happened, rather than engaging in the rights and wrongs of it. Public spaces are a very precious resource, and offer a way in which we can all come together.”

Emotional and economic rupture

Tim Etchells, artistic director of Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment, which has a large touring network throughout Europe, will be marking March 29 – the original Brexit date – with a six-hour durational performance of the company’s 1994 show Speak Bitterness at Amsterdam’s Frascati. It will be live-streamed online on the night. He also worries about the emotional as well as economic rupture of the country. “For me, Brexit is the UK face of the turn to the right that we’ve seen in the US and much of mainland Europe. The poisonous, xenophobic, racist atmosphere that has been accelerated since the Brexit vote is profound, and that damage can’t be undone; it’s been amplified and given a permission in public discourse. At our core is a desire to speak into the political situation and make work reflecting on that.”

Photo: Mark Douet

‘The industry is going to have to hold steady during these turbulent times’ Kiln artistic director Indhu Rubasingham, speaking in December

Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director of the Kiln Theatre in London, told The Stage in December that 2019 “is going to be tumultuous for the country. Theatre could have a crucial role in reflecting and refracting this, acknowledging the divisions and giving voice for these opinions to be heard. The industry is going to have to hold steady during these turbulent times.”

Theatre could provide answers, as well as continue to ask questions, around this massive shift in our culture. As LIFT’s Nelson says: “I’m hearing over and over from the sector and audiences that LIFT is more important than ever, and I believe that. Throughout our history, we’ve opened up spaces to international voices and experiences, and those international artists may have solutions that we don’t have.”

Latest Brexit news and features: thestage.co.uk/tag/brexit


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