Fewer risks could be taken on new and challenging work as a result of the fallout from coronavirus, artistic directors and actors have warned, amid concerns that producers will turn to light-hearted, commercially driven shows to help profits.
The issue was raised by artistic directors including Derby Theatre’s Sarah Brigham, with actors also sharing their fears for the knock-on effects of a more risk-averse industry.
Brigham said she felt frustrated with the idea that audiences will only want to attend "uplifting" theatre once shows are allowed to restart.
"When lockdown is over, the first thing that’s going to happen is a massive release and a need for joy and connection, of course... but I hope that it doesn’t become just another excuse to swing the industry towards lighter work. That work is needed, but in a mix," she said.
"Look at what we’re watching that’s on TV and Netflix now. We’re watching Killing Eve and Quiz – they’re hardly light, fluffy dramas. Just because of what we are going through, does that mean we just want to watch comedy reruns of Morecambe and Wise? That’s not what we’re doing in lockdown so why would we do it when we come out of it?" she said.
"The received work that is coming our way at the moment is really frothy... We do programme a little bit of that fluffy stuff, but when I think abut what’s coming across my desk, I’ve not had anyone come to me with a version of 1984," she said, adding: "This should be a reason to bring us closer together, not to go back to old ways of thinking and old excuses like, ‘We can’t programme that because it won’t attract the audience.’”
Matthew Xia, artistic director of Actors Touring Company, acknowledged that a need for commercial successes could "tip the scales" in the direction of light-hearted work for the industry as a whole.
"For people to want more hope or optimism in their art isn’t the same as people wanting fluff and air. I think people still want to understand the human experience and the human condition, maybe even more so," he told The Stage, but stressed the need for "a varied diet".
He added: "Going into a building with lots of people may be perceived as a risk in a way that it wasn’t previously, but that may just mean that people are a little more selective in what they go and see. We can’t say what is meaningful and relevant to one person or another, but that kind of broad comedy, lightweight, lowest common denominator stuff only satisfies a small group of people really."
Xia went on to say that smaller companies, such as ATC, could be key to helping theatre get back on its feet.
"It might be us smaller touring or resident companies that are able to be a spark plug to get things going again because we can operate in rooms of under 60, or under 200, but there is a question of how quick or slow that trickle back into theatre is going to be," he said.
An actor who regularly works at major theatres, said they and fellow performers had become concerned that producers would fall back on safe titles and engaging well-known names rather than take risks on new work and talent.
The performer, who did not wish to be named, said: "I think people are going to be looking for stuff that’s tried, tested and guaranteed – just look at Mark Rylance and Jerusalem. It feels like theatres are not going to go: “Look, we’ve got this passionate new director with a first time playwright.” Other than new-writing theatres, I can’t see that happening, and I don’t see risks being taken on non-name actors either."
They added: "In terms of casting, this has always been a fairly risk-averse profession anyway. That kind of thing is going to be more prevalent."
They said actors and other freelance theatre workers could also be disadvantaged by the need to stage postponed shows in the months after buildings reopen.
"There will obviously be a lot of rescheduling. So if you didn’t have a job lined up before this, then your chance of getting a job after this will be limited, so the people who are not in those shows are doing to have to wait even longer to get back to work."