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Dave Wybrow: Theatre needs to speak out now or face a post-Brexit skills crisis

Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock
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The Creative Industries Federation’s recent Global Talent Report made a worrying statement: The UK creative sector faces a “major skills crisis” if freedom of movement ends after Brexit without a replacement system to support industry needs.

Almost 7% of the creative sector workforce nationwide is from the EU. For theatre, particularly London theatre, the situation is far worse. And the problem goes beyond staff shortages. London drives theatre and live events across the country – and 10% of the staff is from continental Europe. As visa schemes are juggled behind closed doors, it’s not just staff that is draining away. It is also staff morale and the cross-border flows of ideas, energy and cultural connectivity that have nurtured our industry for 40 years.

Why are leading theatre voices within the capital not speaking out? What do we want post-Brexit? UK Theatre and Society of London Theatre are virtually silent. Likewise Equity. And leaders of our major institutions seem confused.

The National Theatre’s Rufus Norris felt the referendum showed how out of touch theatre is (possibly at the NT, but I’d deny it at the Cockpit). However, this reticence to critique what’s happening isn’t helpful. Guilt is not a good way to face a crisis. And this is a crisis.

Theatre has rightly responded to previous calls to be more diverse, reach younger audiences, and address exclusion. Now we’re responding to calls to address regional differences. So why are we not responding to the prospect of 10% of our staff becoming second-class citizens?

We wouldn’t let this pass unchallenged were EU citizens any other group. We should be protesting not only the looming costs, cultural decline and comparative stagnation, but also the appalling treatment of 1.1 million of our fellow Londoners, 18,000 of whom work in the arts, entertainment and recreation industry.

Why are we not reflecting the rejection, confusion and anger felt by many working for us? We talk about ‘post-Brexit’. Sky Arts has announced the first commissions of its £1 million project making 50 artworks exploring post-Brexit Britain. For theatre, post-Brexit is too late. The Brexit mantra that everything is on hold, that business can’t make decisions until the government lays out the future, has deadened us to the need to protest and argue – and to do it now, before it’s too late.

The government is never going to be able to lay out the future of a sector it has never understood. Unaffordable rents for young people, the criminalisation of arts squats and the loss of a London-wide arts conversation as London arts press coverage fragments, have combined to threaten the health and vibrancy of London theatre. And Brexit is the most damaging event of all – but its exact nature is still up for grabs.

The Global Talent Report is right to argue against visas for arts workers. The London Assembly is right to argue for regional exemptions. London theatre must support these calls at some of the industry’s showpiece events coming up in the next few months. Staff, performers and audiences from all regions, European and otherwise, will be making them happen and it will be gross industrial, cultural and human negligence not to make that point.

Now, when theatre and its radical artists – wherever they are – are needed, globally, more than ever, is not the time for reticence. Unless we tell politicians what to do, they will mess it up. Theatre is not their job. It’s ours. We should be speaking out.

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