Theatre is going to need all the help it can get to come out of the other side of coronavirus in anything like the rude health it entered it.
When the country does tentatively start to exit lockdown, large communal activities such as theatre are going to be among the last to reopen. Even then, it will likely be with some modifications: reduced capacities, temperature testing on entrance, maybe even smaller casts due to cramped backstage facilities – and I can’t imagine too many people wanting to crush round a theatre bar in the interval. These are all things that will affect the industry’s ability to run at anything like full throttle.
It’s quite likely that theatre and its workforce will require support, through extended government subsidy, after many other industries have returned to something resembling normal. Indeed, the same might be the case for restaurants and pubs – any sectors that are unable to operate normally after lockdown has lifted for others.
That being the case, theatre will have to make a very strong case for special treatment from the government. We need to start rehearsing our arguments now.
‘When the country does tentatively start to exit lockdown, theatres are likely to be among the last to reopen – even then, with some modifications’
We can point to the huge amount of VAT that theatre generates directly for the public purse, the tourists it attracts and the soft power it helps Britain wield around the world. How are other businesses in the West End going to cope without the draw of a booming Theatreland?
We can point to the fact that people are going to need and want entertainment after months cooped up. We can point to the social role of theatre: the way it brings people together for a communal experience in an age of isolation. Let us hope that will be much in demand after lockdown. We can point to the huge role it now plays in the education system – even more so after the arts were scaled back in the curriculum.
And we could do a lot worse than point to the TV series Quiz to illustrate the absolutely pivotal role that theatre plays in other creative art forms, such as TV and film.
It is, as David Benedict observes, quite remarkable to what extent this hit television series – arguably the most-talked about TV show during the lockdown – owes its existence to theatre. The cast and creative team are a beautiful exemplar of the way that UK theatre’s ecosystem develops talent.
I remember first seeing one of Graham’s plays, Little Madam, at the Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court, west London, in 2007.
Meanwhile, Sian Clifford has also been a regular at some of London’s fringe theatres and more recently appeared in Gloria at Hampstead Theatre and Consent in the West End. She is also probably best known to the general public for her role in Fleabag – another world-beating TV show that started its life in theatre, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Michael Sheen performed in the first production for National Theatre Wales; Matthew Macfadyen was a regular in Cheek by Jowl productions before he became known for Spooks; Helen McCrory broke through at the National Theatre when she appeared in Trelawny of the ‘Wells’.
All these places that were crucial stepping stones in these careers are precisely the kind of theatres and companies that are under threat without sustained support.
To quote Graham, who has recently been impressively banging the drum for the importance of arts and culture: “We like to think of ourselves as being the best in the world at this, it’s why even A-list Hollywood movies like Star Wars get made here, because we have the skills base.
“That skills base won’t exist in three months’ time without help, because people will have to leave the industry and go and do something else.
“This is one of the last areas where the British still excel all over the world. We are still the ones who win the awards and get to share the work, and that will go without really radical government intervention.”
Given the demands that the public purse is going to face, this is going to be a difficult argument to make, so we are going to have to get very good at making it.