It is a dangerous time for theatre and live performance. The nature of our work means we will be one of the last industries to open up post-Covid, and it’s hard to put faith in the current government to support the arts.
Cuts and austerity over many years have turned theatre into a lean machine reliant on box-office sales. Staffing has been pared to the bone so that more than 50% of the workforce are freelancers earning less on average than their employed counterparts, sometimes less even than minimum wage, unwilling subsidisers of the arts. Gradually working-class presence on and off stage has diminished, and with little progress toward ethnic representation either, it remains a white middle-class pursuit.
Let’s be honest, theatre has not really worked for a great many even when times were good. And now it is facing extinction.
The instinctive reaction is to jump to a capitalist solution: cut wages, cut people, scale back production, try to make more for less. But what will the new normal look like? I for one will be disappointed if the future is a pared-down world of high-paying audiences watching big-name actors performing monologues in their own clothes, with a bare minimum of technical staff on even further-reduced wages.
Is it idealistic to imagine something better? That even if much is lost in the fire, what grows in its place could be a more diverse and egalitarian industry? One that supports working-class artists, serves all communities and is committed to fair rates of pay so people can be secure in their work?
For this to happen we need government to want to support us. Unfortunately, they are a weak bunch, constantly two weeks behind public opinion on everything that matters. Among the clamour of people trying to stay afloat in the coming months, we need to mobilise the British public to support the arts and, crucially, arts workers.
Share our stories, share our skills, write to our MPs; put a human face on this crisis. We need to dispel the notion that the arts are an elitist luxury or a rarefied calling created for love. Our labour, like anyone else’s, is part of the financial ecosystem that supports both local business and giant conglomerates.
Looking at the sheer numbers of costume freelancers falling through the cracks of current support, it’s clear the Treasury doesn’t understand how theatre works. Casual working, zero hours, PAYE short-term contracts – all encouraged by ministers – became barriers to costume freelancers accessing support.
We must not allow the government to tell us it cannot afford to support the arts, nor to insist workers repay the support they have received. This is a wealthy nation; billionaires have benefited hugely from the system. It is time they paid some of that back, not through charitable giving to ease their consciences but fair personal and corporate taxation. If we want to save the arts, we need to save arts workers.