What sort of cultural world do we want? Is it sufficient to save the remnants and try to claw back something resembling what we had before the pandemic? Or is there still a chance to build something better?
When the government first announced its furlough scheme, as the sheer scale of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear, it was a source of shock as well as relief. Could it really be coming so close to the socialist notion that workers should be supported through circumstances beyond their control?
But for many these hopes were short-lived and replaced by crushing disappointment. As the weeks dragged on the government increasingly closed ranks and resisted engaging with the many forgotten freelancers the furlough scheme and even the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme failed to reach.
I am part of the Theatrical Guild, a charity for backstage workers that has been helping theatre staff for more than 100 years. We have been supporting theatre workers throughout this crisis and the numbers are alarming. We knew it was going to be bad. Long before Covid-19, we had been talking to people whose working lives were unremittingly precarious. Short-term contracts, buyout contracts, zero-hours contracts: all terms loved by employers, but they do not allow workers to thrive.
When did the contract between employer and employee become so heavily weighted towards the employer in the UK? When did all the financial risk for an endeavour fall to the least paid among us? When did we collectively decide to accept that a casual worker who contracts cancer might simply be dropped from a rota and rely on charity to support them because they are not entitled to sick pay?
How can we harness our new-found activism, cooperation and passion for the arts to make theatre better?
At what stage during lockdown did employers decide the burden for saving theatres would fall on their already stretched employees, casual staff and zero-hours workers, with reduced wages and extra unpaid hours to ensure Covid-safe working? What high-level Zoom did those conversations happen in?
As redundancies were announced and theatres started to close, a large campaign mobilised to protect the arts. Commercial theatre hand-in-hand with the subsidised sector, designers, freelancers, members of the public, the forgotten, the excluded, the marginalised – all demanding the government do more.
On July 5, 2020, government announced it would. And once more the industry is shocked and relieved. The calls have been answered, the public pressure has worked. But the big questions remain: we deserve to know how this money will be spent, because as with the furlough scheme, the devil will be in the detail.
If this pandemic has shown us anything it is that workers are the most important part of the system. It is not enough to return to the status quo, or worse, to allow employers to turn the pandemic into an opportunity to reduce workers’ contractual rights further. How can we harness our new-found activism, cooperation and passion for the arts to make theatre better?