Writing for us last week, former Arts Council England chair Peter Bazalgette called on theatre to “change into active mode and take the initiative to demonstrate ways of opening up again”. The sector is stepping up to that challenge.
One example is LW Theatres’ bold proposals to use the London Palladium as a test-bed to trial new technologies and systems that might allow one of the West End’s great historic venues to reopen its doors.
This is a crucial initiative, but it should also be stressed that there is no single magic bullet to restart all theatre activity. One size does not fit all. Any workable plan will necessarily be complex and – to some degree – flexible.
There is a real danger that government ministers will not understand this. There is a significant knowledge gap in government about the UK’s complex theatre ecology – long gone are the days when we had a long-serving and informed culture minister in Ed Vaizey and a chancellor of the exchequer who was genuinely sympathetic to the concept of investing in the arts in the form of George Osborne.
Meanwhile, the make-up of the group tasked with devising the government’s plans to reopen our sector leans heavily towards the mainstream and commercial. That will only work if both they and the government listen carefully to the voices who are not represented.
‘The audiences who pay £800 million a year to come to see these huge West End shows discover their love of performance at their local theatres’
Against that background, interventions such as the one by the 65 arts leaders calling for progress on diversity to be maintained are absolutely crucial, as Amanda Parker observes.
They are not alone in voicing a message that can be summed up simply as: do not forget about us.
Our columnist Kate Maltby, very sensibly, advises those trying to convince government to speak in terms that a Tory government will understand.
So, here goes: the West End enjoyed another record year at the box office in 2019, with nearly £800 million in ticket sales, generating more than £130 million in VAT. But that commercial success relies on the rest of the UK’s theatre ecosystem, much of which is quite unlike the West End.
The talent that creates and performs in huge shows such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or War Horse is developed by companies such as those run by the 65 signatories of that letter, or they might get their first job at fringe theatres, on a rural tour or in theatre in education.
Perhaps even more importantly, the audiences who pay £800 million a year to come to see these huge West End shows discover their love of performance at their local theatres. It is crucial the government’s response reflects this.