At the time of writing, the World Health Organization has just declared that we are in the grip of a pandemic. Newsfeeds and front pages are filled with stories of life being turned on its head; anxiety is laid bare everywhere.
Coronavirus and its consequences shouldn’t be a dreadful trauma for us theatre people. After all, uncertainty is stitched into the fabric of our lives. Our default setting as theatremakers, particularly freelances, needs to include a ‘roll with the punches’ option.
But, in reality, this is awful news for us. Box office takings countrywide are nosediving amid concerns about being in close proximity to others. Theatres and producers will need to put in place contingency plans for the next year and beyond in order to stay afloat with drastically reduced incomings.
I can’t see how they will be able to survive without concrete support from Arts Council England and the government – after all, we are one of the country’s most lucrative sectors, makings huge revenues from relatively small outlay.
If the need for isolation and quarantine becomes a reality, productivity will grind to a halt. There are very few aspects of our practice that can sustain remote working if the country is placed in lockdown. Maybe production meetings can be done over the phone, but we will need to come up with some very robust and creative solutions, fast, to allow the rest of our work to continue. Rehearsals require close contact. In fact, much of the business of putting on a show is done in the same room.
Shakespeare and his theatre survived bubonic plague – I don’t doubt that we will survive this
As more and more work is cancelled, I see increasing levels of anxiety among my fellow freelances. How are we going to pay the bills?
From writers and their agents, whose sole income is royalties on ticket sales, to actors and directors who teach or lead workshops as a day job, we don’t have the safety net of statutory sick pay. And even though the new chancellor’s budget does extraordinarily grant some allowance for the self-employed, that £95 pounds a week isn’t going to go very far.
There are a couple of positives amid all the panic – it is forcing us to slow down and consider how we live. It is a good thing that we are looking closely at how we as a society function, how much we travel and consume.
Also we are a resilient bunch, theatre people. We make our best work pushing against pressure. Shakespeare and his theatre survived bubonic plague and I don’t doubt that we will survive this. The road ahead will be long and hard; I hope we will be properly supported by government and that, even in self-isolation, we support each other as much as we can.
Stephanie Street is an actor, writer and co-founder of Act for Change. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/stephanie-street/