I once witnessed a car crash in which a pedestrian was sent flying. Remarkably, she got up and walked out of the path of traffic. It was only then that she looked down at her legs and, noticing they were both broken, collapsed.
Sometimes a state of denial is handy, necessary even – it helps us to survive an initial shock or avoid confronting something too big to deal with. Many actors have to exist in a state of denial to even get on stage. It also got that pedestrian off the road.
After a few weeks of not looking down, of imagining different returns to normal in the next few months, it’s time. We’re not walking anywhere soon. As a sector, we will only fully manage this crisis if we seriously consider the profound implications of this, and the possible impact on the livelihoods of many thousands. Facing the worst must also mean taking action, collaborating and adapting to survive. Collapsing is not an option.
The story of the British stage isn’t smooth, and great evolutions have often come from huge challenges. Shakespeare’s theatre was closed by the plague, and when it reopened the plays headed indoors. The Puritans shut the theatres in the 17th century, and when they reopened, Cleopatra was finally played by a woman. The Arts Council was born in the aftermath of the Second World War. Crucially, each reopening was underpinned by state intervention to get the industry back on its feet.
Our modern sector would have been unrecognisable to Shakespeare, Congreve or Rattigan: complex, world class and – despite appearances – completely interdependent, from the smallest rural touring company to the West End. Whatever our differences – commercial or subsidised, big or small, contract or freelance – we must speak and advocate together.
But advocate for what?
This crisis has brought our priorities as a society into sharp focus: children have to eat, nurses, care workers and bus drivers have to be protected as they work, people have to be able to breathe. We are forced to distil our lives down to their essentials. So what is the essence of our work? The art or the craft? The local or the national? Some of it will endure without actual congregation, without buildings. But the parts that will inevitably be damaged beyond measure must be identified, and then collectively and coherently fought for. That, it seems to me, is the most important task for this moment.
Whatever our differences – commercial or subsidised, big or small, contract or freelance – we must advocate together
Meanwhile, we must pursue every possible idea that might contribute to riding out this storm: prototyping ideas about social distancing, maximising the burgeoning new digital opportunities with the same ambitions for excellence and representation we bring to the stage, stretching our practice in education and community-building, considering any and every way our spaces might be used to pay wages or contribute to society. More than ever, we need to explore everything from the perspective of what we can do, not what we used to do.
Theatres will reopen, people will again gather in large numbers. With the help of brilliant scientists and a bit of luck, that may happen sooner rather than later. But as a wise man once said, luck is a dividend of sweat. With energy, imagination and the courage to look down, it may not be luck that defines whether we’re standing again when audiences return.