No one reading the stark submissions to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee could be left in much doubt that British theatre is facing an existential crisis without significant further government intervention.
From Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, to Zippos Circus, to the Little Theatre Guild, the full spectrum of performing arts is facing a challenge of a scale it has not seen – and probably never considered – before.
There is something grimly symbolic in the fact that Shakespeare’s Globe has emerged as one of the key organisations to reveal itself to be at serious risk. As someone who is writing (well, hopefully not at the moment) a biography of Britain’s most famous playwright, one would think Boris Johnson fully understands what a core part theatre plays in Britain’s national identity.
This is as true of the commercial as the subsidised. All theatre is public, even civic in some sense. The West End, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Edinburgh Fringe are just as much a part of our nation’s culture as organisations that have more traditionally been in receipt of government money.
British theatre is a deeply interconnected ecology
Indeed, if there is one thing the current crisis has thrown into sharp relief, it is that British theatre is a deeply interconnected ecology, to an extent that is not replicated anywhere else in the world.
In most of Europe, where cultural funding tends to be much more generous, there is a greater divide between the commercial and subsidised. There is less interplay – even a certain animosity – between the two and the type of work created across the different sectors is distinct. In the US, the division is equally clear but for the opposite reasons.
Since Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Shakespeare Company created Les Misérables in the 1980s, the symbiotic relationship between the two halves of British theatre has been its greatest strength. During the current crisis, it is a weakness. The subsidised sector has become so lean and commercial that lockdown has wiped out a far greater proportion of its income than had it been more reliant on government funding.
Meanwhile, the commercial sector has done such a good job of ramping up the creative ambition of its output that it has become increasingly reliant on the talent development that the subsidised sector offers.
This interdependence comes across loud and clear in the various submissions to the DCMS committee and extends beyond those who directly create work, to suppliers and support services – all of which are crucial cogs in theatre’s intricate and delicate machinery. Damage one and the whole thing crumbles.
It is therefore crucial that however the government responds, it considers the full gamut of the companies that make up the performing arts: from a self-employed independent fringe artist to technical suppliers and global commercial producers.