“Back soon” proclaims the illuminated sign hanging over the front of London’s Royal Court Theatre since it went dark. It’s like a beacon shining out over a deserted Sloane Square.
Theatres, and all who work in the industry, in whatever capacity, understandably feel uncertain and bereft at the moment, but the sign – replacing the one that normally proclaims the name and author of the main house show – reminds us that whatever happens over the next few months, theatre will be back.
Almost certainly bruised and battered, but it will be back.
As John Steinbeck once observed: “Theatre is the only institution in the world that has been dying for 4,000 years and never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.” And as the rapid response from artists and theatre workers to Covid-19 has proved, it has got the tough, devoted people necessary to see us through.
While the government has dithered, created uncertainty and extended support to businesses and those paying mortgages, self-employed freelancers and renters – which is a substantial part of the theatre industry – find themselves high and dry. If ever there was a moment to introduce a basic universal wage rather than bail out Richard Branson, this is it.
Fortunately, schemes started by Luke Barnes, Bryony Kimmings and Middle Child are just some of the nimble, light-on-their feet initiatives raising money to help theatre workers who can’t make next month’s rent.
Theatre is doing its bit to help others, and while they may be just a drop in the ocean these small acts of kindness are important, not only for the sums raised and distributed but because they recognise that as a sector, we are stronger together.
In the final few days before theatres went dark it became increasingly clear that as a shutdown was in sight sometimes self-interest came to the fore. But artists and theatre workers are going to have elephantine memories about which organisations, institutions and producers have stood shoulder to shoulder with those who make the show happen every night, in whatever capacity, and which have not.
Funders show every sign of behaving in an exemplary fashion, with Arts Council England firmly telling national portfolio organisations to honour all freelance contracts. Creative Scotland has said it will honour all agreed funding even if that means projects cannot be completed or are delayed.
Theatre has never been a level playing field; there are the haves and the have-nots, the funded and non-funded, and if we want our industry to emerge stronger, the former will have to support the latter. The big boys will have to support the small ones.
Those who have done well from the industry, whether producers, directors, actors or writers, will have to pay back and pay forward to ensure others have the opportunities they enjoyed. Otherwise, to put it bluntly, theatre will have no future. In times of crisis, often it is those on the first rungs of the ladder who drop off first.
We need to accept that going forward there will be no getting back to normal
But this won’t be over quickly. There was widespread belief at the outbreak of the First World War that it would all be over by Christmas. Maybe theatres will be able to reopen later in the summer or in time for the panto season. I sincerely hope so. Of course, they must plan for that, but it is by no means a given. We also need plans for how and in what fashion we engage with communities and audiences. How they can be most useful.
Back in the early days of the internet, when there were also high levels of uncertainty and disruption (a disruption that looks like a tiny hiccup alongside what is happening now), I kept hearing theatre people at conferences talking about “when it all gets back to normal”.
I think we need to accept that going forward there will be no getting back to normal and when we emerge from this crisis, the landscape will look very different – both socially and economically. There will inevitably be losses. Projects gone forever; companies that fold; theatres that do not reopen; artists who give up. All of this is heartbreaking, but as Sonya says at the end of Uncle Vanya: “We will endure.”
And while every crisis is troubling and worrying, it is also an opportunity. During the last few days theatre has probably done more thinking around distribution and the platforms it uses than it has during the previous five years. Necessity is the mother of invention, and some of the ideas emerging are ingenious.
Whatever happens, theatre will survive, and I think fears that Covid-19 will kill live performance are unfounded. Previous crises, such as the Great Depression and the Second World War, tell us that there will come a time, when this virus has abated, that people will want – and need – to gather together in the dark to laugh, hear the stories that make sense of what they have lived through, process grief, find solace and be reminded that there is hope even in the darkest times.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner