Under lockdown, the industry is playing a waiting game, struggling to survive while starved of revenue. Director Erica Whyman argues that theatre must use this time to prepare for recovery and build a better future
Time. What times. Strange times, fearful times, thoughtful times, angry times. Too much time, suddenly, or no time at all, suddenly. Time isn’t behaving, endless and too fast all at once. Filled with grief and empty of achievement – on a bad day. Filled with activity and tiny threads of hope – on a better one. Time has revealed its true colours, its fictitious self: we can mark our press-nights-that-would-have-been and plan multiple scenarios, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. Only time will tell us.
When lockdown began, I was directing Shakespeare’s masterpiece about time, The Winter’s Tale. A few hours before the theatres closed and days before getting on stage, I had to go home with a temperature. So my sense of time was walloped apart by a collision of events: the adrenalin of closing in on those last days – rehearsal-room runs with well-intentioned colleagues striking fear in your heart, armed with a notebook and an honest look in their eye – replaced with the fug and fear of a novel coronavirus.
Like many, I went from marching alongside colleagues with passion and purpose towards our audience, towards “both joy and terror”, to an abrupt stop. In my case literally, being unable to get up for some days.
To begin with, I thought myself lucky to be ill, as I could not confuse this moment for anything other than a health emergency. And we must remember that, as it bites deeper into livelihoods, hopes and dreams.
Now I feel as if I lost time I cannot get back – as though I had allowed all the walls to fall down. I realise this is solipsistic and irrational, but like all grief it tenaciously tries to find a fall guy: if only I’d had my eye on the ball and the right sticky tape in my hand, surely some of this could have been prevented.
Time is now revealing to me that no amount of sticky tape could have prevented this, and that only deep reshaping of our precarious world could have made the effects less disabling, and we didn’t do that. So here we are.
Artists have survived awful odds to keep making beautiful, inventive work and now they have been knocked off a cliff
I’ve long been an advocate for remembering what it costs each individual to make a piece of theatre. I fought, and partially won, a battle against unpaid artists on the London fringe two decades ago. I made a new kind of festival within the Edinburgh Fringe to protect artists from the worst economic risk of that splendid and gruelling event.
In recent decades theatre artists have survived pretty awful odds to keep making beautiful, stretching, inventive work and now they have been knocked off a cliff. While we must do everything to keep their artistry and their livelihoods afloat, I am frightened by the scale of that cliff.
I have also been lucky enough to work in amazing organisations: the Tricycle – now Kiln– Southwark Playhouse, the Gate, Northern Stage and the Royal Shakespeare Company. While I am temperamentally a storming, nudging, pestering type, I believe deeply in the need for crucibles and lyceums – places where audiences and artists alike can belong, over time, where you are allowed to fail, or speak your truth. Places that will listen, adapt and invest.
I will never tire of catching sight of the pride, sometimes the relief, on a writer’s face, or the lightness in the step of an actor, or the courage of a director or designer when they feel seen and valued by an organisation. The worst thing in recent weeks has been having to tell artists who took a risk on us, the RSC, that their work is not going to happen. I also know that some of the greatest crucibles have tiny teams or have never known the luxury of a long-term plan.
One of my privileges is seeing our world through the eyes of many partners. To mention just a few: we should have opened three shows at Blackpool Grand, which is incredibly good at making theatre with its community. We still hope to reopen the Hall for Cornwall with The Winter’s Tale, our friends at Kiln were to revive A Museum in Baghdad, Coventry City of Culture is still planning an amazing year and I am chair of the mighty Theatre503.
All these organisations are dedicated to making the nearly impossible happen; all now face immense challenges. My heart is broken to think of what has been built all over this country, at every scale, and what is now at risk.
We have an extraordinary theatre culture, battered by underfunding and riven with inequality, but also bursting with ingenuity, skill, mischief and profound engagement with and respect for our audiences. In recent years – too late, too slow – we have fought for much-needed diversity in who makes and leads the work, and these gains must not be lost.
Theatres should be places where we can be delighted by who is there, not perennially disappointed by who isn’t
This terrible revealing of the vulnerabilities of our economic model must enable smarter thinking about all our futures. When the hot coals have been walked over, I hope we take different choices from the ones we thought were possible. I also hope we will remember the nerve-holding, the meticulous detail, and brutal truth-telling of the executive directors, producers, general managers, HR and finance experts – especially those who do all those jobs in one.
On our way to the next chapter there will be rage, old and new, and probably despair. The theatre is used to channelling fury and disappointment on to our stages but for now we must wait, adjusting spreadsheets or applying for crisis funding or simply soul-searching. This is the gift and curse of time.
I think great theatres are places that hold time: time to develop as artists with an arm around our shoulder, for audiences to trust, lose themselves, even fall in love, time to experiment, time to build partnerships founded on deep knowledge. They can honour what’s gone before but not slavishly, not selfishly, only better to honour what comes next. They should be places where we can be delighted by who is there, not perennially disappointed by who isn’t.
We will need places that treat all their people with respect, and never forget the many skills and talents it takes to enable one group of humans to share a story with another, an endeavour that just got much harder. We should fight for them to be funded properly, for all those who make them possible to be paid and recognised properly, and we should not allow fundamental failures, over a very long time, to divide us in that fight.
I don’t know how bad it’s going to get, or how quickly we will dig ourselves out with characteristic vigour and invention. I only know that when I and my colleagues around the country who still have the luxury of going to work, on a screen, of a morning, it is not to save comfort zones – it is to try to find more time, new times, in which we can make theatre.