Theatre is not a thing, it is people. And people have to be at the heart of what it does and why it exists – whether they are freelancers, audiences, volunteers, salaried employees or attend the local youth group once a week
Putting content online is good, but checking in with your people and supporting all your volunteers, local artists, local audiences and community groups to make them feel cherished, and listening to what they need rather than what you want to offer, is even better.
It is in those conversations with the many, not the few, where theatre’s future lies: a different future from the hollowed out one in which theatre’s value is perceived largely in its transactions and West End transfers.
In these conversations the future begins, rather than in exclusive, invitation-only Zoom meetings. It’s in the latter where strategies for the future are being pondered – largely by those who have reached the top of organisations and are part of upper management tiers that remain less diverse than the communities they serve and the artists they employ.
Those working in the industry may mistakenly think the purpose of a theatre or company is to put on art – preferably their art, or their friends’ art. But its real purpose is to work for and with the widest possible range of people. Like a spider’s web, the theatre organisations that are strongest and most necessary are the stickiest – those that gather, support and work with the most people around them. Whether that’s local community, local councils and voluntary groups, schools or local artists. There will be much overlap in those groups.
It is the most local, networked and openly transparent organisations, from tiny unfunded companies to well-resourced institutions, that are best placed to be useful in this crisis and best placed to survive it – those who understand that people are their greatest asset, and the reason they exist.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen who does and doesn’t understand this, from those who have cut freelancers and communities adrift without a thought, and those who have listened hard and then spent time, resources and expertise supporting others.
It’s hard to remember when you are fighting for the survival of your building or institution that, however big and fancy you are, you are nothing without other people. National portfolio organisations and commercial producers around the country are understandably worried sick about the future.
A tiny proportion of the industry is very busy on Zoom inventing the future, while the vast majority fear their voices are heard less than ever
One NPO leader told me this week that at a time when organisations are updating cash-flow forecasts on an almost daily basis, the most commonly asked question asked on Zoom calls at the moment is: “When do you go bust?” The country’s most financially successful companies and theatres in terms of earned income are now the most vulnerable.
That’s terrifying, and the burden on our theatre leaders is immense, but it’s all the more reason why they shouldn’t be trying to do it on their own in silos. As someone once said, probably in a movie but I forget which one, your arms get tired trying to hold up the whole sky on your own. Many arms are better, and many different kinds of arms with different strengths in different areas are better still.
At a time when the vast majority of those working in buildings are furloughed, the decisions that will affect theatre’s future for a long time to come are being made by a small coterie of people at the top of the tree. There are fewer seats at the table, or rather places on Zoom meetings. A tiny proportion of the industry is very busy on Zoom inventing the future, while the vast majority are wondering whether they have a future in the industry at all and fear their voices are heard less than ever.
Before the pandemic we were at last beginning to see more diversity in British theatre and that was trickling up into its leadership. But we still have so far to go. The question about funding strategies posed by former Battersea Arts Centre artistic director David Jubb on his blog last week is crucial: “Do we want plan A, a patched-up but damaged version of our current way of doing things, or do we want plan B, something different and something better than we had before?” But it means recognising that who gets to imagine the future defines what the future looks like.
Theatre undoubtedly faces a massive problem, but the involvement of more people from diverse backgrounds, with varied skill sets and wide-ranging experiences will lead to different and more ingenious solutions. As designer Tom Piper observed on his website earlier this month, maybe designers could be asked to come up with creative solutions to social distancing in theatres. They know about space.
Maybe theatre’s ability to genuinely reinvent itself and face the challenges of this new world depends on more town-hall-style online conversations and fewer private Zoom meetings in which theatre’s best-funded and most privileged carve up the future together.