Dear Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
I am asking you to make a determined effort to support the arts: talented people, thousands of out-of-work actors and musicians who are struggling. Your roadmap to recovery for theatre is pitiful, frankly insulting, and shows a degree of ignorance, which your civil servants may have pulled over your eyes.
It could have been written on a napkin at a cabinet lunch: ‘1, rehearse; 2, record; 3, open air; 4, indoors with hardly any audience; 5, indoors with more people if you’re lucky.’
There is nothing in your plan (other than expanding the above words to look clever in paragraphs) to support individual out-of-work artists, to fund any efforts to revive the industry or to put any kind of time frame on it.
For instance: rehearse. Rehearse what, with whom, where? Companies or producers can only rehearse if they have a date for opening a play or a show or a concert, a place to rehearse (costing a fortune), actors or musicians to play the roles or play instruments, (who need salaries). All those upfront costs need to be paid, but with what? There is no selling of tickets in that element of your plan. Ticket sales are the lifeblood of theatre. Companies need cash support from day one. And out-of-work musicians need cash support while they pay their mortgages and feed their children until they can perform again. My son is a musician who had his entire career ripped from beneath his feet overnight in March.
And then: record. Record what, with whom, for whom? Do you seriously believe just by saying the word ‘record’ all acting companies, musical groups, orchestras, producers of plays and musicals are going to be offered a recording contract or a TV session? If they are to record, then it needs studios (money), actors or musicians (salaries) and recording/broadcasting contracts, which will be very few and far between.
And: open air. The very idea that this is a simple third step in your foolish roadmap beggars belief. Have you any concept of how difficult and hugely expensive open-air theatre is? Outdoor staging, seating, lighting, sound, security, staffing, casting, musicians and specialist crew all cost a fortune before one ticket is sold. So help them upfront with cash injections, not a five-point plan written on a table napkin to sound smart.
According to Arts Council England, the arts contribute £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy – more than football’s Premier League (although we had to get football started quickly, to appease the sponsors). This hugely talented and gifted sector of the national workforce is being pushed aside with platitudes and treated shabbily. Thousands are struggling mentally and financially with no end in view to their nightmare. Your plan does nothing to ease their pain.
Other European nations are supporting the arts. It seems you are not. You’re just telling artists they can rehearse, train, plan, get together in a studio (without any financial support from your department) but also saying: ‘Don’t you dare sell any tickets.’
You would understand more if you spoke to the sector, instead of preaching to it. It would ease public opinion if your boss had not spent £900,000 painting his aeroplane.
It needs more effort and more vision – the kind of vision and enthusiasm the arts sector could help you with, if you’d bother to seek it out and ask.
Try going one day without TV, radio, music, films, adverts, Netflix, cinema, soaps, drama serials, theatre or concerts. Then tell us the arts are not important enough to invest in. Don’t just tell them to rehearse. It is an insult. Actually support them, which is your job. Give the sector one of the billions your government has scattered elsewhere and give out-of-work actors and musicians a real cash income until you allow them to perform.
As the government loves five-point plans, here is mine to help live events, theatre and concerts survive:
These are measures that work on the principle that they will reduce all outgoings. There are still considerable running costs that premises have, from utilities to welfare, but any plan should give the financial time frame that we need. This industry will only truly work when we have a vaccine.
The government championing its success on the return of football’s Premier League, which relies heavily on live TV, and applying it to the live event market shows a worrying lack of understanding of our industry.
I understand it is an industry-specific package, but to quote others: try lockdown without films, TV, books and whatever you’ve been using to keep you sane. The creative industry and the whole supply chain needs financial help now.
“We had a roadmap for elite sport,” the government said. Why sport first? It is great to see that a whole branch of government struggles to do multiple things at once.
The response to the e-petition to better fund the arts during the pandemic and the debate on the subject was lacklustre and this ‘roadmap’ plan is more of the same. At least Dowden’s face matches his disingenuous approach to this crisis.
It has worried me for some time that circus and circus artists have been pulled into the argument about closures and social distancing alongside theatres and actors. There are some similarities, auditoriums for example, but the way performers in circus work is very different to actors.
Of course circus artists live and travel with the big top, but I only recently realised the fundamental difference is that circus is in fact a mime show. Jugglers, acrobats and trapeze artists perform without speaking, hence no droplet and aerosol transmission.
Clowns do sometimes speak, but they don’t have to (many of the best are mimes) and
ringmasters announce perhaps, but in the modern circus even ringmasters are becoming less fashionable. Let circuses, as mime shows, open and lead the way.