According to the recent statements from the Society of London Theatre/UK Theatre, our sector must lobby government for support through the pandemic because “it is neither practical nor economical to reopen our theatres while imposing strict social distancing”. I would argue there has never been a worse time for theatre, as an industry, to go dark.
Not only is this a surprisingly myopic key message for a leading industry body to take, important mistakes are being made by pushing this one-size-fits-all line so vehemently. Whether or not theatre can take place socially distanced depends on the venue and the business model behind the production. The theatre I work at (London’s Cockpit Theatre) could present a safe, viable production of The Vagina Monologues at an affordable price and pay the cast Equity rates tomorrow, if we were allowed to.
Suggesting that venues – all venues – can only open once social distancing is no longer strict risks painting the industry into a corner. Things don’t need to get back to normal before returning. No one can say when, if ever, the old normal will return.
The SOLT/UK Theatre statement is presented as ‘a unified front’, but it only represents the large theatres. Some members are as threatened by staying shut as others are by opening. Would it not be better to galvanize our sector’s ability to help each other through, for example, programme sharing and consortium building between large and small venues or generating inter-regional links?
Viability on a marginal cost/benefit basis per production doesn’t factor in strategic business planning or, crucially, start-up costs following closure. For mixed programming venues with multiple income streams (classes, courses, bars, studio hires) the situation is entirely different. The costs of ramping up complex productivity following closure increase for every month closed. At our venue, closing meant taking 30 titles, plus an off-site jazz festival, off sale. As an estimate, I’d say every month closed lengthens our subsequent start-up time by four months before we reach anything like the same level of business we were doing before.
The situation we find ourselves in is dire. Many will judge it unwise to open until, hopefully, things brighten up. That’s fine. But for others, continued closure means slow death as their constituency and business complexity – not just their market – erodes. Open, they can adapt and survive. Closed, they can do nothing, not even help sustain the industry for the closed theatres to return to.
Director of London’s Cockpit Theatre
Never have I felt so filthy, being so white. That’s not because overnight the world has suddenly become more racist, but because it took the visible murder of a black man and cities to be set alight in fear, frustration and mass black grief, for me to see my glaring, bright, whiteness and the inherited racism I carry in my day to day ‘unknowing’. Although, it never has been an unknowing – it’s a negligence, a laziness and an unwillingness. An unwillingness I share with so much of the theatre sector, and an unwillingness that has become clearer within theatre during the Covid-19 pandemic.
We’ve all seen how the theatre sector has responded: our digital outputs have exploded and the demand for creatives to respond to the worldwide pandemic through their work has been a constant theme across most theatre organisations in the UK. Whether you agree with the call-to-arms nature of the theatre response to create content during the pandemic, or if you believe theatre should be spending this time developing strategies for resilience in the future is an ongoing debate, but one thing is for sure, it’s all been so… white.
I work in theatre because I believe it offers an opportunity to share those voices that have been eroded and that are quietened and silenced by inequitable power structures. At this moment in time we can continue to share tokenistic lengthy book lists for our other white friends to help educate them on racism (because of course in the arts we are more ‘woke’ than other sectors, and we have to ensure our friends on social media know that), or we could take a moment, support our black friends and make systematic changes within our sector to ensure these voices, that are not just being eroded, but are being murdered, have the opportunity – no, more than that, are given the space and time and financial support – to have their experiences heard.
At a moment when, I imagine, most black people are needing to save their emotional and mental reserves for a fight I will never understand, the least we can do is provide a platform for their experiences to be heard. Because until the most produced and performed theatre shows aren’t written by an old, dead, white racist, we will all still be filthy white.
Black lives matter.
Creative learning associate at Stellar Quines Theatre Company
This unexpected threat to our beloved UK theatres requires urgent government intervention because the history and cultural traditions of each and every theatre and performance venue provides the backbone of entertainment,
education and social inclusion for our country. It is what we do best.
Free arts and theatre screenings have assisted those restricted by the lockdown with mental health support and perhaps a national campaign to stop HS2 and to transfer this funding to save our theatres might prove well spent: few people will return to the usual patterns of rail travel after the pandemic, but one thing is certain, we will be rejoining the theatre world as soon as possible and I want to thank those benefactors who have enabled screenings to take place. We owe you.
Very similar arguments – to those made for the survival of professional theatres – apply to the needs of amateur music and theatre organisations. Obviously members’ basic livelihoods don’t depend on the sector, but the organisations do depend on local professional and community venues being available.
Online provision during the lockdown helps but there is no substitute for active participation. We wholeheartedly support the campaign.
Chair of the Derby Arts and Theatre Association
What a fascinating article. It makes one realise that the virus is opening new ways of thinking, seeing and living.