Features Published 29 June 2020

Some Reasons to Save the UK’s Theatres and Production Companies

Alice Saville collates some arguments for urgently funding theatres now, so that they’ll still be there for us in whatever world awaits us in 2021.

Alice Saville

Old Drury Lane Theatre on Fire, 1809. Painting by Abraham Pether. Photo: Stephen C Dickson

Theatre is in the middle of its worst crisis since WWII, and before that, probably Oliver Cromwell’s ban on anything that smelt of fun. Theatres are closed. Reopening in any kind of profitable form would be horrendously dangerous. Thousands of theatre workers are facing redundancy, and thousands more freelancers have been left without financial support. This time, the physical buildings are – probably, hopefully – safe. But how do we stop them getting turned into yet more Wetherspoons-with-vague-heritage-trappings when this is over, as arch Brexiteer Tim Martin shakes his hoary locks with glee?

The answer isn’t a roadmap. It’s an injection of emergency government funding. Last week, I wrote an article for German magazine Nachtkritik which looked at the different cases being made for funding theatre. In short, its point was that arguments which emphasise theatre’s profitability as an investment opportunity or opportunity to exercise post-colonial ‘soft power’ will never capture the public’s imagination. This government’s populist, reactive approach means it will only bail out theatre once people make a lot of noise about it. But how do we do that, when the images of theatre that hit the mainstream are so unrepresentative of theatre-in-reality; Judi Dench saying ‘the-ah-ter!’, the stock images of red velvet curtains and prosceniums, the inexplicably sinister Greek comedy and tragedy masks? We’re in crisis, and the task of communicating that is urgent – but at the same time, a lot of the things that make theatre worth doing don’t fit in a headline, and are harder to pin down; joy, nuance, community. Here’s a big collection of subtler reasons why theatre needs emergency funding, now.

Because theatres should experiment with form, not audience members’ lives
It looks like the government will allow theatres to stage shows in August, with one metre social distancing in place. But this is a gamble on multiple levels. Theatres and production companies must bet that audiences will feel safe enough to buy tickets in large numbers. They must bet that their unscientifically-proven safety measures will work. And they must also bet that there will be no second wave, which will cause the government to order a return to lockdown. The government has shown a consistent lack of understanding of the mammoth investment of time, money and energy needed to put together a production, and the devastating impact of sudden cancellations. Few venues will be willing or able to take the financial risk (except the quixotic Troubadour, which is opening Sleepless in Seattle in August). And that’s a good thing. A massively worrying American Theatre article highlighted some of the US musical theatre producers who are going ahead and staging indoor shows, mid-pandemic – one described the whole thing as “an experiment”. But theatrical experiments shouldn’t come at the potential cost of audience members’ lives.

So we don’t lose thousands of dedicated, talented theatre workers
The redundancies at Theatre Royal Plymouth are just the earliest and most visible part of a massive number of job losses. According to SOLT, around 290,000 people work in theatre; we need a sector-specific rethink of the furlough scheme which will stop their jobs from vanishing. People who have careers in theatre have fought really, really hard to be there. They have hyper-specific skills that can’t be transferred to other sectors, and if theatre is supported over the next sticky few months, they’ll be able to use them again. Yes, there are structural inequalities around who gets paid to work in theatre; but at the same time, a situation where no one gets paid to work in theatre is unlikely solve them.

Because an unfunded theatre scene will become the preserve of unpaid/underpaid middle class hobbyists
In a powerful thread, Theatre Royal Plymouth team member Lauren Walsh explained that the threat of redundancy is particularly devastating to people who, like her, come from working class backgrounds; “The upper/middle classes who’ve held the positions of power in theatre for so long will continue to do so. And we’ll have to fight our way back in all over again.” And that’ll be a terrible loss. Theatre-the-genre will undoubtedly survive, for people whose love of theatre has the invaluable jet-propeller-pack of financial security. But for theatre to be representative, vital, in touch with the reality of life in 2021 UK, it has to be something people of all backgrounds can afford to take part in.

So all kinds of theatre can survive, all across the country
The bits of theatre that are most likely to make it onto the telly are also the bits that are most likely to survive this crisis. Bailout or no bailout, superproducers like Cameron Mackintosh will find a way to keep the West End going. But what about the rest of the theatre sector, the massive and varied venues and companies that are worlds away from the West End? You can’t measure a theatre’s value by its ability to drum up a successful crowdfunding campaign – something that’s harder for theatres that can’t lean on the deep-pocketed private donors and corporate sponsors that central London’s so full of. And theatre companies and artists that don’t have a building will struggle even harder to stay afloat; putting devised theatre, circus, live art, and experimental work under existential threat. Homogenous theatre is boring theatre. It’s easier to dismiss; I feel like everyone’s met people who decide theatre’s ‘not for them’ because they think it’s all a bit like one staid play they saw on a school trip in 2001. And it’s also more likely to become irrelevant in whatever weird world awaits us in 2021.

To tell the stories of every community
The thing live performance will always have over TV is that it’s always site-specific (and not just when it’s performed in a musty old barn). Theatre has the (often unrealised) potential to be hyperlocal and responsive to the community which surrounds it. It doesn’t need to be ‘universal’; it can rise up out of a specific time and place, like Lung Theatre’s E15, which staged the stories of a group of single mothers who occupied empty homes, or like pantos that riff off local news stories and cast local kids. You can also say things in theatre that you’d never be allowed to do on TV or film – you can be messy and unscripted and subversive, like Joan Littlewood’s nightly-changing, censor-evading Fings Aint What They Used T’Be. You can even criticise the government that funds you – something that feels horribly necessary right now, even if it won’t persuade them to turn out their pockets.

Because it’s something that brings people huge amounts of pleasure and joy
In the consistent grind of mid-pandemic life, words like ‘joy’ get forgotten about. And the government would prefer they’d stay forgotten – except for the officially-sanctioned celebrations of the Festival of Britain, of course. So much of austerity politics has been about persuading people that ‘no-frills’ government was all they could hope for – bins removed, kids approximately educated – while dwindling council budgets meant that local authorities had to cut away at anything that might seem less than essential; sports and libraries, youth clubs and firework displays. Theatre is really, really good at orchestrating magic and joy and togetherness, and that’s something worth fighting for.

It’s a machine for empathy and a place for nuance
When it’s nearly four months since you’ve actually sat in a theatre, the good stuff feels distant and fugitive. It’s like being ghosted by someone you had an incredible time with; the good times get lost in a fug of bitter recollections about the mess you’ve been left in. But as people become isolated in a new, historically unprecedented way, in a way that’s sanctioned both by the government and self-preservation instincts, there’s got to be the biggest possible argument for keeping spaces where people come together, and sob or laugh at the same time. After a lockdown of compulsive scrolling, shattered attention spans, and fractious factionalism, theatre creates a space where you can climb inside someone’s story, understand experiences far from your own, sit with ambiguities, and confront your worldview. And if this all sounds a bit woolly and abstract – research actually shows that theatre’s combination of physical proximity and realistic scenarios actively builds people’s empathy levels over time.

Because theatres can be at the heart of hollowed-out communities
We’ve mostly lost churches as places for collective ritual, and other communal, multi-generational spaces like libraries are under constant threat. Theatres can fill some of that void – especially when they explore all the potential that comes with public space. Battersea Arts Centre is sending out creativity kits to kids, Albany Theatre is welcoming older people into their community garden, SlungLow is doing a huge amount to feed and care for its local community (much of which could and should be done by underfunded local government) as well as staging socially distanced shows outdoors. Local theatres can be a place that belongs to the community around them, rather than just serving up periodic entertainments for them – and investment is the best way to make that happen.

Because theatres nurture creativity at every age
As the arts get stripped out of school curriculums, we need somewhere for young people with talents for writing, directing and performing to go. John Boyega started acting at Theatre Peckham as a kid, as did so many others working in every area of theatre – but even if it doesn’t need to lead to a career, there’s any amount of evidence for the transformative effects youth theatre has on self-confidence, creativity, and self-expression. Huge numbers of theatres also run writers’ groups and offer volunteering schemes for older people, while theatre companies do specialist work with groups who don’t get a platform anywhere else; like Clean Break, which empowers women with experience of the prison system to become artists, and tell their own stories in their own ways.

It’s a testing ground for new ideas
You’ve gotta be a bit careful with this one, because it’s not like the whole theatre world is just one very inefficient training ground for TV and film, or one gigantic search for the next Hamilton. But at the same time, theatre’s studio spaces are where new ideas can bubble up and float into the mainstream – without a boardroom of executives assessing their financial viability first. In a small room, you can air unfiltered new ideas, find out what lands and what doesn’t. People often use Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the UR example of the star that rose out of the fringe. But there are so many more – like Michaela Coel, creator of breathtaking series I May Destroy You, whose play Chewing Gum Dreams was on at The Yard and Bush Theatre before she turned it into Channel 4 sitcom. And there are also so many performances that can only ever exist in that intimate, responsive (and unfinancially viable) room, and are all the more exciting for it. As enterprising theatre companies branch out by touring to people’s front yards, or creating interactive Zoom mysteries, we’ve got to keep making the case for both the importance of experimental theatremakers, and for the spaces – like New Diorama, like the Marlborough – that nurture them.

Because we’ll be hungry for new ideas, after all this
The UK responded to WWII by founding the Arts Council. What kind of world do we want to live in, after this? Live performance has the power to challenge and expand minds that have been squashed and crushed by lockdown, and to participate in the creation of new stories that we tell about ourselves – one that aren’t written along the cramped lines of British exceptionalism, austerity, and 20th century nostalgia. People won’t have as much money for tickets, but after spending too long indoors fretting over sourdough and infection statistics, they’ll be so ready for experiences that feel expansive and challenging and new: and an unfunded theatre landscape will only be able to offer them uninspiring commercial equations of known property + household name = box office success.

Because fact that theatre exists, when there’s every reason why it shouldn’t, shows why we need it so much
This argument might seem circular. But think about how impractical, how difficult, how messy, how illogical the business of putting on a live performance is; about the sums that don’t add up, the emotional strain, the vast imbalance of time and effort that go into a few short hours on stage. People just wouldn’t go through with it if there wasn’t something special at stake. As the reality of live performances gets recessed further and further back into memory, smeared over with layers of shit and frustrations, it gets harder and harder to see why it’s all worthwhile. But there’s something; an emotional pull, a sense of imaginative optimism and possibility that’ll always draw people in – all we need is a theatre world that’s sturdy enough to shelter them.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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