There is a vast difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. But I reckon the last year has ushered in some shifts in thinking that are finding their way through into action. I am thinking particularly of the remarkable work of initiatives such as Freelancers Make Theatre Work and the Freelance Task Force, both of which have made freelancers feel more connected and less isolated and highlighted the working conditions of freelancers and brought about much needed change. Some venues have already implemented salaried positions for artists; others will follow or be left behind.
The last year has seen new appointments across the sector that increase the diversity of leadership roles in UK theatre. I hope there will be no going back on that. The job is only half done. As arts organisations up their activity there will be a recruitment drive and how they set about that will reflect if it has really changed for the positive. The question is whether that change will simply flare for a brief time or continue to burn brightly, and whether the commercial sector is willing to fly a kite for diversity and inclusion. The almost entirely white cast announced last week for Mary Poppins just indicates how far there is yet to go.
On the downside just as ACE was, (a mite belatedly, but better now than never) calling for cultural organisations to prioritise the needs of disabled and vulnerable workers and audiences as theatre opens up saying, “throughout the pandemic ACE has said that a good reopening is an inclusive reopening,” the move of Six to the Vaudeville (a theatre that offers no accessible facilities for people with disabilities) indicated that profit is always going to trump inclusivity.
Then last Friday, without any fanfare, ATG put out a health and safety update which means ticket holders attending shows from July 19th will need to show evidence they are doubled jabbed or hold a negative lateral flow test. That’s discriminatory against the young, many of whom have not yet been able to access a second jab and those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons. Read more here.
Add to that a report published by arts consultancy TRG last week that one in five UK cultural organisations will favour more traditional works after the pandemic and you might actually start thinking that as it seeks to re-open British theatre hasn’t just gone straight back to how things were prior to March last year but have gone right back to the 20th century.
But I still think there are reasons for optimism. For a start these discriminatory practices might once have passed unnoticed, and instead they are being called out. Many theatres have put people before profit and are continuing social distancing and using that as an opportunity to programme more experimental or risky work. Sonia Friedman’s Re: Emerge season in the West End at the Harold Pinter has demonstrated that new plays can find an audience in the West End with canny casting.
Theatres are thinking about space differently, particularly outdoor space and digital space, and that’s a welcome change. Freelancers are way less invisible than they were and are demanding more than crumbs from theatre’s often laden table, and theatres—unable to stage shows and sell tickets during the pandemic—have thought hard about their purpose and relevance and are rethinking how they can operate and serve more. The winds of change may not be howling, but they are blowing in the right direction.
Cover image by Freelancers Make Theatre Work.