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Ask Lyn: What does Brexit mean for theatre?

Ask Lyn: What does Brexit mean for theatre?

Ask Lyn: What does Brexit mean for theatre? cover photo on Stagedoor
"Dear Lyn, what do you think will be the impact of Brexit on British theatre?" - Worried, Epping Forest

Dear Worried,


Mournfully, Lyn

Dear Worried,

I realise I had better explain my response in a little more detail. Not least because while all our minds have been on Covid-19, it has been too easy to banish questions about the effects of Brexit to the back of our minds. But as we adjust to a post-Brexit world where the idyllic sunlit uplands Boris promised us have yet to materialise, I fear for theatre, international exchange and European touring.

Last week, the news came out that the government has refused to participate in a reciprocal scheme that would make it far easier for bands and orchestras to travel to Europe and vice versa, in a demonstration of this administration's short-sightedness and disregard for the arts. If it is tricky to get a ham sandwich between Dover and Brussels, just think how hard it will be to move a theatre company with dozens of cast and backstage crew members and lots of scenery around Europe.

British theatre has an excellent export record, and it’s not just the big flagship companies who get to tour across Europe. The UK indie sectors are great travellers too, and many of those smaller scale shows have been able to command better fees in Berlin or Paris than in the UK, where touring fees haven’t shifted for 20 years. It is an essential part of their income, but one that will now come with penalties, as the impact of new regulations over movement of goods and people, and raised insurance costs start to kick in. It’s the same with individual artists and theatre-makers.

The two-way traffic between the UK and Europe has enriched our theatre, and the cross-fertilisation comes with creative dividends that you can’t put a price tag on. Close our borders and we end up closing our minds. Oh, and it's not just our fruit industry that relies on EU labour. Many working in arts organisations in the UK hail from Europe, and bring a perspective that helps prevent those organisations from stagnating.

In the short term, Covid-19 means that Brexit is not the most immediate and pressing issue for many theatre makers, but that will change as theatre starts to open up. Because of the virus, festivals such as the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Fringe are likely to be far smaller in 2021, if indeed they can take place with in-person participation by artists and audiences at all. So, the loss of cultural exchange and collaboration is potentially huge if Brexit means that European companies find it too costly or are tied up in too much European red tape to attend.

Then there is the Creative Europe Fund, which between 2021-27 will distribute a budget of £536million to collaborative projects. The UK government turned down the opportunity to continue participating in a scheme from which UK theatre derived huge benefits, not just financially, but in its ability to lead on projects and cross fertilise ideas.

Of course, the world is not just Europe and there will always be opportunities elsewhere. After all, in the commercial sector, eyes have always been more likely to look to Broadway rather than Berlin. But the fall out from Covid-19 is going to significantly reduce more far-flung opportunities and increase more local opportunities. Local for UK theatre was the EU.

Ah, I hear you cry, but the Brexit Festival (brainchild of that well known arts lover, Theresa May) and now known as Festival UK 2022 is a beacon on the horizon. Well maybe it will produce some thrilling art, but when British theatre has been haemorrhaging estimated losses of £100million per week during the pandemic, the £120million budget might well have been directed better elsewhere. Not least to the many freelancers who have been overlooked by Rishi Sunak.

But as I’ve said before, and I’ll happily keep on saying, I firmly believe that while there will be casualties because of the pandemic, theatre in the UK will come through. It will find ways to cope with new realities, and that includes Brexit.

Sometimes it’s only when you’ve lost something that you took for granted that you really realise how important it was to you. It’s going to be so much harder than it was when we were in the EU, but if British theatre really steps up its efforts to keep in touch with its nearest neighbours and doubles its welcome to those trying to tour here, UK theatre could still be a significant player in Europe. It could reap the benefits that accrue from collaboration across borders, and remind Europe that while the UK may have left, many of its theatre-makers still think of themselves as Europeans.

Cover Image: "After the circus" by Call Me Fred on Unsplash.

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Lyn Gardner

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