The last year has been brutal for theatre and particularly brutal for its predominantly freelance workforce. Exhausting too. As we reach the anniversary of the shutdown there will be many mourning for the lost careers and lost opportunities, as well of the thousands of lost lives.
It’s certainly not an anniversary that anyone connected to theatre is going to be celebrating. But I reckon you are right to put an emphasis on optimism and what we may have learned. There have been times during the last year when many working in theatre and living through a pandemic, myself included, have thought like Estragon in Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on.” But like Beckett’s pair, we do go on and there is hope in that.
During the last year I have seen great kindness in theatre and the shutdown has provided a reckoning for theatre that might otherwise have taken years. Those conversations about access have been propelled by Black Lives Matter and #WeShallNotBeRemoved and highlighted-- that like society itself-- theatre is rife with inequality and that freelance artists—particularly those from less secure backgrounds—are particularly badly hit and the existing structures of theatre play to those inequalities. The last year will have been for nothing if we just go back to that. Some will, and I hope they will be called out by artists, audiences and funders, but I think many will realise that theatre must embrace equality, open up access and find alternatives to exploiting its own artists.
We have become better at talking and having those difficult conversations about how the industry works. The frankness of the last year has been necessary and refreshing. The test will be if that frankness translates into artists and communities having a seat at the table and a real say in the decision-making processes of theatre and theatres moving forward.
Theatre has also learned that maybe thinking of yourself as a multi-million-pound business maybe is not smart when the tap is suddenly turned off at box office or at the bar. European theatres, which are subsidised to a much higher level, have not been fighting for their survival in the same way as their UK counterparts. Maybe if theatres are less eager to see themselves as constantly expanding businesses they will think more about their relationship with their audiences and their communities. Maybe that will mean less money, but deeper and richer and more enduring relationships could be the pay-off.
Unable to produce shows to put in front of a paying audience, many have had to rethink what their purpose is and who they are trying to serve. In some cases, education and community engagement departments, so often overlooked and side-lined, have been recognised as one of theatre’s most valuable resource. It’s the area where many of our most exciting artists work. That is a lesson well worth learning. If when they re-open theatres forget this the last year will have been for nothing.
Theatre has also learned a huge amount about digital technology and is much less scared of technology and its application than it was a year ago. We shouldn’t forget the blight of digital poverty on the lives of many in the UK, but digital has increased access and reach. I’m optimistic that theatre’s digital experiments are only in their infancy. But a door has been opened into a room full of brightness and opportunity that we had previously ignored.
We have learned that the government really doesn’t have a clue how British theatre works and however many times you wheel out Andrew Lloyd Webber it is still not going to get it. In any case Andrew Lloyd Webber properly doesn’t really get how much of the theatre ecology works. Knowing this is in many ways liberating and provides the opportunity to rethink how theatre can and should make its case to government.
We have learned how much we miss gathering in one place together, and how the desire to be close to each other is very profound and very human. Theatre is well poised, when it is safe, to bring that closeness and a sense of joy back into our lives.
So, yes, Priya. It’s been brutal, but we will go on, and I’m optimistic that change is coming.
Cover Image by Chris Montgomery.