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The Arts Were Broken Before Lockdown. No Help Is Coming.

As I write this, another raft of theatres are preparing to explore redundancy options for their staff, many are about to lose their jobs, whilst many more, quietly behind the scenes, fret and plan as best as they can for the quite serious prospect of not being able to return to work any time soon. When that return does happen – which may not be until 2021 if some estimates are to be believed – there may be little of the security needed to ensure bills can be paid, leading to a fear that only those who can afford to rely on the bank of mum and dad will be able to survive. An industry which was formerly less diverse than the banking industry risks coming back even more dominated by a white, middle class.

We all know large-scale indoor gatherings are unlikely during the time of Covid, and any solution creates its own raft of problems for theatres which operate on such tight margins. Where concerts and pubs have found temporary ways to adapt, it’s hard to imagine sitting in your Ford Focus eating a cheeseburger whilst Kristen Scott Thomas performs Medea on a stage in a carpark.

But the situation now has been entirely created by the arts world which now so desperately wants government support. We are some thirteen weeks into the lockdown experience, and it seems to have taken the majority of this time for many in the arts world to wake up to reality and to start panicking. Early on in lockdown, a visibly relaxed Kwame Kwei-Armah of London’s Young Vic, told Mary Beard, ‘help will come. We’ll be alright.’ Essentially: we’re too big to fail. Where have we heard that before?

Well, help hasn’t come. The government isn’t listening and, in the case of many regional theatres in particular, ‘alright’ is the furthest thing from the truth. Whilst the largest institutions have been able to whip up a level of support from free streams, it’s the theatres who we aren’t hearing from who I’m most concerned for. Certain members of the theatre world have been in a bubble for so long it’s taken almost ten weeks for them to realise its popping. It’s why it’s particularly galling now to hear the defence of the arts being framed in economic terms. The idea that theatre has been doing, ‘the best with what it has,’ doesn’t stack up when the figures are explored. Was theatre doing much better before 2010? Or was it indulging even further? Huge numbers of surplus admin staff fill theatre buildings, which still make little effort to welcome new audiences, whilst senior artistic staff take home eye watering fees, completely unrelated to their theatre’s economic, artistic or social performance. The Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse’s latest annual accounts report two staff still being paid a very nice £70k-90k – this is despite the theatre’s relaunched Rep model failing artistically and economically, so that the theatre had to withdraw from its ArtsCouncil NPO status. Meanwhile, in the commercial sector, impresarios such as Cameron Macintosh have taken the concept of the money spinner to a new level: with his estimated fortune of $1.1b amounting to more than the entire ArtsCouncil budget.

The ArtsCouncil are the first to defend their funding decisions in difficult times, but with so many now genuinely considering leaving the industry one has to wonder who the gatekeepers were who distributed their emergency funding earlier during the lockdown. People have been notable by their silence during this pandemic, and an ArtsCouncil who spends 6% of its entire budget funding the Royal Opera House is an ArtsCouncil who are fit for no purpose, in my view.

Early into lockdown we were ‘treated’ to videos of actors bawling show tunes at tired commuters on the tube, or to hearing Henrietta and Rupert calling out lines from Romeo and Juliet to one another from their opposite London townhouses. Only now have the calls started to come for the audience to get involved – as the current calls for help are falling on deaf ears, suddenly we realise we need our Aunty Jean to pipe up to her MP about how much she once loved Les Mis.

The arts treat audiences with contempt and it is now beginning to show. By framing the argument in support of the arts by constantly talking about how much money the sector generates, we are telling our future audiences how much profit their inflated ticket prices make. It’s a difficult message for the man on the street to grasp: that the sector booms money into the economy, but at the same time, theatres make no money and you should write to your MP to grumble.

With the latest news that Ian McKellen – usually vocal about his support for grassroots issues but curiously blasé during this crisis – is staring in, what can only be described as the decade’s biggest vanity project, I worry that lessons aren’t being learnt. Staring as Hamlet at the age of 81 (I’ll bet you a million quid Ophelia isn’t the same age) and rehearsing into some indefinite vacuum until theatres can reopen, creates nothing but a bitter taste for any theatre maker who could put that money to use to support our grassroots talent and communities. On another level, people suggesting that we should enlist Marcus Rashford or march on Parliament singing Can You Hear the People Sing (Jesus, no) further show how far some people are from the reality that exists on the ground.

The real heroes of the pandemic have shown to be companies such as Slung Low in Sheffield, whose genuine relationship with their community is the envy of every big building with little hope of the same. But the reality is, Slung Low operate in this way always – without thanks or recognition, and without a fraction of a fraction of the support that venues such as the National Theatre or RSC receive. They do this because this is what genuine engagement looks like, not departments filled with middle-class graduates who have no experience with the communities they are trying to engage. Communities they are trying to engage, not because of a genuine belief that this will enhance their organisation, but because this will tick the box which keeps the money from ACE flowing. The system is broken.

The latest ‘road-map’ from culture secretary Oliver Dowden fails on every level. Rather like the time my ‘road-map’ to France failed and I drove off the end of the White Cliffs because I had no idea where I was going: a road-map, by definition, needs to know a destination and a route. But this should come as no surprise. The Conservative government know that, no matter how tough things get, there will still be Shakespeare, and opera and ballet at the end – the staples of Conservative artistic self-fulfilment. The rest of it? Well it can die in Boris’ ditch, as far as they’re concerned.

The uncomfortable truth behind this is that the arts proclaims to be for everyone. But there is no denying the fact that it is astonishingly, overwhelmingly, liberal and left-leaning. Theatre completely failed to miss the boat in the run up to and aftermath of the Brexit vote – what was the point of an art-form that claims to reflect our world back to us, who helped peddle the myth that Brexiteers are all racist idiots? No theatre in the land would dare stage a right-leaning play: everything is filtered through the unspoken lens that Labour = good, Tories = evil. It’s no wonder the Tories aren’t going to help now. It’s no wonder that it’s easy for them to peddle the ‘metropolitan elite’ jargon when talking about our sector. It’s no wonder that our de facto PM, Cummings, doesn’t want to support an industry in which Benedict Cumberbatch played him in a high-profile Channel 4 programme.

The arts world has been shockingly poorly led during this crisis – brought on by the fact that the industry leaders, who were best placed for this, are the most comfortable and shielded from the fallout. But there is still time. What can the theatre do now to save itself?

  1. Accept that Government support won’t come. What help does come will be meagre and too late. The government are exercising a dangerous level of control by eradicating art it does not agree with, which is terrifying. But the longer we waste time begging, the more we fuel the argument that it’s a choice between funding Checkhov or funding nurses. We can see: firstly by the fact that they’re not funding nurses and secondly by the fact that they do seem to have money for painting planes and giving Dido Harding another project to fuck up, that there is money available. This is a war of attrition. They have the money. They are ideologically opposed to spending it in our sector. The longer we fight this fight, the more we stand to loose.
  2. Rebuild relationships with your audiences. If you can’t do this, you deserve to close. There, I said it. What good is a theatre whose audience don’t care about it? A football club who had alienated its fans wouldn’t spend long banging on about the quality of the art when their players have the ball, they’d be shut down. Accept that audiences have been neglected, taken for granted and treated with contempt. Now do something about it. You will not exist without them. They are your lifeline. Gather them, mobilise their support. The government don’t give a toss that dear old Judi Dench might not get to visit the Old Vic again.
  3. Football, football, football. There’s a reason football holds such a special place in the hearts of so many, and it’s almost exclusively the same set of reasons why theatres struggle. It’s not about the price: the beautiful game has famously outpriced its original working-class audiences. But still they flock to it, because it’s about more than that. It’s community, it’s competition, it’s a break from real life. As an Evertonian (I know) I feel a deep sense of pride at the charitable and community work the club undertakes in its community, which, as far as I can see, it doesn’t have to do. I’m proud of it, in a way I can’t explain.
  4. Return to thy purpose. A theatre is for putting on plays. A theatre whose programme is relevant and connected to its audience wouldn’t need a separate engagement department. Unify and streamline your efforts to do the job you were paid to do: to create work for the widest selection of people to enjoy, at a price and in a platform that is accessible for them.
  5. Show Caesar the senate. The leaders of our industry have systematically failed us. In the case of rampant racism in our drama schools, they have been complicit in preventing and slowing change. These self-appointed gatekeepers choose who can come in and who should stay out. I see no justification to keep any of them. Let’s start over with young, deserving, diverse talent who are interested in reviving an industry, not protecting it. You protect a relic, you revive something which still has life left in it.

There have been many people who have vocally resented the free screenings presented by companies such as the National during this lockdown. ‘We are artists, we don’t do this for free,’ one tweeted, whilst another imagined the huge amounts of money that could have been made, ‘if we’d have charged each of them a fiver.’ No. You wouldn’t have got a fraction of the same audience if we’d have charged, it’s as simple as that. Yes, of course there is a huge array of world-class talent putting together many of these shows, I don’t debate that. But we need to A) get off our high horse that what we do is something which should be respected, and B) stop treating our audiences with contempt. The Artistic Director of a prominent London Theatre said in a private Zoom call recently that they won’t stream shows because, ‘it’s not the art form.’ Well, your audience might disagree. How we can cling to these supposed values (which are really just elite statements) during a time like this, I do not know. Many of these online audiences have experienced streaming, perhaps for the first time, because it was free. If you don’t like the fact that they’re treating it as disposable, maybe you shouldn’t have treated them as disposable in the first place.

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