The last time British theatres were dark for this long it was due to Puritanism, not plague. Oliver Cromwell’s parliament banned live performances in 1642 in the belief that they were lasciviously immoral. Actors who dared do any acting whatsoever risked being whipped, and members of the public who spectated anything remotely artistic — even by accident — could get whacked with a punishing fine.
Of course, the playhouses did reopen, as part of the Restoration. Theatre is stubborn and has always returned, hence why it has lasted thousands of years, surviving everything from pandemics to Netflix.
Across the world, live art is coming back. Madrid’s Teatro Real last month opened a socially distanced La traviata, set in the time of Covid to explain the lack of touching and kissing on stage. Theatrical productions in South Korea are up and running too, courtesy of that country’s comparatively impressive containment of the virus. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera ran through the pandemic in Seoul; the Sheffield-born new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has just opened in the city. Elsewhere, it’s a much bleaker tale. In America, the Broadway League has already said that none of its theatres will reopen this year.
In Britain, where the government announced on Thursday that socially distanced, indoor performances could begin at English theatres as soon as this weekend, this period of darkness and silence has rightly been used by directors, producers, artists and playwrights such as myself to ask urgent — and long-avoided — questions about what the recovery could fix and improve. And an answer is emerging.
We have a historic opportunity to do something radical and ambitious that could explode the barriers faced by many people and communities in accessing culture and making art, whether those barriers be financial or geographical, racial, psychological or generational. The culture of culture can change.
Theatre needs an age of Reformation, not Restoration. And I believe the way forward, against the backdrop of dire economic forecasts and vastly depleted funds, is to accept that if we cannot for the time being go large, then we go local.
It was encouraging to see the UK government’s long-awaited (and hard fought for) £1.57bn emergency relief fund receive general public and media support. The Arts Council has begun accepting applications for the £500m of it earmarked for theatre, music and comedy venues, and yes, our big “crown jewels” need to be saved and subsidised while closed.
But for me, theatre’s most rewarding impact is not what culture does to enhance us nationally or internationally, it’s what art does — or rather could do, even better — on a local level, within its immediate community. If we are to endure a painful interval without full-scale work or global transfers of big-name hits, this is an opportunity for a reset, a re-engagement with local artists, audiences and institutions.
In the process we could undo some of the damage caused during the last wave of austerity, when stretched local authorities across England and Wales reduced or in some cases eradicated entirely their support for resident arts organisations. About £400m of cultural spending has been cut by county councils since 2011.
In the trauma of lockdown we have all benefited from access to art and music, drama and storytelling. Lockdown art reminded us of what the screenwriter Dennis Potter called a “common culture”, which he described in the context of television as “all sorts of people of differing backgrounds, different ages, different assumptions about life, all sitting down at the same moment of time to watch the same sequence of emotion or argument”. With our social fabric so frayed post-austerity, post-Brexit and post-pandemic, what could be more healing and more vital?
That is why in June, when regional theatres began to fall — with Nuffield Southampton Theatres closing, and the Theatre Royal Plymouth making redundant proposing to make its entire artistic staff redundant — the response from local residents was loud and keenly felt. People, it turns out, really don’t want their regional theatres boarded up and closed. (Incidentally, this distinction is the first thing I would change in the Reformation — theatres outside London are not “regional”. They are our “national” theatres, in the places where the majority of us live.)
And one only has to examine a very recent example to measure both the economic and the psychological benefits that culture can have on an individual town.
Lights up on Queen Victoria Square, Hull, 2017. The port city in the East Riding was host of the year-long “City of Culture”. It’s fair to say it hadn’t been universally welcomed when it was first announced. High unemployment, low school attainment levels, forever labelled a “crap town” in the media: why was money being raised and spent on ballets and sculptures?
However, as the opening event “Made in Hull” took place, the mood swiftly started to change. Visiting my old university city, I found myself in a square full to bursting with thousands of residents watching this audiovisual re-enactment of the wartime bombing and rebuilding of Hull, video-mapped on to the surrounding buildings. The reaction was extraordinary, and deeply felt. An elderly man with a wobble in his voice said to me, “We just don’t normally get this kind of stuff round here.” It was their story, told for them.
Throughout the year, 90 per cent of the previously initially sceptical local population attended at least one cultural event. The £32m it cost converted into £219m of extra investment that was badly needed. The team hired to measure the psychological impacts of “the culture” (as the locals called it) reported measurable increases in pride and self-esteem, with wellbeing in the city hitting a peak in April 2017. Its biggest success was in the training and mobilising of 2,400 residents as volunteers, directly engaged in the work being presented, learning skills that could be used in future job applications and employment.
“The culture” was far from a cure-all for a town that has had it tough. But it is proof, if we still needed it, of the big impact a relatively small cultural investment can make in any community. It reminds me of what the postwar Labour politician and philosopher Anthony Crosland wrote about in the 1950s regarding a nation’s priorities in rebuilding from devastation. “We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafés, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres . . . better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better-designed street lamps and telephone kiosks and so on ad infinitum.”
I’m not sure what particular problem Tony had with women’s clothes at the time, but the ambition was that life for normal people had to be more than just economic drivers of growth. Happiness and wellbeing must be a part of public policy too.
We cannot understate the scale of the peril facing live art at this time, in Britain and around the world, haemorrhaging money and talent.
Under the original two-metre social-distancing guidelines, theatre managers entered their empty auditoriums with tape measures to establish what this might mean for capacity. When you draw a circular ring of two metres around a single seat, you essentially knock out the surrounding 16. Even when you reduce it to one metre, it’s still roughly 12 empty seats for every one person sitting there. This means auditoriums at around 30 per cent capacity when shows can often need as much as 80 per cent attendance to break even on costs.
As a result, with many theatres feeling unable to open, there have already been 5,000 redundancies, with many thousands to come. That’s without factoring in the more than 200,000 freelancers who make up the majority of the business, most of whom have been on zero income since March. With no certainty of work, actors, technicians, designers and prop makers — people who have been invested in for a generation — could have no choice but to leave the sector and take those skills elsewhere. Theatre is people, not bricks and mortar. World-class artists, and engaged audiences. You lose the former, you lose the latter.
Director Sam Mendes acknowledged the crisis in the FT in June, calling on platforms such as Netflix — which have profited from the acting, writing and directing talent nurtured on stage — to pour some of their Covid windfalls back into British theatre. Netflix obliged, with a £500,000 fund. John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation has found another £100,000.
However, the best way to help artists, and re-engage audiences, is to begin making work again. Any work. Anyhow. Anywhere. And we need to do this now. It’s the only way to get some of the government’s £500m down to the actual people who make theatre happen.
While always following guidelines to make sure everyone is safe, we shouldn’t use this money just to weather the storm, or preserve our buildings in aspic until the climate settles. It should instead subsidise the lost income of putting on work to 25-30 per cent capacity, getting actors acting, directors directing, set designers designing, writers writing, stage managers managing, ushers ushering.
The work might not be perfect. It might not be glamorous. It might be inside or outside, in traditional theatres or found spaces, but it will be work. And with a spirit of localism at its heart, using this moment to rediscover a type of civic-minded British theatre that is participatory, collaborative and open to all.
It might require theatres to create digital access by recording work, topping up smaller live audiences with online views. It might require local authorities to be open-minded and flexible, in the same way that Westminster Council allowed Soho restaurants and bars to spill out into the roads with their tables and chairs, closing the streets to traffic. After all, during shutdown, creativity has still found an outlet through invention. In recent weeks, a pop-up socially distanced dance troupe called “DistDancing” has been surprising east Londoners by leaving the ballet halls and performing along the Regent’s Canal.
Other theatres are taking the bull by the horns. London’s Bridge Theatre announced a series of monologues by writers from David Hare to Yolanda Mercy, playing to 250 seats rather than 900. Tarek Iskander, the artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre, has kept the venue active throughout the pandemic. “Working with partners we’ve brought thousands of creative playkits to local children stuck at home, enabled our young people to keep beatboxing in our Academy, supported artists to create new work,” he says.
Iskander, a former NHS manager, first accessed the arts at the Barbican by participating in a “community theatre” play, where locals and amateurs take roles in professionally produced projects. Pericles, the 2018 community play at the National Theatre, incorporated a cast of 200 Londoners and proved one of the hits of its season.
Talking of communities, The Holbeck, an old social club in Leeds and home to resident company Slung Low, kept in touch with its locals by becoming a food bank, distributing care packages to the most vulnerable. As has the Birmingham Rep.
Nowhere is such new thinking more vital than with Christmas pantomimes. Pantos provide income for the theatres they use to make more risk-taking work the rest of the year. It’s possibly the first engagement a young person may have with the power of live storytelling. It certainly was mine, and I might not have become a playwright or screenwriter without it. A lot of my own plays have a populist and interactive steer, such as Quiz, which was recently an ITV lockdown drama but began on stage, with audience members voting throughout the show on the 50/50 question over the Coughing Major’s innocence or guilt.
In the purge of the pantos we witnessed this week, with many cancellations announced, my own local theatre, the Nottingham Playhouse, is still pushing ahead with a socially distanced indoor Christmas show. If the government postpones indoor performances, then the Playhouse would fight to do something outside instead, using live music and interactivity. But it will require imagination from local authorities to make such Christmas wishes come true.
That’s why reviving the ethos of the director Joan Littlewood, and the philosophy of theatres as “Fun Palaces” that she and the architect Cedric Price set out in 1961, seems so right for now (and what’s more fun and boisterous than pantomime?). My instinct is for work during our recovery that is raucous, joyful, and hopeful.
Simon Russell Beale on nature as salve
As a preview of the upcoming FTWeekend Festival, one of the world’s leading theatre actors reads William Wordsworth’s most famous poem, which takes on new meaning amid the coronavirus crisis. Russell Beale will be performing a curated selection of poems — from EE Cummings to Emily Dickinson — at his Friday Sept 4 event, as part of the fifth annual FTWeekend Festival, which will be digital this year. For more information on the three-day online extravaganza, its host of starry global speakers and to purchase a festival pass visit: ftweekendfestival.com
What theatre director Matthew Xia described to me as work where an audience walks out looking up instead of looking down. Work that is new, rather than relying on the “canon”. If we’re to do the classics, we shouldn’t be handling them delicately and respectfully like a Ming vase. This is no time for theatre as heritage. We need theatre that is more messy and boisterous, a theatre that is unapologetically populist, creating an audience experience that doesn’t suffer from the etiquette elitism that still torments newer and diverse crowds made to feel unwelcome in stuffy rooms.
This is, I feel, what the ambition of theatres could be: recommitting to the idea of these buildings not only as exclusively evening venues producing work inside auditoriums, but as vibrant civic hubs. Looking for a meeting place? Come to the theatre. Want to start a debate, or hold a rally? Use our theatre. A local band? Play in the foyer. An MP looking to consult on a local issue? Adult learning courses? Daytime retirement activities? Mum and toddler event? Lecture? Product launch? Want to get married? Head to the local theatre.
The key relationship here should be with schools. In Denmark, empty theatres became home to Covid classrooms due to their larger size. It shouldn’t of course take a pandemic to introduce a child to their local arts venue. Most UK theatres do have dynamic education departments that reach out to schools to plan visits. But with the unforgivable collapse of arts education in state schools, how can these models be more direct, dynamic and participatory? It should become unthinkable that any young person leaves education having not engaged directly with their own local theatre.
That’s why Islington’s Almeida Theatre is using this moment to explore a shake-up of its ticketing system; investigating free seats, say, for anyone who turned 18 during the pandemic, up until they hit their mid-twenties, to support a generation whose life paths have been so disrupted by this crisis.
To be truly representative of their communities, theatres will also need to make radical reforms to their organisational structures. We need more freelance artists on theatre boards, helping to guide decisions. As well as engaging with under-represented black, Asian and minority ethnic creatives on tackling inequalities, they also need to hire them. Fill up the positions, on stage and off, so that theatres are representative of the communities they serve. A 50/50 gender balance, like the National Theatre has committed to. And more consciousness of the often harder-to-identify lack of representation across class boundaries.
This is the pipeline that connects the “world-beating” commercial productions travelling the globe with the local arts venues for local people in their towns. We can bring a nervous public back into physical proximity again, and use theatre to help restore our frayed social fabric as well as revitalising our economies. Theatres that become accessible civic hubs, producing vibrant and popular work. World class. Homegrown.
James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter whose recent credits include ‘Quiz’ and ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’
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