Theatre was broken before Covid – now there’s no going back

Why would theatremakers want to return to the ‘old normal’ of overwork and underpay?

The empty stage at the Abbey Theatre. The national theatre is reaching out to online audiences during the crisis. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

The empty stage at the Abbey Theatre. The national theatre is reaching out to online audiences during the crisis. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

While frontline workers were saving lives, and many other professions were saving the day, others were taking stock. If you were lucky enough to be out of the firing line, and had a domestic situation that gave you space to think, then the coronavirus lockdown offered a chance to pause.

As things open up, many are finding themselves wondering if they want to go fully back to the way things were before.

As those in theatre analyse social distancing and safety guidelines in order to work out what’s now feasible, many are also finding themselves wondering if the way things were before had become pretty unfeasible in the first place. This column has previously noted the tendency of arts workers to self-exploit, and the tendency of the wider public to think it’s reasonable to be paid less for a job you love, but the levels of overwork and underpay in theatre had reached critical conditions.

For a long time the sense had been growing that something in the system had to give, although no one anticipated the “give” would come from an outside agent that threatens to shatter the entire system.

Pre-Covid, venues generally tended to rely on the “Nutcracker effect”, in which your Christmas panto, or other seasonal blockbuster, covered costs for the bulk of the rest of the year. And even if it’s not a Nutcracker or panto, new, or more experimental works were peppered with (hopefully) “sure bets”, to help to balance the books.

The past few months have taught many in the business that time is not simply a luxury, it’s a creative necessity

Now, whatever some optimists might like to think, theatres won’t be able to be full come Christmas, so there’s no panto to bolster the other shows.

Core funding

What has gone out of balance is the steady attrition of core funding, whether that’s directly to venues or via theatre companies. And, as companies and venues are encouraged, by the logic of funding applications, to tick boxes that imply more is better, time joins money in the ever tightening squeeze.

Those trying to rehearse shows via Zoom know it is a poor substitute for in-person sessions, but while no one looked for it, the past few months have taught many in the business that time is not simply a luxury, it’s a creative necessity that had almost been forgotten in the scramble to get the show on stage, and then, frequently, on the road.

Touring had become another problem. While no one would deny any potential audience in any part of the country access to theatre, the drive to build arts centres everywhere did not actually end up meaning that they would come.

The announcement last month of an additional €25 million in arts support – €20 million of it being allocated to the Arts Council – was broadly welcomed, but confusion has still stymied the sector on what’s best to do next. Organisations have been told their grants for 2020 are safe, even if they couldn’t execute their programmes, but some have also been told they may hold some funding over to spend in 2021. This has meant that many feel in limbo, and has had the side-effect of hindering (with some notable exceptions) a creative response from one of our most creative sectors.

Meanwhile, although there has been a welcome insistence that artists must be paid, this hasn’t always filtered through to the tech teams, most of whom operate on an informal basis, frequently without the comfort of contracts. Across the sector, some groups of those who make it all happen backstage have been meeting virtually to discuss ways of coming together to try to establish, and get, the real cost of their labours. And that’s the point: the real cost of theatre has been masked by those willing to make it happen whatever the price. Unfortunately the price has been struggling to make ends meet as they lurch from gig to gig, coupled with extremes of anxiety and, in many cases, burnout.

If you only support some existing companies, how do newcomers break in?

Predictions around the world are focussing on the potential post-Covid scorched earth in the theatre sector. One report suggests 70 per cent of Britain’s theatres could go. But what if the model was already broken before Covid came along? Is it unthinkable to suggest there may have been too many venues and too many theatre companies in the funded sector, given the low level of that funding? What if funding were cut to some, so that others could be properly and unapologetically funded at levels that didn’t require everyone to keep going down the road of doing more with less?

Such cuts have been made in the past, and the Australia Council has recently tried a version of this, with predictably unpopular results. It would mean the Arts Council deciding who should stay and who should go, but if you only support some existing companies, how do newcomers break in? The policy of giving not-quite-enough to anyone reduced the sector almost to breaking point, that was before coronavirus came along and offered to finish the job. As things open up, imagine if we could establish the real cost of putting on theatre – and then work out how to do it: healthily, fairly and well.

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