For theatres, these last few months have been critical, but the next few are essential. Emma Rogerson discusses the present and future pressures on UK theatres and whether, in the face of this, they are fulfilling their promises to improve diversity.
If history is an accumulation of connections, coincidences, and consequences then, my God, I wonder how we will look back on this.
When I walk to Asda now, I pass my new (old) local theatre near my new (parents) home in Chorley. My time at uni’s been cut short, and my nearest theatre is now “Chorley Lit_le Theatre” (the second ‘T’ fell off in a bad storm several years ago and hasn’t been replaced since). If history shows nothing else, it shows that the little theatres are always hit the hardest.
Increasing economic pressure is pressing harder and harder against the delicate ecosystem of British theatre. We all know it and we all see it. Type it, tweet it, bop it, feel it. Some venues have already been crushed under the financial burden – the theatre community has already seen Artrix Arts Centre, Nuffield Southampton and Southport theatres drown in words like “liquidation” and “unprecedented”, “urgent” and “permanent”. Between demand for government support and social media communities brought together by empathy, theatre makers have been made collective by their united concern for an industry on the edge.
The demands of this economic pressure do not just threaten the imminent present for arts venues across the country, but their future. More specifically, their futures in light of accessibility. When the first wave of lockdown commissions was offered and the deadlines came and went, it became apparent that many theatres were leaning on ‘safe voices’; theatre makers with a proven track record of generating popularity and financial capital or artists from white, middle-class backgrounds. A new fear began to bleed into the makeshift home offices of artists and administrators: if this industry still exists, will I still exist within it?
But of course, these last few months have seen more pressing cultural changes than financially unstable creatives industries. The murder of George Floyd in the US catalysed protests against racial hatred and police brutality on an unprecedented scale and under lockdown, the general public has been afforded more time to self-educate and reflect than ever before. The people of Bristol, after years of debate, tore down the Colston statue and threw it to the harbour waters.
The furloughing of staff across all industries and sectors has given a nation more time than ever to learn, reflect and challenge ideas of what society is and could be. Responses from theatres fell like dominoes in the following days. There were apologies (not enough), promises to do better, the sharing of resources, political statements, questions. Social media is saturated with an abundance of examples of shortcomings and hypocrisies. A divide between what is posted and what is practised. Inconsistencies between statement and sentiment. Many theatres postponed the conversation: we must do better.
But how many are doing better now? The closure of venues and the industrial stagnation acts as a void on which these promises, hopes and criticisms are suspended. They all balance cautiously: to solve these problems, the industries must exist. To exist, they must financially sustain themselves. To financially sustain themselves, they must welcome audiences. To welcome audiences, they must accept the vengeance with which this audience will come back. Theatre will not be the same when the doors are reopened, but neither will the consumers or creators – the scale of cultural changes we have overseen over the last few months cannot be understated.
The responsibility of implementing these changes is divided between behind the stages and the cheap seats at the back. Theatre cannot continue to perpetuate the concept of ‘safe’ programming. When we return to theatre, the stages will have been wounded by the lashings of unprecedented economic strain which demands for unprecedented healing measures. As artists and audiences, we cannot allow theatres to consider white, middle-class programming as a synonym for ‘safe’. We must use this time to champion the voices we want to see make theatre better. Through streaming, social media support, the purchase of plays, the writings of articles, the attention to artists that fall outside the historically dominated canon, we can use a more diverse society of makers and watchers to allow theatre to recover from this socially and financially traumatic time.
For theatres, these last few months have been critical, but these next few months are essential. This is not just a matter of saving companies and buildings, this is a change to address fundamental and systemic problems of our industry and prejudices.
There are no excuses.
History is happening.
If you are a theatre company or organisation that has yet to be transparent about who works and has worked for you, Theatre Action (@TheatreCTA on Twitter) are asking for you to do so. Visit this, the hastag #TheatresPullUpOrShutUp and/ or theatrecalltoaction.wordpress.com to find out more information.