A week ago, the UK awoke to the news that just over half its voting population had opted to leave the European Union.
Since then, from #Brexit to #Borexit, it’s sometimes felt, to paraphrase one Twitter wag, more like a revolving door at a clown convention than the most impactful political decision of a generation.
Although it’s still unclear who will be our Prime Minister by October, let alone what will happen over the next months and years, it’s a good time to ask how a British exit from the EU might impact theatre in the UK, and in particular, its youngest generations, already trying to navigate the twin challenges of hiked tuition fees and cuts to arts funding.
Severing ties with Europe will not just impact funding – much of which comes from the EU – but is likely to affect a whole swathe of study opportunities, touring and cross-cultural partnerships, dialogue and discussion.
In a statement following the referendum result, actor and Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, Samuel West, laid out some of the concerns facing the industry: “The vast majority of those working in the cultural sector backed a vote to Remain,” he said.
“We are now very concerned about our ability to access important European funding, such as the €1.3bn Creative Europe programme.”
The threat to funding has very real implications – and in some cases, it’s the most vulnerable who will suffer. Playing Up is a free, nine-month social inclusion scheme run by the National Youth Theatre. It offers young people who aren’t in education, employment or training the chance to gain a qualification equivalent to two A levels – and it’s part-funded by EU money. Many of the young people who have or are engaged with the programme suffer from mental health issues, problems with addiction or have experience of homelessness.
“To work with this cohort of at risk young people we engage a team of specialist directors and support workers, who provide intensive and bespoke creative and pastoral support and achieve remarkable results with 86% of young people receiving an offer at a higher education institution upon graduation,” says Joe Duggan, Head of Communications at the NYT.
“We’re only able to deliver this programme because of this unique support structure of specialists and the funding we drawn down from the EU funded City and Islington College.”
But it’s not just money that many within the industry are concerned about.
West’s statement continued: “There are a host of other issues that we must address over the coming months: international artistic exchange, export of cultural products, copyright, visas and access to training in European centres of excellence, to name just some.”
Duggan is all too aware of the benefits that touring theatre can bring to young actors and theatre makers – the NYT has toured Europe for almost 60 years.
“These tours offered young people life-changing opportunities to experience different cultures, exchange creative ideas and make new friends,” says Duggan.
“The benefits to the UK are clear. The fruits of these young actors cutting their teeth on European stages can be seen in the success of our alumni, take for example a young Daniel Craig who played Leonardo in Lorca’s Blood Wedding in a tour to Valencia in 1990.
“We all stand to benefit from cultural exchange between Britain’s best young talent and young talent from across the world. We only stand to gain from the exchange of ideas, cultures and creativity that these projects foster and that’s why the decision to leave the EU is so disheartening.”
As well as the easy travel that membership of the EU makes possible, education opportunities are likely to be impacted, with study in Europe likely to be less accessible to Brits – and vice versa.
Ian Nicholson, Artistic Director of Old Salt theatre company, studied in France at École Phillipe Gaulier, and says that the diverse group of individuals he found himself interacting with gave him a valuable perspective that has influenced his work ever since.
“I think other generations of theatre makers who are training now, or planning to train, will really have missed out on being next to and quite literally breaking bread and wine with people from other cultures,” he says.
“They’re going to miss out on training alongside people who aren’t just from another part of the city or country, they’re from a totally different culture in every way shape and form; everything about that is valuable.”
Nicholson is worried too about the impact on European theatre companies, who may not be able to bring their work to the UK as easily post-Brexit – and what that means for vibrant cross-cultural dialogue in this country.
“I think it’s going to mean that cross-pollination from companies like Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed, who did Fight Night at the Unicorn, isn’t going to happen, because it isn’t going to be shown,” he says.
“How will it affect artists in this country to not see artists from others? Suddenly you’re not seeing the incredible German movement which is going on at the moment. What does that mean? I think the progress that has been made will begin to regress. Where will our artists travel? Where can we go? We’ll end up being very insular is my worry.”
One headline that’s been touted since the result of the referendum is a dramatic rise in racist incidents, with a fivefold rise in the number of hate crimes reported via the police online reporting system.
What will theatre’s role be in mending some of the divides that have fractured the country? John Kampfner, Chief Executive of the Creative Industries Federation said in a statement: “Within the UK, we will play our part in helping to bridge divides within and between the nations and regions of the country.”
But sadly for some, the impact of the ugly shift in attitude is already being felt.
“On Friday we worked with a group of our young members,” says Duggan. “It’s fair to say that the mood was bleak, with our young people expressing concern about the isolationist direction they fear we’re heading in.
“Even more worryingly, we discussed reports of a rise in xenophobia and racist abuse since the start of the campaign, which one of our members was sadly subject to on the way to a rehearsal in a town that voted Brexit.”
Is it too soon to tell what the true impact of Brexit may be on the theatre industry? Nikki Acquah, a young writer and director, about to graduate from Royal Holloway, says that while it’s worrying for her generation, she’s eager for leading names in the industry to commit to forging new international partnerships and maintain global connections.
“I’m a bit worried because the industry is already difficult to get into, let alone with the impact on the economy and arts funding etc. But ultimately, it’s a little too soon to tell exactly how it’s going to impact theatre makers I think,” she says.
“I read an article in which Rufus Norris said the National Theatre are simply going to make global collaborations more of a priority, in order to fully reflect the experience of those who are not in the UK. So I hope other artists follow.”
For now, it seems, the only certainly is uncertainty.