In light of the strain that COVID-19 has put on theatres around the country, The Lowry recently announced that they will be partnering with the Ministry of Justice to use their theatre space as a temporary court. It has been a deeply controversial decision — here, Emma Rogerson considers this potentially devastating choice.

On Monday, a press release was published on The Lowry’s social media platforms to almost immediate controversy. The statement detailed a new deal signed with the Ministry of Justice to transform the theatre into a temporary ‘Nightingale Court’, meaning that the theatre will be used to provide additional space to the HM Courts and Tribunal Service to alleviate pressure resulting from the pandemic. In return, The Lowry will receive much needed income for their theatre and gallery spaces until social distancing measures are relaxed enough to make live performances financially viable.

It feels important to say what is almost redundant at this point – the decision between maintaining the creative / political integrity of these crucial buildings and preserving the jobs of those who work within them, is a decision that arts leaders shouldn’t have to make. The tremendous pressure which now pushes down on individuals should have been held up by political intervention, and it’s through no fault of their own that chief executives and artistic directors are having to make these incredibly difficult calls. Some of The Lowry’s responses to prevent mass redundancies have to be applauded, such as their independent job retention scheme, which exemplifies the creative thinking that’s required for theatres to survive.

That being said, the repurposing of a theatrical space into a court room sets a dangerous precedent for the future of arts accessibility; the problem with this decision goes deeper than the versatility of a room.

It goes deeper because place is really important. There is so much significance in the specificity of space, whether it be psychological, symbolic or functional. Theatre exists to explore social injustices, communicate, emphasise. Theatre also exists as a building; it’s an auditorium with lights and seating. Of course, it’s able to function in other ways, and has done so successfully recently; when Venue Cymru in Llandudno repurposed itself into a field hospital to ease the burden on local health centres, it received mass praise. Why? Because, while executed differently, it served the same overarching goal as theatre: to provide a safe communal space and aspire to create a positive social impact. And “safety” is an important concept here – to practise the justice system in the same room compromises the inherent safety that theatre should provide. It blasts the door open for the trauma, injustices and deeply private pain which is inseparable from the victims of our justice system.

Conflating the two industries into the same physical place inevitably, uncomfortably, sets them next to each other for comparison. Both sides are using this as a temporary solution to ‘get through’ the strain of the pandemic and, through this deal, the aims of both theatre and the justice system have been undermined. Inherently, drama is a construction, a representation of reality subject to the biases and prejudices of creatives teams. There’s a deeply uncomfortable comparison to be made with the goings on of a court room, and the construction of subjectivities from each party to achieve different goals. The key difference being, of course, that the reality of theatre exists within the temporal and spatial parameters that enable it – when a performance ends, its consequence lies with the audience. What will they do with what they have seen? The outcome of practising law affects very real lives in very real, permanent ways. It doesn’t aspire to empower; it aspires to determine and enforce. This is a crucial distinction, which dissolves any idea of a “temporary” solution on both sides; for justice, the outcome of a trial lasts forever and for theatre, reinstating those feelings of belonging, of safety, of inclusivity isn’t as easy as rearranging the furniture. Once it’s compromised, who knows when it can be returned. While I don’t want to go into the intricacies of the legal system in too much detail (that’s a whole other think piece), The Lowry confirmed in their press release that these judges will be hearing “civil, family and tribunal work as well as criminal cases”. This, combined with the fact that the justice system disproportionately convicts and fails the working class and people of colour, means that this decision will affect the most vulnerable members of society. To provide the space for this injustice to be practised in is, make no mistake, an act of violence against those already marginalised from theatre.

My main hope now is that those most affected by these deep injustices are provided some immediate relief – I’m thinking of those who have been waiting too long for a court date, those who worry for the security of their jobs and the stability of their families. But these hopes are undermined by a lack of faith in both areas. A court date isn’t synonymous with justice. A theatre is not just a room.