It is not our place or anyone else’s to judge the validity of the theatre industry – has anyone questioned whether we really need sport? Hayley Ricketson has had enough of making excuses for being a theatremaker and feels that the government’s failure to take the industry seriously is part of a much bigger problem.

At the end of last month, there was an editorial published in The Guardian stating pretty plainly that, cultural institutions are currently “leaching money” and if there isn’t significant assistance provided soon, the doors of theatres and such which have closed will not reopen. And I thought, yeah, we all saw that coming, right? Firstly because you don’t have to be an economist to know that when businesses can’t do business, you’re in trouble, but secondly because it feels all too predictable that the arts are one of the last things on the list – if on the list at all – to be taken seriously in terms of economic response and recovery during a pandemic.

This is not to pit one industry against another and nor is it to undermine the seriousness of the public health response needed during the pandemic. What I would like to examine is my own cynicism – the fact that I readily accept that no one will take my profession and my industry, seriously and how this attitude might affect the arts sector in a broad way.

Let’s stay with the performing arts as it’s my home turf, so to the artists out there, the last time your barista, latest Hinge match or distant aunt asked what you do, how did you answer? Here’s my latest:

“I’m an unpaid playwright who does casual communications work for the public service and last year I was a chef.”

Some people own their art and simply say “I’m an actor” or “I’m a director” and then when the follow-up question: “would I know your work?” inevitably comes, they pause, maybe offer a few of their bigger credits, then explain the cross-stitch of other work.

It can be hard to take the role the arts play in our lives seriously, when it exists in a patchwork – where we are constantly carving up and creating new spaces for projects, side ventures, vaguely related creative work and so on.

I argue that as artists, particularly in the performing world, we see ourselves as existing on the fringe of working society. This is partly because so many of us fit our art around our paid work. Along the artist profit spectrum, you may:

  • Gain no money
  • Gain some but nowhere near enough to support yourself
  • Earn a full income from your art but still work gig-to-gig (no permanent or full-time work), or
  • Have a full-time paid position in the arts sector

Depending on where you sit on this spectrum, your personal understanding of what it means to be an ‘artist’ may differ. You also may have a personal relationship to the arts that differs from your intellectual understanding of the sector, but I argue that in general, the relationship we’ve created with the sector is that it exists around typical working society.

In the public narrative – the broader sphere of artists and non-artists – the performing arts exist in the ways we most readily understand it – the West End, the National Theatre, the BFI, music festivals and the opera etc. It’s easier to imagine and understand the performing arts as something high-end, or elitist, or too expensive. They don’t necessarily see the bigger, broader, incredibly intricate ecosystem of performing arts, from the actors performing at kids’ parties, to fringe theatres above pubs, to open mic nights and more.

These prevailing attitudes and the stories we keep retelling in the public sphere are damaging our ecosystem and I tell myself the same story – it’s hard to take myself seriously as a playwright when I simultaneously assume that I’ll probably never be paid to do it.

But the more I reinforce – and we reinforce – the narrative that the performing arts is something to accommodate, the more we do a disservice to our ecosystem.

The performing arts are not outside of working society, we are very much a part of it. We contribute a great deal financially as well as affiliated work in industries like hospitality and tourism. We connect with community on a small and large scale, providing anything from hours of entertainment to the opportunity for self-expression and connection.

It’s important to recognise how the performing arts are embedded in society and that they generate significant public value in both soft and hard, fiscal terms. I also understand that this pandemic has left most industries in tatters and we all need to think creatively and strategically about how we will recover and create a ‘new normal’.

Recovery for the performing arts sector will be slow which only increases the necessity for innovative and strategic thinking. Remaining connected with audiences and community has been pivotal during the initial response and as we now enter a period of recovery, perhaps there’s an opportunity to look at the negotiations that can be made, partnerships that can be formed and how we can innovate performance so the ecosystem can have a chance to stabilise.

This may sound like a lot of hot air, but the story told of artists scrapping and fighting for any recognition of our place in society is not working for me anymore. It is not our place or anyone else’s to judge the validity of our industry – has anyone questioned whether we really need sport? The reality is the performing arts exists and that is enough.  

They may not be an essential service, but they are certainly work.

I understand that changing my attitude doesn’t change government policy or magically allow the National Theatre to reopen. But we in the performing arts, if nothing else, know the power of story. Story offers meaning, it’s the way we understand the world and this narrative we and the broader public are spinning is reinforcing a meaning that is actually removed from reality.

So let’s tell ourselves a different story. One that recognises the inherent value of the arts and the work we do. Who knows what might happen next.