‘Capitalist Theatre’: The Exploitation of Commercialised Theatre
By Joe Langabeer & Enya Menichini, Co-Founders of Art-Rising
In an interview for the Daily Telegraph dated 21st May, Sonia Friedman announced that the theatre sector has lost £330 million in revenue and that 70% of British entertainment will be out of business by the end of the year. Friedman is not the only one to haven given this staunch warning: Cameron Mackintosh recently gave notice that the theatres will be closed until 2021 due to social distancing measures, and the Really Useful Group, owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, published a report asking for government funding to help support theatres whilst giving an examination of South Korea’s lockdown easing procedures and how we should model ours to that. All these scenarios might become true. Suggestions of what the future holds might become a reality. But there is one question that should we keep asking and, up until this point, it is yet to be answered: what will happen to theatre workers?
By theatre workers we mean technicians, actors, crew, front of house, and those involved with administration. The unions are keeping up the battle and voicing concerns, but at the moment we can only predict the outcomes by the evidence being presented. The article British theatre 'on brink of total collapse', says top producer, which refers to the Friedman’s interview mentioned earlier, reports that Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum is about to take a “hibernation”. The artistic director David Greig explained that the choice was between making the staff redundant or opting for a full closure before Christmas. The theatre is state funded by the Scottish Government and culture Edinburgh. Although the staff have been notified that their jobs are at risk, BECTU are currently in negotiations to prevent any redundancies, and in a situation such as this it becomes even more apparent the importance of joining a union, as discussed in our last article. In order for the Royal Lyceum to be kept alive it will require extreme amounts of funding, otherwise, if the government decide not to fund it, it will eventually have to close with mass job losses and the disappearance of a theatre that prides on community values. That is the reality shared by regional theatres across the country at this moment in time.
The cost that exceeded the Royal Lyceum was just over £770,000, but how do the private companies compare? ATG has been heckled by social media for not allowing refunds to most of its customers, seeing as it is one of the biggest theatre companies in the United Kingdom with a hefty turnover of £226.4 Million. They are also known to pay minimum wage to most of their staff and to have a high staff turnover. As to why they are not able to pay customers their money back, there is no definitive reason. For such a big corporation to exist we must start asking questions on why they allow appalling work conditions and still refuse to provide consumers’ satisfaction during this time. There seems to be an out-pouring of emotion with the line “Once theatre’s open again, we must make sure we invest in it”. Why should we be investing in companies like ATG and other private corporations that exploit the consumers and working forces alike? The key is to invest in the subsidised and non-profit regional theatres. These theatres belong to the section of this sector that is being damaged the most, because of the crisis, due on one hand to huge financial cuts from Margaret Thatcher’s government, and on the other the Austerity that the industry has witnessed over the past 10 years. The subsidised sector has had its heart ripped out consistently, and the only possible way it could be kept alive under these neo-liberal economic conditions is for government and consumer to invest in it. Choose and research the subsidised sector and then support it.
We must realise that the theatre industry will (and already has) be hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is partially due to the industries’ own commercialised language and economic valuing. The previously mentioned report written to the parliament committee by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group focuses on the damages already suffered by the sector and the dangerous future repercussions of not receiving the necessary support. Outlining various steps towards re-opening the theatres by mentioning South Korea’s measures, they however do not take into consideration other procedures South Korea adopted to combat the virus. The economic value that is placed into the arts is critical in this document, for it exposes weaknesses of the theatre industry’s collective state and creates problems for theatres that want to develop less popular work unlike the West-End, constantly referenced in economic language. In one of the points made about venue capacity, the report states:
“For example, on average a West End musical requires 55% of the venue’s tickets to be sold to meet the production’s running costs. For more expensive shows such as The Phantom of the Opera this can be as high as 65% or more. For more than 30 years this has not been an issue for Phantom which typically has an average attendance over 95%. However, it is highly unlikely that once the lockdown measures are lifted, we will see these levels of attendance”.
The course of action is always weighed on elements such as regained revenue and full seating capacity. This economic value has also affected the Arts Council, and the neo-liberal agenda that Thatcher had designed has now intrinsically damaged the value of theatre. If this language had not been developed, theatre would only have to argue for the right of funding for cultural value rather than economic achievement. The report moves onto guidelines which the government could act upon in order to save the theatre industry. One of the propositions is a future investment fund:
“If the government wishes to support new and innovative productions then we request that the government considers providing investing in productions that are unable to obtain financing elsewhere. This would give the government the benefit of receiving a return on such investment in the event the production is a success”.
The word “success” is extremely subjective and yet again it is always placed on the return of investment. A lot of regional productions and non-profit theatres do not make a return on investment as they are able to manage a budget within a return and certain amount to net-losses. This will become very damaging to the industry if the only investment that is given is to the West-End as they are the only theatres that are able to provide that returnable investment. The subsidised theatre would collapse and the entire cultural value in the United Kingdom would be replaced with tribute band tours and knock-off Musical sing-alongs. The culture industry has relied so much on capitalism that now it is slowly chewing away at its decaying corpse. We must also remind ourselves that this is profitable only for companies like RUG as they are then able to take these investible shows and capitalise them in the West-End to make profit, and it will be a dangerous road to travel if the government accepts these terms. Another worrying element in this report is the emphasis on “third-party investors/sponsors” eligible of tax breaks and bailouts. These third-party investors come in the form of banks and large private companies that have the power to censor the material on stage. This became a problem for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980’s and their various private sponsorships, as it has been extensively documented in ‘Theatre Music and Sound at the RSC: Macbeth to Matilda’.
We are reaching a tipping point, whether people like it or not. I am not advocating for a refusal to support the theatre industry, but I strongly believe it should be about supporting the regional and subsidised venues. Some investment from the public could help these theatre companies in the short-term. However, what is the best way to support these theatres?
Join a Union if you have a job in the theatre and organise demonstrations if there are threats of redundancy.
Join the Labour Party and argue for adequate funding to the subsided industry.
Create political theatre on roads, streets, and anywhere where the masses can see it for free.
Spread the word that the industry is on a fatal road to collapse and at this point there is no going back.
Art-Rising argues for the collective state-ownership of the theatre industry which will be used and benefitted for the public. It will not be used as propaganda to serve the state, but as a variety of different ideas flourishing into new and experimental theatre that creates waves. The state of theatre is in a dangerous territory. But if we fight for these demands, then theatre would be in a much better place then when we had left it.