Revival for Survival: The Crisis in British Theatres
As Britain enters its third Lockdown, many people ask how this will affect theatre and whether new packages will be introduced in the time venues are not allowed to open. Some are pessimistic, believing that theatre will not survive another blow such as this and that this could be the beginning of the ultimate end. Others – like the UK and international producer Richard Jordan – believe that collaboration and determination will help us survive. The Stage recently released their 'Stage 100,' which offered a slightly different take on the efforts of keeping theatre alive during the pandemic. The article does, in fact, mention smaller-scale theatre, which is definitely an improvement. However, by underlining the actions of the usual capitalist producers of the likes of Friedman, Mackintosh and Webber – all of which are listed in the top brackets, with Webber receiving particular praises – it seems to infer that the type of recovery offered will only favour the West-End producers already in power. Mackintosh's company – Delfont Mackintosh Theatres – have announced that they will be releasing all their shows again in May. Whilst this is most likely an unrealistic goal in the grand scheme of COVID, the tenacity to try and enforce the economically unviable status-quo is a state of 'revival for survival'. The desperation comes out of the love of profit, not the "love" of theatre as they so boldly claim. Artists must begin to educate themselves on these matters. The system fed and sustained by these producers will lead to disastrous economic consequences that will damage the workers, but not the producers themselves.
If we actually believe that audiences will return to the theatre once the Lockdown is lifted in March (potentially), then we must be kidding ourselves. No one will want to go until most people have been vaccinated for the risk of transmitting the virus. Although theatre had been making more money before the COVID-19 crisis, theatre audiences have been declining at a steady rate since 2019, and the COVID crisis is to exacerbate this process. London theatres' powerhouse has started to dwindle as they continue to produce West End commercialised shows that are overly expensive and extremely alike. Webber has committed to spending £6 Million on refurbishing his theatres before audiences’ return, and theatres promise that they will all be open by summer. It is a hazardous road to take, not only for the health risks that this would pose – let’s consider, for example, the new highly transmissible strand of the virus - but also for its impracticality: people will not be interested in theatre when they have been left without a job.
During this pandemic, we have indeed lost a great deal of the workforce – especially theatre workers themselves – who now refuse to return as they cannot afford the risks and the financial burden of living in London. On the other hand, regional theatre, already suffering before the pandemic, has received little funding during the crisis to the point that many venues have already closed their doors permanently with more to follow soon. The risk is that there will be hardly anything left outside of London. Subsidised theatre is being hit the most of all, with cross-party councils pulling out of funding previously designated for venues due to priority investments in other areas. Now, we could be wrong, and theatre could witness the return of flocks of audiences, but what is almost certain is that it will happen only in London, as the rest of the arts economy begins to fade away in the rest of the country due to the constant cuts that arts councils have allowed to happen.
We must also discuss the enormous financial impact that Brexit will have on the arts, considering, for example, the recent debates regarding the restrictions of touring artists to perform in European countries. The Tories have slyly affirmed that the "UK government was committed to future funding for the arts". This is categorically untrue, as it has always been. The reality is that the Tories do not care and have never cared about funding for the arts. The first step they should take to tackle the crisis is emergency funding, whilst the longer-term solution would be to create a nationalised programme for the arts in a planned economy, including a stage of transitional demands made by working-artists. Brexit will make the arts weaker with fines and economic pay-outs needed to perform in different countries, which will affect in turn touring theatre, already the most vulnerable within the sector as the worst affected by financial decisions and the current crisis. Capitalism is trying to win again.
Even commercialised theatre's big capitalist entities have not provided entertainment during the crisis, opting instead to protect their profits. They could have easily created live streams for public audiences, and actually "care" about the arts as they proclaim. Only some have offered free theatre, including Webber's free streams of his old musicals, which is to be commended. However, we should still question the true nature of Webber's ideas and start to educate ourselves on history: he has strong links to the Tories' neoliberal ideology, as it is shown by the fact that to the point that he even flew over from America to vote against child tax credits. He is not a hero: he follows an ideology, one in which we must fight against to fight oppression and take back the theatre for the working masses.
A critical moment is approaching: the council elections in 2021. This is the time for artists and activists to engage in Labour councils and their members, to tell them that these local venues need protection and secured funding. Write to your labour party local branch or go further and join the movement to have your voice heard during the political campaign. The time to prepare is now. Labour has done very little to challenge the Tories verbal or economic attacks on the arts. The Tories have also tried to play a politically hegemonic game. They suggest that skills are inherently associated with identity-politics and adopt Foucaultian practices to manipulate liberal like-minded people. The Tories and other right-wing commentators have tried to muddle Foucault and Socialists' ideas together to turn the working-masses against each other claiming that they "do not care about real policies that are a part of our daily lives". Very untrue. There are racism, misogyny, and elements of fascism present in Britain, and that should not be blamed on the individual: it is the result of capitalism, the same ideology that the Tories represent. We must begin to fight these ideas, and we can start by eradicating them from the arts. Join Labour and challenge the leadership on their policies regarding the arts. Fight them on the campaign trails and change the reigning hegemony. The real fight is in our hands, and it is about to get ever-more exciting – a real challenge within theatre movements. Of course, people might feel impatient that these ideas are not taking shape immediately. Do not fear, for the working-masses will be pushed to become radical and start fighting for socialist – and back in the hands of the artist's – future.