Since the theatre industry’s final curtain call on 16th March 2020, the West End and other theatres across the UK have yet to fully reopen. Performers and crew members have been left waiting in the wings until theatreland can properly be resumed and enjoyed.
We are yet to fully understand the overall effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, however what we do know is that the theatre, arts, and culture industries have been hit the hardest.
Going to the theatre, pre-lockdown, I never realised how much actually goes into making and putting on a show. It’s not just down to the performers on stage, but the stewards, the lighting directors, the choreographers, the wig makers, and everything in between.
It’s not unknown that the UK is dealing with an unemployment crisis, however lockdown has only worsened the situation. Those who were employed have been left in the lurch, wondering whether they will go back, and those previously unemployed are now in a worse position than ever.
With days of staying at home and weeks of time to fill, I (like many) turned to finding the next Netflix series to binge or a new podcast to listen to. Both of these outlets are contributors to the arts industry, and it wasn’t until theatres and television studios were closed that I realised just how much we took for granted. The arts industry is what got many of us through lockdown and without it, people would have been left with little to no form of escapism.
Even with theatres closed, what has remained is the resilience of our theatre workers and performers. The public not being able to go to the theatre and watch a show hasn’t stopped the industry from providing the country with entertainment, escapism and education. We’ve seen a variety of online concerts including, Intermissions with Alice Fearn, Leave a Light On by Lambert Productions, as well as In The Wings. What’s so poignant about lockdown is not only how people have come together to support the industry, but how performers have taken control of their field.
Digital concerts and online gigs have kept theatre alive, and whilst also making it much more accessible. This new normal was commented on by Steph Parry (Mamma Mia The Party): “I was having this conversation yesterday, about why don’t they sell some tickets of every performance for people at home, but I hadn’t thought about the cost of cameras, streaming etc”. Although theatre should be enjoyed by everyone, keeping the industry online would be unsustainable seeing as so many freelancers, performers and people in the industry have gone months without the financial support they so desperately need.
Three months into lockdown, the government finally announced that they would step in to help support arts and culture. On 7th July 2020, it was announced that British theatres would receive a £1.75 billion support package.
Upon hearing this news, many famous faces, including theatre directors and composers, welcomed the news of this package. Ian Rickson (a freelance theatre director), emphasised the importance of the package by reminding people that “this isn’t just famous actors, but stage managers, set builders and wig makers, in fact all the teams who put together the shows”. He also emphasised that “a large proportion of these freelancers live below the poverty line or at least with very unstable incomes”.
Even with this support, it didn’t take long before the effects of the pandemic started to unravel. Many independent theatres and West End shows have started to close, with social distancing and safety measures not being reviewed until November 2020.
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, described the West End as facing an “existential threat”, with Adrian Vinken, (Chief Executive of Theatre Royal Plymouth) detailing that “until the whole sector knows when we can reopen without social distancing and start trading again […] there is no security in the sector whatsoever”.
However, the emphasis on support to theatres shouldn’t just be to the West End, as many independent and local theatres have had to close their doors for good. Nuffield Southampton Theatres in particular has had to permanently close, making eighty-six redundancies. It’s these stark figures that start to reveal the true effects of the pandemic- and the worst is yet to come.
The effect of the COVID-19 has left many of us with a gaping theatre-sized hole in our chest. However, what has remained is the resilience of our performers who have remained positive when so many of us have struggled during these times. In an interview, Steph Parry concluded: “I’m going to come back to the fact that even if the theatre world doesn’t look as affluent and alive as it has been, we will rebuild. It may take some time, but there’s a whole load of creative people dying to get back to work and make things happen and I, for one, am excited to see that.”
Even though some of us may have had our theatre fix during lockdown, we should never forget what our theatre industry and creatives went through. Most importantly, what should stay at the forefront of the British public’s minds is how our government failed to support the country’s largest-profiting sector in a time of need.
When theatre does return, I for one will never take the industry for granted again.
Words by Neve Gordon-Farleigh.
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