In advocating the study of the literature in the early 1920s, I.A. Richards proposed the pursuit of the arts as a remedy for a society in crisis. For a Europe still reeling from the First World War, modern scientific advancements and the rebuilding process left something to be desired emotionally, outstripping the traditional emotional and social values by which British men and women had lived: they answered only the ‘how’, and not the ‘why’. Literature and the arts were supposed to provide those answers. Two decades later, as another ‘Great War’ came to a close, the British government launched the Arts Council of Great Britain, an organisation whose initial mission was to support the regrowth of the culture industry.
Seventy-five years on, Britain faces one of its greatest challenges since that period, and the CEO of Arts Council England, Darren Henley, is realistic about the threats COVID-19 is providing to the theatre industry in particular. ‘It’s sadly inevitable, at this point, that many businesses in many sectors, will be unable to weather such a fierce and lengthy storm. And there is no evidence to suggest that the cultural sector will be any different’, he wrote in a recent blog. An initial £160 million emergency fund from the Council has done little to prevent a 92% year-on-year slide for UK theatres within two weeks of the theatre closures, a problem exacerbated by the lack of dependence on subscription models when compared with, for example, the US. Regional theatres such as the Nuffield Southampton have already entered into administration, while Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre have been prominent amongst the country’s largest institutions to warn that they may not survive without additional support.
All this, according to award-winning producer Sonia Friedman, has left British theatre on the ‘brink of total collapse’, facing ‘the real possibility of complete obliteration’ with ‘70% of our performing arts companies out of business before the end of this year’. Unlike our European counterparts, whose theatre industries are often heavily subsidised by the state, British theatres depend directly on those 34 million theatregoers a year to ensure their survival. With the first major survey of theatre audiences suggesting that almost half of regular theatregoers will not be prepared to start booking again before September, the immediate future of the industry looks bleak. And not just for the nation’s current actors and producers, backstage teams and theatre staff. Sarah Frankcom, the director of LAMBDA, has warned of the effects of Covid-19 on the next wave of theatre talent: remote training is currently the only option to support the next generation of actors, but does little to replace the final year showcases, where graduates have their chance to be exposed to directors and agents.
It is clear that every sector of the economy will face a struggle for survival over the upcoming months and years. Charles McNulty’s argument in the Los Angeles Times that “the fate of our hospital system straining under the weight of the desperately sick patients [seems] more urgent to me than the budgetary death spirals of experimental theater companies” is difficult to dispute. But one might think back to I.A. Richards’s observations of 1920s over the coming months as the immediate threats of the virus subsides, as we continue to be reminded of the theatre industry’s position at the heart of British life. Already, companies are adapting their shows for Zoom, Youtube and Radio. The BBC have begun to broadcast “Lockdown Theatre” on Radio 3 and Radio 4, while Nick Hytner of Bridge Theatre is reviving Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.
This community spirit extends far beyond the four sides of the (virtual) auditorium. Up and down the country, theatres such as the Royal Exchange in Manchester have been sewing masks for health workers, or delivering food parcels like Slung Low theatre in Leeds. In Wales, Theatr Clwyd has even been turned into a blood donation centre. Just as Richards observed almost a century ago, the theatre’s versatile offering continues to compliment the admirable and invaluable work of our scientists in myriad ways.
For Sonia Friedman, the struggle of the culture sector is existential. ‘An ecosystem as intricate and evolved as ours’, she argues, ‘is beyond price. It cannot be rebuilt from scratch’. Without the fee-paying customers that British theatre depends upon, the Government must step in and plug the gap. And as social-distancing evolves, and the country moves out of lockdown, serious thought must be given to how our theatres and cinemas might be supported in this. For the real financial crunch will come if theatres cannot fully open before November, when theatres open for their Christmas shows. With estimates that the industry will take three or four months to get going once the government permits it, especially for the large West End shows which often involve several hundred people, this is looking more and more likely every day. Such a situation would not only be financially devastating, but deprive casual theatre-goers and young people what is often their only experience of theatre in a year, placing as much as 70% of theatres under threat.
As the country leaves lockdown, there are an impossible number of problems facing our government. But as the most immediate wounds are tended to, our theatres must not be left to implode.
Luke Cavanaugh is a penultimate-year undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. He also holds committee positions at The Wilberforce Society Thinktank and Polygeia Global Health Thinktank, with a particular interest in diplomatic and international relations.