Anton Ferrie discusses how Covid-19 has impacted creatives within the theatre industry.
As the economy contracts and the chancellor’s shiny investment plans seem to have stalled, the culture sector is still without clear investment or an ability to plan ahead. Theatre venues, without the insurance guarantee that has offered certainty to film and television as they resume production, will be adversely impacted. Secretary of state Oliver Dowden, having announced his culture recovery fund, has been unforthcoming about specifics regarding finances. The result is theatres being unable to stall redundancy consultations and being left in the dark as to whether they will be eligible for any funding.
Uncertainty, a familiar arena for most artists, has become a crucible for a heavy mix of mental health issues and concern that there may be no industry to go back to.
“It feels as though nobody is listening,” says Ebony Jonelle, a London-based actor on a tour with Les Miserables when lockdown was imposed. “Funding has been announced, but nobody knows who will get it or when. There will be less new work made, and an industry already criticised for lack of diversity will become even narrower as less people are able to make the sacrifices necessary to [pursue] it [as a career].”
This touches on a wider discussion in the art world - how do you make the industry more female, less ableist, more black, queerer, and more working class? The freelance nature of a job in the arts can make it difficult to pursue without a financial safety net, something underlined by the lack of support for freelancers during this crisis.
“Theatre is an industry that is made up almost entirely of people who work job to job... they were never on furlough and yet don’t qualify for self-employment grants,” says Elizabeth Godber, a writer-director who runs Smashing Mirrors theatre company in England. She added: “This is going to force a lot of people out of the industry, they won’t be able to survive.” I ask her if she feels the crisis has had an impact on her beyond financial strain, she tells me: “I would be lying if I said it hasn’t affected my mental health. It’s not just the lack of things to do, it’s also the lack of a purpose. Especially as a creative, your job is your identity, and at the moment, it can sometimes feel as though it is all slipping away.”
Rachel Heyburn, a London-based director goes further saying: “Defunding the arts is nothing new. They’ve been starving us out for decades.”
This treatment of the creative industries as an afterthought doesn’t just impact a huge swathe of the workforce that is employed within them, but also simply doesn’t make economic sense. London theatre alone generates £2bn for the UK economy. The sector as a whole brings in upwards of £10bn into the economy each year - more than agriculture - and yet isn’t treated as a key industry.
I ask Heyburn why this time feels different, why the narrative coming from the cultural community is one of decimation, not just difficulty: “Normally we get on and do, that’s the default mindset. We make it work. But now, we can’t do anything - it will be at least six months before we get in a theatre again.”
She also touches upon the fact that the demographic for whom this concerns - artists, usually making less than £15,000 a year, aren’t typical Conservative voters. I posit to her that perhaps the industry as a whole, accused of homogeneity when it comes to the people they employ and the stories they tell, is finally reaping the reward of apathy after years of being too exclusive in who they cater too. “Sure,” she says: “a sector that for years hasn’t told a representative breadth of stories and have blocked out working classes with high ticket prices are now realising nobody cares.”
In light of this, I ask her how her mental health has been affected: “I came out of training during the 2008 recession. This is worse. There’s general anger and resignation at the mixed messages, but also fear - there have been days when I’ve struggled to get out of bed.” Financially and emotionally, this has taken its toll. Established and working consistently in London pre-COVID, she is unsure if she will be able to continue in an industry all-but-ignored in a time of crisis.
But, she does have a positive to offer: “A year ago, big business was saying they couldn’t get the tech to let people work from home, it was impossible. Within two weeks, they’d done it. Radical change is possible.” She continues: “We get on and we do.” The cultural sector, generally, is well-versed in adapting to survive, in making the best of bad situations. It will rebound in time. What it may never recover from, however, is the silence with which their calls for help were met, at the exact moment when the locked-down masses needed their work most of all.