The crisis in the UK theatre industry really began to bite this week, with the continuing lack of clarity from the government having an increasingly tangible impact. In one of the biggest shocks so far, the Theatre Royal Plymouth announced that they were making their entire artistic team redundant with almost immediate effect.
One of that team was Production Assistant Lauren Walsh, who posted a must-read thread on her Twitter account. The whole thread is available here – please do take the time to read through it. I’ve reproduced the first part of Lauren’s thoughts below.
“I’m one of the artistic team. This week I was told I’ll likely be made redundant. I asked what the prospects were for me being rehired in any capacity further down the line. The response was that any new hires would be unlikely, possibly for up to two years. I’m from a working class background. It took me a really, really long time to get my foot in the door of the theatre industry. I worked so hard, and even then it only came together thanks to a bursary placement from Jerwood Arts. I feel bereft. There’s no funding available, so making my own work is nigh on impossible for a while. Most other theatre organisations are in a similar position in terms of redundancies and won’t be hiring either. I have no idea where to go. I can’t see any way of remaining in the industry. I don’t have savings. I don’t have a safety net or a family home I can go back to. And now, thanks to my landlord responding to my message about redundancy by telling me she was increasing my rent, I don’t have a home. I’m not posting for pity. I’m trying to highlight what people mean when they talk about the impact C-19 will have on diversity in theatre. It’s working class people who will have to move on. It’s black people. It’s Asian people. It’s disabled people. It’s LGBTQ+ people. The upper/middle classes who’ve held the positions of power in theatre for so long will continue to do so. And we’ll have to fight our way back in all over again.”
There’s a lot of talk about diversity in the arts. I’ve written before about how a major part of any meaningful campaign to increase diversity has to involve doing the hard, long-term work of increasing access to arts training in state schools. Talk is cheap, and too often politicians and industry leaders pay lip service to an inclusive approach, and yet fail to go beyond a bit of window dressing, neglecting the investment at grass roots level without which the path to a career in the arts will continue to get steeper for those from less privileged backgrounds.
The present danger is that in our eagerness to save theatres and orchestras, buildings and institutions, we lose sight of the individual artists required to make those places mean anything. The charge levelled against funding for the arts – that it’s taxpayers’ money paying for rich people’s pastimes – could be countered in no better way than channeling some of those funds to make sure that working class artists like Lauren aren’t lost to the profession forever. Let’s bear that in mind as we lobby our politicians and public.
In the long term, the low pay and precarious instability of most artistic careers are barriers to inclusivity. There are dangerous rumblings that artists’ fees will have to be cut in order to help theatres stabilise themselves financially. Every time that path is taken – and it’s an easy one since there’s almost always more artists than work – artists are effectively being asked to subsidise their own industry. That’s an option only available to those from wealthy backgrounds, or with other sources of finance. Employers should be in no doubt that every time they take that soft option, they are decreasing diversity, as well as gnawing at the vital organs of their host animal. We’re at a crunch point in the UK where we need to decide whether we’re serious about some of these art forms as professional ventures – or are we really happy to revert to what are essentially am-dram models?
I’ve already written about the need for more long-term stability in my own branch of the business, and there’s no doubt that the lack of paths to a reliable income is another barrier in the way of any artist from a low-income background seeking a career. We need to find ways of moving away from the ultra-Darwinism of an exclusively freelance model, because it leads to survival of the least vulnerable rather than the fittest.
None of this is to undervalue the contribution artists from more privileged backgrounds make to their various crafts. But we would unarguably be far poorer for a lack of working class talent streams. Acting needs its Ray Winstones and Idris Elbas. Opera needs its Tomlinsons and Terfels. Their potential successors are in an incredibly vulnerable position. They need help, and quickly.