Rufus Norris on theatre and class: There’s ‘an awful danger’ that only people with money can survive in the industry

Published in The i Paper September 24, 2020

When lockdown was announced, Francesca Martinez’s play All of Us was in its final week of rehearsals at the National Theatre.

“The company asked if they could please just do the dress rehearsal, to a very small invited audience,” recalls Rufus Norris – a poignant way to spend his last hours in the building for months. But as he left the show, he suddenly felt “really weird”. Yes, the head of the National Theatre came down with coronavirus the same day his venue shut.

Norris made a full recovery – and thank God, because he’s had a very busy lockdown. Running the NT is always going to be a public-facing role, but the amount of political advocacy has been unprecedented. And attempting to steer one the UK’s largest arts organisations through months of turbulence has frequently proved “horrible”.

“I have a really, really good wage, so I don’t feel entitled to gripe at all,” adds Norris over a Zoom call, perhaps anticipating how his comments might sound to people who have lost their livelihoods. “This is when you really have to earn that wage, and do what you can to look after as many people as you can in a clear-sighted way.”

Not that it has been easy. The National is laying off 400 members of casual staff (leading to protests since I spoke to Norris). “It’s really lousy having to deal with the scale of redundancies. It’s really lousy not succeeding in doing more in this elevated position,” Norris said. He pauses. “Maybe I could’ve done more. The voice on your shoulder saying “you’re doing a rubbish job, you’re failing” has been louder than at any other time in my life.”

There are green shoots, however: next month, the National reopens with Death of England: Delroy, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s sequel to Death of England, which will be followed by a Christmas pantomime, Dick Whittington – the first at the NT since 1983. Audiences of 400-500 people will be spread throughout the Olivier auditorium, fewer than half its usual capacity.

Delroy is, handily, Covid-friendly – a one-man show, performed by Hamilton alumnus Giles Terera. But it’s timely in other ways too: the play looks at the working-class Black British experience, a particularly urgent subject in the wake of Black Lives Matter. “The only appropriate way for us to reopen is to acknowledge the ways in which the world has changed,” suggests Norris.

Unfortunately, the economics at that scale don’t add up. The NT’s state subsidy only accounted for 16 per cent of turnover, so the loss of ticket sales and income from bars and cafes is brutal.

“It’s not sustainable,” acknowledges Norris candidly, before making an energetic case for getting back to making work. “If you just mothball institutions, that’s going to mean more redundancies, cutting the freelance community adrift, and preventing us from having any kind of purpose or input into society. Of course it’s a challenge – you can’t drive yourself out of business. But we’ve got to get activity going.”

He’s been advocating for it on a national level. Norris hopes that the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund – which will be announced in ­October – will be allocated in a way that encourages activity, be that community or education work, socially distanced or outdoors stagings, or digital output.

Norris is proud of how the theatre industry pulled together to lobby for emergency investment: “That involved a lot of collaboration across the industry which hadn’t ­existed before.” It worked, even if only £500m of the fund will be available to theatres, competing with music and comedy venues and ­museums for a share of that pot.

Nonetheless, the announcement was a relief – but what’s really ­crucial is the Comprehensive Spending Review in autumn. “I hope the very welcome first step, that £1.57bn, is followed up with a longer-term commitment. And then I think theatres will come through this – we will emerge.”

But organisations are only one part of the theatre ecology, and Norris is quick to recognise that freelancers, making up 70 per cent of the industry, are still in limbo. Many haven’t been eligible for self-employed income support; those that have now face the end of that scheme, with little hope of getting back to work.

Norris wearily, and somewhat bleakly, notes that cultural heads have failed to make the case for ­freelancers to the government in a way which has any “significant relieving impact to that community. It’s been very difficult to come up with coherent big ideas that can ­really address it.”

Does that mean we’re at risk of losing a generation of artists? “Yeah.”

Another pause. “Well, no, I think we’re at risk of losing part of a generation, and a really, ­really important part. As we’re trying to break down the age-old class ­differences that still remain ­absolutely embedded in everything about this country – you’ve only got to look at our government – there’s an awful danger that the only ­people who can survive [working in ­theatre] are the people who can ­afford to.”

Progress on diversity has been made in the past five years at the NT, and their future programming will “absolutely continue to champion the things that we claim to believe in”, Norris says firmly, before wryly acknowledging that such a large organisation can feel like oil tanker – it’s hard to turn around.

But this crisis has proved that many slow-moving institutions can do things differently when they absolutely have to. Could there be cause for optimism here – might we have a chance to rebuild differently?

“The biggest cliché in the book is that there’s no opportunity like a crisis. But when that crisis has meant that so many people lost their jobs, it’s hard to hold fast to the principles of what ‘opportunity’ means,” he says, cautiously.

“But really, what we would like to do is come back to a world where inclusion is across the whole culture [of the organisation].”

He’s been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and how it’s prompted an understanding that to really tackle systemic racism is much deeper work than just getting your employment figures in order. And while Norris, with somewhat arch understatement, says that social media can be “challenging”, he acknowledges that the way it holds publicly funded institutions to ­account is a positive.

Of course, if we go into a second lockdown, there might not be any new work on for some time. But during the first wave, the NT found a way of reaching audiences: NT at Home. These recorded performances made freely available via YouTube, including One Man, Two Guvnors; Amadeus and Jane Eyre, proved wildly popular, with 15 million views in 170 countries. But while they raised £350,000 in ­donations, that works out as a ­paltry 2p per view.

“It was a gesture,” says Norris. “But as it went on, you realised the people suffering most were the people who made the work.” But the good news is that NT at Home will be coming back soon, with some new shows – following a “rethink” as to how to make the scheme funnel money to artists.

This has been a strange year for everyone, but for people whose jobs are also their hobbies, their place of work also where they spend half their evenings, it has been ­particularly odd having both taken away.

What has he missed most about theatre? “The camaraderie. The community of it. Most of us are drawn to it because it’s a weird family we feel part of,” says Norris, adding simply: “I miss my family.”

Where next?