‘There will be positives’: artistic directors on theatre’s terrible year

Published in The Observer September 27, 2020

Last summer, the Observer profiled a group of newly-appointed artistic directors – a fresh surge of talent taking its place at the top of six of our best-loved theatre companies. A notably diverse cohort, they were bursting with optimism and ideas for shaking up the industry.

Our theatre critic Susannah Clapp, introducing the new talent, looked forward to seeing how they would transform the theatrical landscape – with the caveat that “it is hard, though, to guess what changes will be wrought”.

No one predicted the cataclysmic changes they would all have to reckon with in their first year. “Everyone would like to go back to ‘precedented’ times, wouldn’t they?” says Sean Foley, artistic director for Birmingham Rep, who had arrived full time at the theatre in February – only to shut it within a month. The job, he says, is certainly “not what I bargained for”; no one dreams of overseeing redundancies, after all.

Covid-19 has been disastrous for British theatre – and continues to be so, despite some venues reopening this autumn. Even those that are, such as the National Theatre and Nimax theatres in the West End, will run at a loss so long as physical distancing continues. For others, it’s already too late: the Nuffield in Southampton and Leicester Haymarket have gone out of business, while thousands of casual workers across the country have lost their jobs. And while October brings the arrival of the £1.57bn culture recovery fund grant, £500m of which is to be shared by theatres, music venues and museums, it also brings the end of the furlough scheme. Just over half of theatre businesses took advantage of it, and its end will spell mass redundancies, according to the theatre union Bectu.

“It’s really bleak. Not all the theatres will survive,” says Michael Longhurst, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End. “Every theatre becomes this massive leaky bucket.” Without ticket revenues, they haemorrhage money.

The Donmar managed to find a way to plug some leaks: it was the first major theatre to reopen its doors in August – albeit with a socially distanced sound installation, adapted from José Saramago’s novel Blindness. Audiences have found it incredibly moving to be back, Longhurst says: “Lockdown has sharpened what we all love about theatre, and have all missed so much: a communal experience.”

Blindness was a sell-out success, but Longhurst recognises that the Donmar’s audience has been different – younger, essentially. That’s cause for excitement, but also financially tricky, given that it’s generally more mature audiences that stump up for top-price tickets and donations; the same audience that will need to stay away from theatres for longest. The future looks “really scary, for exactly those reasons”, he admits.

For many theatres, reopening with social distancing simply isn’t financially viable. They’re stuck in a waiting game – to see when they can reopen, safely, at normal capacity. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden recently suggested that could happen by Christmas, but given rising infection rates, Boris Johnson’s announcement of another six months of restrictions, and our hardly world-beating test-and-trace system, you’d be a fool to bank on it. It is this uncertainty that is the hardest thing to manage, people tell me time and again.

“I’ve felt every emotion you can possibly describe,” says Lynette Linton, artistic director of west London’s Bush theatre, looking back on the last six months. “But it does change every day – and as of today, I feel quite hopeful.”

Working for their local community in Shepherd’s Bush was always at the heart of Linton’s plan for the theatre – but the need to step up and serve has only been sharpened by the crisis. Linton promised herself, and her team, they’d reopen as soon as possible – and they recently hosted a summer school for local teenagers. “My instinct was always to open the building so we can come together and heal through art,” says Linton. “There’s only so much that Zoom can facilitate, you know?”

She’s also proud of the digital commissions they’ve given to struggling freelance writers – but it’s hardly been the first season she’d planned. While starting a new job usually means diving headlong into it, this cohort has been given an unexpected pause. But the time to reflect has proved invaluable, and while obviously no one would have wished for the complete destruction of their industry, many are excited about the prospect of rebuilding differently. Given that theatre is still fighting for survival, there’s a surprising amount of optimism about.

“In the pause, you question things and understand why they happen instead of just going along with it, in terms of structures and roles and pay,” Linton says. “It’s going to be a really hard couple of years rebuilding, but there might be positives that come out of it. Well, there will be – because we will see change.”

Of course, it isn’t only Covid-19 that has shaken the theatre industry in 2020 – it’s also Black Lives Matter. While diversity has been discussed endlessly in recent years, BLM seems to have been a genuine wake-up call. No one could ignore it this time, points out Linton: with the world stopped, everyone had to listen. And that’s led to a deeper recognition within arts organisations that they have to take responsibility for their part in that conversation.

Suba Das, artistic director for the new writing company HighTide, says he has never had such sustained discussions with white friends and colleagues as those taking place over the last few months. “That is heartening. And maybe it’s heartbreaking that it took a man being murdered in front of our eyes, at a point when everyone had to watch it. But the conversation has more depth than it’s ever had.”

Charlotte Bennett, who along with Katie Posner (who was not available to talk on the day of our interview) leads the touring company Paines Plough – a touring company also focusing on new writing – agrees this is a long-overdue moment for theatre. It has prompted reconsideration of what more they can do, and Paines Plough is now developing an “antiracism rider” with other touring companies, to make sure artists feel safe on tour. “If we’re honest, we probably wouldn’t have considered that before Black Lives Matter,” she says.

Reading back over last year’s interviews, it is striking how much issues of diversity, inclusivity, and representation came up. They still do – it’s just that now, the situation looks gloomier. Everyone recognises that theatre is at risk of losing a generation of artists. Or probably two: emerging artists, and those who might now not even consider theatre a viable career option. And it will certainly be economically vulnerable, marginalised, and already underrepresented groups who are most likely to be put off.

But there’s also fighting talk. “We’re not going to be able to take everyone with us,” says Das. “Our priority is how the hell do we ensure we’re taking as many people from working class, differently abled, and backgrounds of colour as possible. Because we need that for great art.”

Looking at the shows already announced in reopening theatres, however, much seems to rest on bankable big names or familiar material. Are we also going see a retreat into theatrical safe bets in the coming months and years?

“Of course there’s going to be this intense desire to swing back to a known world and to keep things economically safe – but that’s where it’s incumbent on the diverse leadership to keep on pushing forward in a new direction,” says Das.

Several of the directors predict we’ll see a split or polarisation in the industry. “There will be two camps: those that revert, and those that progress,” says Bennett. “And I know what side I will be on. That’s why I run a new writing company – because I’m not interested in a museum culture of theatre.”

Both Paines Plough and HighTide have had it comparatively easy in lockdown. With no buildings to worry about, they could channel funds to artists and community projects. Only days after lockdown was announced, HighTide launched its Lighthouse Programme, which includes script reading, mentoring, and digital commissions for writers, plus a series of educational workshops.

In the medium term, that’s been galvanising. But in the long term, Das recognises that to really support a writer you need to produce their work – and the economics of that are terrifying.

It has, naturally, been heart-wrenching to have to cancel live work. “At times we’ve been really upset that this was our first year,” Bennett says. “What we have done is really tried to still tell stories.”

Paines Plough always wanted to “reach the furthest corners” of the UK – and during the pandemic that had to include people without internet access. They commissioned short plays, to be performed live down the phone by professional actors, to connect with those isolated by the crisis. Such new work also helped struggling artists: Paines Plough has given 60 short commissions to writers for digital and telephone plays since March.

But if the pandemic has been tough for heads of organisations, all are quick to point out that it’s been much tougher for freelancers, who make up 70% of the industry. They’ve all been freelancers and know how financially precarious it is at the best of times – even when opening a hit show in New York, Longhurst recalls living at the bottom of his overdraft. With the government self-employment income support scheme ending in October, a third of freelance workers are now considering leaving the industry.

Covid-19 has made it impossible to ignore what everyone already knew: British theatre is built on an underpaid workforce living hand-to-mouth. But it is a problem that the pandemic has made much more acute, points out Tarek Iskander of Battersea Arts Centre in south London. He hopes this period of upheaval might spur the industry – especially those in charge of institutions – to look at how to make sure freelancers have more agency and more security.

“We have to start to address power imbalances,” he says. “So many things that felt stuck for such a long time suddenly are unstuck. It’s not just a chance to make change – it’s our responsibility.”

Difficult times call for radical solutions. Das believes the theatre sector should be advocating for universal basic income, as a sort of permanent furlough scheme. Iskander, a former NHS executive, wants to campaign for a National Arts Service, providing culture for all.

“I feel exceptionally proud of how the NHS has responded to Covid – they show what is possible if you work together, putting egos aside, for the greater good,” he says. The arts could certainly stand to learn something from the NHS about being confident in saying that they are absolutely essential for society, he adds.

Foley is also looking to a medical model: he’s hoping funding will be available for apprenticeships, and that the Birmingham Rep might become a “training theatre, like a training hospital”.

Planning for the future is tricky right now, however. Not only does the industry still face long-term uncertainty, but in the short term, everyone is holding their breath for October, when the results of applications to the government’s recovery fund will be announced. It’s accepted that the £1.57bn won’t be enough once carved up across the arts, and for theatres who don’t get funding, the picture will be grim. “If we don’t get any money, Birmingham Repertory Theatre will end,” says Foley. “It’s as simple as that.”

Still, even getting that fund agreed required a herculean effort. “Political advocacy has become one of the key parts of the job,” acknowledges Longhurst, citing the “amazing political operators” from all parts of the sector working together behind the scenes, making the case to the Treasury.

These collaborative conversations have proved a real silver lining, with artistic directors from very different theatres talking with new openness. Longhurst speaks warmly of Zoom calls with all the London theatre heads – and of benefiting particularly from the “guidance and challenge and provocation” from people such as Kwame Kwei-Armah, Nadia Fall, Indhu Rubasingham, and Linton in discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement.

Linton also feels like she’s been soaking up wisdom. “I’ve learned so much about politics and lobbying from my peers,” she says when we discuss how being an artistic director has come to mean being a public advocate for theatre, too. If 2020 has at times been bleak, it has also proved transformative.

“The person I was at the beginning of lockdown and the person I am now are completely different,” Linton says. “There’s been so many losses, and so much pain and heartbreak. But I am inspired by the creativity and the resilience of our theatre community. And I really have clarity about the work we have to do.”

Q&As: artistic directors on their 2020’s ups and downs

Lynette Linton, Bush theatre

Who (or what) has really inspired you through this?
The Bush team, and their resilience and their love for our building. And I feel incredibly inspired by our freelancers, and how they’re continuing to keep going. I’m inspired just by theatre fam, man!

And what has caused you the most angst or despondency?
Not being able to bring our community together when we needed it the most – specifically, for me, when George Floyd was killed. That was really hard. I still feel quite emotional about that moment, because I remember thinking: “How are we going to get through this? We need to be together.”

What TV/music/books have you been enjoying?
My lockdown shows have been Gangs of London, I May Destroy YouNormal People[RuPaul’s] Drag Race… Drag Race is the reason I’m still here!

What doestheatre need to get back on its feet?
The first thing that comes into my head is honesty and transparency – but also, obviously, money.

Michael Longhurst, Donmar Warehouse

What were you working on before lockdown?
I’d just had my dress rehearsal of [Tony Kushner’s] Caroline, or Change on Broadway, and we were shuttered a week or so before London. We thought we’d be back in six weeks at that point. It’s mind-blowing.

Who (or what) has really inspired you through this?
The other London artistic directors. That community of people has really lifted each other up. We managed a socially distanced meet on the South Bank recently, which was lovely.

And what has caused you the most angst/despondency?

What would your dream comeback show be?
I’d like to do a massive London-wide celebration of theatre.

What doestheatre need to get back on its feet?
The next round of arts funding, and theatre tax relief.

Tarek Iskander, Battersea Arts Centre

What project are you most proud of since the pandemic hit?The thousands of creative PlayKits that went out to local children in Wandsworth. BAC wasn’t leading it, it was a partner with loads of other organisations to make that happen. It was a reminder that what we do is essential, not a luxury.

What TV/ music/books have you been enjoying?
I’ve been working my way through all the Hilary Mantel books. But also just catching up on crap TV at the end of really long days, watching things like Schitt’s Creek.

Who (or what) has inspired you during all this?
The freelancers. At a time when they were most vulnerable, they really rallied and have come up with some of the most constructive, radical thinking.

Charlotte Bennett, Paines Plough

What were you working on before lockdown?
Run Sister Run by Chloë Moss was our first show, at Sheffield theatres. It was two weeks into its run. And the sad thing is that Chloë’s father passed away, and so she actually never saw it.

What project are you most proud of since the pandemic hit?Probably theCome to Where I Am plays [performed live over the phone]. One lady said it was the highlight of her lockdown; she’d not spoken to anyone for days. There’s been friendships born: Sally [Dynevor] from Coronation Street continues to talk to someone from east London. It feels like it made a difference in an immediate way.

Who (or what) has really inspired you through this?
Katie [Posner, Paines Plough’s co-artistic director] and I both really admired The Protest plays the Bush created off the back of Black Lives Matter. I’ve found digital theatre quite hard to tune my brain to, but they were utterly compelling.

If money and rights were no object, what would your dream comeback show be?
A huge feelgood community show with lots of live music and dancing, co-written by lots of national playwrights.

Sean Foley, Birmingham Rep

What project are you most proud of since the pandemic hit?
All our youth theatre went online, and all our education officers kept working with schools online. I think everyone in the theatre is proud of that.

Who (or what) has really inspired you through this?
I’ve been inspired by people in the industry itself. Obviously there’s a great love for what you do – you’d expect that – but there’s also been an incredible amount of work done by many, many people trying to find solutions.

What TV/ music/books have you been enjoying?
What was the thing we all got into? Tiger King! I’m not going to say I’ve been rereading all of Chekhov, because I haven’t.

What would your dream comeback show be?
It has to star Ian McKellen. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as he’s in it.

Suba Das, HighTide

What were you working on before lockdown?
We were about to announce my first HighTide season – commissions by six new writers and a year-round artist development programme.

What project are you most proud of since the pandemic hit?The Digital Youth Theatre we set up with [London-based youth theatre] Company Three and 4YP, the health service for vulnerable young people in Suffolk, which meant that some kids got to have a really great time.

And what has caused you the most angst/despondency?
Hearing from young working-class artists that they’re going to have to give this up – and we can’t let that happen.

What TV/ music/books have you been enjoying?
Dua Lipa, everyone’s quarantine queen. Man, there is an album! And a consistent deep dive into the Madonna back catalogue.

What doestheatre need to get back on its feet?
The very practical thing is a proper insurance underwriting scheme. And we’re going need inventiveness. You will solve the problem of how the hell you make a socially distanced show not through a spreadsheet, but through an amazing writer and an amazing director.

Where next?