Last bow?

Abandoned theatre with peeling walls and graffiti

How tired we all are of crises. We’ve been living in a seemingly perpetual mushroom cloud of crises for so long now, we can as likely remember the state of not being in crisis in roughly as much detail as the sight of ourselves in proper grown-up work clothes and shoes. Time is either whooshing past or dribbling, depending on your personal circumstances, but from both ends of the spectrum, people seem to agree, it feels as if it’s ebbing away as we’re going nowhere fast.

And yet the exhaustion of the moment, the desperation with which we may seek a return to normal, is also the moment of greatest danger – because it’s the moment we’re so busy focussing on the things that are starting to change that we cease to notice what isn’t.

The arts in this country are dying.

Now, I’m not one who much likes doom-mongers and predictors of The Fall Of Culture, because a lot of it is quite straightforwardly dismissible as panicky hyper-conservativism. People clapping between movements at the Proms? Culture is dying! –  that kind of thing. Not interested. But when two major theatres announce mass redundancy in the space of a few weeks (and I’ve no doubt that I’ve missed other similar stories as well), we should be panicking. Birmingham Hippodrome has had to warn 62 of its 130 permanent staff that they may be made redundant by the autumn. The entire artistic team at the Theatre Royal Plymouth are being made redundant in three days. These venues cannot afford to keep running. They will not, I’m sure, be the last. Even Cameron Mackintosh is starting redundancy processes on several shows, for goodness sake. The man is worth over a billion dollars. And what about smaller touring companies? Opera houses? Concert halls and jazz clubs? Flexible spaces that house performance poetry and spoken word events, education projects and dance clubs?

The UK funding landscape is different from the US or from many of its continental neighbours; we have some government support via the Arts Council and similar bodies, but not a huge amount of it… and we have private and corporate donors and sponsors, but they are not exclusively responsible for keeping the arts afloat. Nor should they be, if the government considers there to be any worth in the cultural sector. But then based on their behaviour so far, it’s questionable whether they actually do.

Artistic venues are places of collaboration. It’s not just the actors and the director; not just the stage crew and the sound team. It’s the box office staff and ushers. The finance director and site managers who ensure that the building is in good shape and that there’s money on hand for contingency planning. The high-level administrators who keep up with funding bids and legal requirements for the organisation. The comms team who design and circulate information about forthcoming projects and performances to possible punters, schools parties, education groups, donors, friends and patrons. The cleaners who keep the place looking amazing, so that your trip to the theatre or the concert or similar begins with an arrival at somewhere lovely, or striking, or unusual. The security staff and the fire stewards, the tech crew and the ice cream sellers. These places are ecosystems, and they only work brilliantly if everyone is present and correct.

Speaking of ecosystems, the UK as a whole is also such a system. So is England. So is London. Or Ipswich. Or Bournemouth. Or wherever you live. For the last few months, multiple bits of the ecosystem – large or small – have been cauterised and the world has shrunk to the size of our homes and the dimensions of a computer screen. (I am SO sick of staring at this thing, and I can’t be alone here.) As we start to revivify that ecosystem, all manner of causal relationships become clear to us: how schooling helps both children and parents to work and think. How cleaners and security staff help shops to run smoothly and safely. How public transport networks open up possibilities again, for business and pleasure. It’s exciting, liberating… like breathing out after months stuck in a single cardboard box.

And yet culture is still rammed in said box, right down at the bottom. It’s staying put, by and large. It’s still bound by the computer screen – a medium and a market that has already reduced the value of musical performance so much that around 5-6 million streams is now worth £12.64. Just think about that for a minute – really think. Try using a calculator to work out what that means a performer gets per stream. It’s even more insane than it sounds, I promise you. There’s Netflix and similar, taking a small amount per month for us to watch content, some of which is great and much of which is rubbish pure and simple. And then – then – because this really speaks to the state we’re in here, there’s all the theatres and concert halls who have been producing and reviving all manner of cultural gems for us to watch at home, for free. Because on the one hand, they want to share work and keep our minds on them; and on the other, they are working on the basis that if they charge for what they’re doing, we just won’t bother to cough up. We are so very used – far too used – to getting culture for free.

Well, it costs money. It just does. Like sofas and handbags and cheese sandwiches, someone had to make this stuff, and they deserve paying. So here are a few suggestions for helping out. And yes, it involves parting with your cash. And yes, like me, you might find that you have rather less of that than usual right now. But if you have a few spare pounds, just loose change, or a fiver you just discovered stuck in an old trouser pocket, that’ll do. It’s a start. We need a start, because the government sure as hell doesn’t seem to be moving anything like fast enough.

  1. Buy a TV licence. Support the BBC in its production of both video and audio content, all those channels on your telly and computer and the radio, and all the people who work for them.
  2. Pay for content. A number of venues are now modelling paid-for attendance at online events. Many of them ask for just £5 a performance. No, it’s not like being in a real theatre, but that’s why they’re asking you for £5 not £150. Cough up and try it. Give them an additional donation if you can.
  3. Look local. If you live near a theatre, dance centre, music venue or similar, check their website first. All venues are likely to be struggling, but local venues need local support, as to local organisations like theatre groups and poetry circles. You might find useful resources detailing these via your local library website.
  4. Donate. This is your big moment to become a friend, if you can afford it, and to make a one-off donation if you can’t. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be meant. Leave them a nice message if there’s room to do so. Show them you give a damn that they exist.
  5. Spread the word. Let’s be honest, we’re all spending way too much time on social media at the moment. So turn it into something positive: tweet, post, or [insert appropriate verb here] to share info about paid performances, or your favourite organisation that you want to support. Ask for help on their behalf, sing their praises and promote their shows. Heck, start a Facebook fundraiser. Go crazy with it. Get your friends and community engaged.

It’s not hard to do, and it doesn’t take long. It is, however, crucial if arts venues and the many people they employ are actually going to have a chance for survival. Of course, write to your MP and find arts-based unions if you want to go further. But the rest is quick, easy, and will also introduce you to some quality entertainment from some very talented people. Help them. Please. They need it, and so – I promise you – do you. As a wise poet once wrote,

‘Art is non-essential

Until it is not.’

5 comments

  • Daisy

    Completely agree. Have indeed done most of the above, more than once, during the lockdown. Biggest failure probably the last one but I’ll try to do better. And no, individuals shouldn’t have to prop up an industry that should be valued and supported by Government funding but I think we all know that this Government doesn’t give a rat’s arse for any of this stuff, so if it’s going to survive, we need to accept that and suck up some personal responsibility. That said…how much is Andrew Lloyd-Webber worth? Just asking…

  • Cherry

    Very well written and thought provoking. Makes me think I should and could do more, but also: if Cameron Mackintosh is worth billions, why is he laying anybody off? He and his ilk could do far more – and with far less pain than some of us can afford our tv licence – to support the industry that has made their billions. We can do our bit but my goodness they should be doing theirs!

  • Terrific – thank you Katy – I’ll happily stand behind every word of your blog. Please could I offer two additional thoughts?

    First, I think the covid crisis has stress-tested all sorts of systems and structures in our society in an unprecedented way, and will continue to do so for years to come. So it’s hardly a surprise that the outcome for the arts has been so catastrophic; because funding for the arts has been nugatory (who knew!) for most of my adult life. Despite the reams of evidence proving the benefits it bestows on our nation and the visitors we welcome to it, it’s almost as though generations of politicians have sought to punish those who don’t go to work in offices and suits. I don’t know how we begin to change this particular aspect of Westminster monoculture, but I do believe we are entitled to a more nuanced understanding from our representatives of what creative industry is, and more support for that industry. If Richard Desmond can get a £45m tax-break, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the UK’s theatres to receive comparable levels of assistance.

    Second, I think the covid crisis has cast an unfavourable light on many macro-scale issues afflicting the economy in general, and the creative economy in particular. Principal among these, I think, is the recent destruction of artistic copyright: the work of decades, if not centuries, seems to have been swept away in an instant by a few tech giants. I’ve just edited next week’s series of Composer of the Week programmes for BBC Radio 3, in which Erica Buurman and Jan Swafford discuss some of Beethoven’s documents and what we can learn from them; and guess what – apart from still not knowing who the Immortal Beloved was, we learn that Beethoven had endless trouble with people copying his music and making money from his labour. The fact that, 200 years later, Tasmin Little has earned less than 20 quid from thousands of spotify streams of her playing is a comparable scandal that simply has to be addressed if creative industry is to be a viable career for most of us.

    We all love having access almost any media text, anytime; but all of our individual efforts and acts of support, financial and moral, will need to be underpinned by a significant pushback against the ubiquitous exploitation perpetrated by the tech giants. And even if successful in this, it will not be popular; consumers will have to pay more for what they had been able to enjoy for less – but this uncomfortable truth will need to be confronted if we are all to survive. For too long, the creative industries have sold themselves too cheap.

  • Karla

    Art and culture helps humans process emotions, subconscious thoughts, anxiety and makes us thinks and feel in a more vibrant way. We need it more than ever!

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