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‘We’ve shown we’re not going without a fight’: Who really cares about what has happened to the theatre industry?

The only thing that’s going on my 2020 CV is ‘writing shit on twitter’ (and musical theatre references). Exactly a month ago I accidentally wrote a viral tweet. It came, as most of my twitter bullshit does, out of a moment of possibly ill-thought frustration. Out of feeling brushed aside, dismissed one too many times. But wow did that tweet resonate. And a few weeks later it feels like the time to expand on that.

I wrote that tweet because I was exhausted, and angry. Angry at a Government refusing to acknowledge our multi-million-pound industry even existed. Refusing to acknowledge we needed help. Angrier still at the people- at the friends too- who dismissed our concerns. Who dismissed our industry as unimportant.

I get it, there’s a lot to care about right now. On the huge political scale and on the individual scale. We’ve all been fighting our battles through this, at home and in politics. I’m not here to say we’re more or less important than one cause or another. But caring, even if you don’t have capacity for action isn’t mutually exclusive. I got some stick for singling out football as an example. And while I don’t know much about sport unless it involves a horse or a hockey stick (not together), I do know sport means a lot to people. That it brings communities together, gives a welcome distraction, creates jobs, generates tourism and income. And you know what else does that? On actually a bigger scale? Theatre and the arts.

This blog isn’t about the statistics. James Graham did a more eloquent job of that than I ever will so google his responses. The Government finally caved in to a degree. All any of us wanted was the acknowledgment, the feeling people were fighting in our corner…and yes the money. Mostly we just wanted to feel like we exist. Not to be failed by the government then asked in 10 year’s time ‘what happened to the arts in Britain’

One too many times, I felt like I was being dismissed because I was upset about theatre. About a little hobby. Like the world is making fun of us like they like to make fun of our ‘not real jobs’ that this little old Global Pandemic is maybe the reason we should ‘grow up’ finally and give it all up. And it’s partly hilarious, because don’t they know that’s a conversation every theatre person has with themselves at least once a week? ‘is it time to give up?’ ‘should I just grow up already’ but we have spent a lifetime dedicated to it, sacrificing far, far too much. So we can’t just walk away. Because also we know what it means not for us, but for everyone if we do.

We get told over and over that we’re a bunch of spoiled artists wanting to indulge our passions. And while there’s a few spoiled artists I’d gladly take the Arts Council Funding for and put it to better use, for the most part that isn’t the case. We’re people, trying to do our jobs, trying to do jobs we’re passionate about. For most of us, the arts aren’t about the impact we have on ourselves, it’s certainly not about material gain, it’s about the impact we have on other people.

I keep hearing the lyrics from two musicals in my head. I hear ‘What I did for Love’ from A Chorus line. I think about the line  ‘If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?’ but we didn’t know. And for many of us the reality is, March 16th 2020 was the day we stopped dancing. And we didn’t get to say goodbye. It wasn’t a fond farewell at the end of a successful career. Or even a considered, if regret filled decision after one too many rejections. Our industry disappeared overnight. And we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. After years, decades of work, we’ve spent four months not knowing if we will ever do what we loved again. And while, we might eventually say ‘I won’t regret what I did for love’ right now we’re grieving.

And I keep hearing ‘there’s a grief that can’t be spoken there’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables’ and yes, like Les Mis itself it’s melodramatic as hell. But guess what? That’s what we were all paid for. Or mostly not paid for actually. And we might be being as dramatic as Eddie Redmayne ugly crying…but most of us have cried more tears than we care to admit these last four months.

And maybe it’s impossible to explain to someone outside of our industry. I get that maybe not everyone would cry if their job disappeared. But haven’t you ever loved something? Been passionate about something? Whether it’s football or knitting, running, stamp collecting. Now imagine you somehow found a way to make that your job, you sacrificed everything for it eat and sleep it. We exist in a strange world where work and life are blurred, and while that might not be healthy, we don’t know what to do without it.

There’s some light at the end of the tunnel. Let me be clear the Government money won’t save us. It’s too late and not enough. We can’t open our shows yet, but we’re crossing our fingers the experiments from Andrew Lloyd Webber help, and that the outdoor theatre gives other theatres and freelancers a much-needed boost. But we can’t sustain like this.  We’re effectively closed until next year, and even then we don’t know what will happen, what it will look like.

But we’ve shown we’re not going without a fight. We’ve made work, we’ve raised money, we’ve kept each other going. And no, we haven’t won the war, because the odds are so phenomenally stacked against us. I know plenty of us will be there to the very last lifeboat. Playing a violin and doing a tap-dance probably.

And that includes all of you who consider yourselves ‘just’ audience members. All of us who are just hanging in there see you all telling us you can’t wait to get back. And you keep us all going.

And it’s also our community that will see us through. I can’t tell you how much I’ve clung to calls with my writing partner, or the company I’m Chair of, or all the random theatre conversations I’ve had over Zoom, or the actors who helped me make whole plays over the internet. Or my weekly, utterly ridiculous theatre quiz, that above everything else reminds me every week what we’re fighting for- the right to be nerdy as hell about playing make believe because it makes us happy. It makes us feel, it makes being alive (yes, I went there) worth it.  Eventually.

But for now, I can’t take another person telling me ‘it’ll be alright’ because it won’t. And we’re grieving and fighting all at once. And we’re exhausted. And still we can’t stop. And we’re scared, and sad. So, bear with us, even if you don’t get it, even while your life goes back to a ‘new normal’. We’re still waiting to see if we’ve got a life to go back to at all.

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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