Illustration by Georgina Carey
By Mica Anderson
While the range of what I’ve seen posted on social media during our current pandemic has varied from the blissfully domestic to the outrageously eccentric, one of acclaimed composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s recent Instagram posts really managed to strike something in me.
In the post, he is receiving an injection in his arm from a nurse, while wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘Save Our Stages’ across his chest. In the caption, he clarifies that he is taking part in the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trials, as he wants to see the return of British theatre as soon as possible. It was a sweet caption emphasising important and live-saving work, and it almost made me forgive him for green-lighting the movie version of Cats. It also made me think about theatre in the time of coronavirus - how it’s been one of the most impacted industries in the pandemic, how it was very near to collapse, and how, despite the huge monetary package from the government, it’s future is still very uncertain.
As I currently write this, I am living in a Fringe-less Edinburgh in the month of August - the first time it has ever been cancelled in the festival’s history, spanning over 70 years. The part of me that is an Edinburgh resident is certainly appreciating the breathing room - no insistent people flyering, no expensive pints, and no mid-August bin smell floating over Marchmont. But the theatre-lover in me misses the chaotic, wonderful whirlwind that the Fringe provides. And while the ethics behind the Fringe’s biggest venues have certainly come into question in recent years, the Fringe provides countless performance and employment opportunities to artists from all walks of life. And it’s cancellation, along with the cancellation of shows ranging from West End to amateur, with no certainty as to when they’ll be up and running again, is unbelievable to me.
A few short months ago, the theatre community in the UK was begging for assistance from the governments. Producers predicted a possible industry-wide collapse and appealed publicly for help. The National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Delfont Mackintosh Theatres group - stalwarts in an industry that generates £8.5 billion for the British economy (Arts Council England) - furloughed staff, held fundraising streams and appealed to their richest sponsors, just to make it through. These are companies with rich histories, whose work is acclaimed worldwide - their work inspires, creates jobs, facilitates educational experiences, creates cultural stimulation. British theatre is renowned worldwide, but it still took absolute desperation from those at the top for the government to take their requests seriously; after pubs were reopened and the Premier League was allowed to go ahead, of course. To speak nothing of smaller theatre companies who lack the clout that the larger companies benefit from.
Furthermore, there is still no clear plan from the government as to when arts venues can reopen to their full capacity - the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, had predicted that theatres could resume indoor performances from August 1, but this was pushed back until August 22, and they will be subject to social distancing measures (The Guardian). While this is absolutely necessary, it is only applicable in England, and is simply not financially viable for smaller venues, for whom blocking out rows of seats will not make putting on performances worth the money. I’m not asking for the government to throw out the rules that are put in place to protect public safety; I wholeheartedly agree with them and their importance in tackling the spread, but I simply do not understand the logic in allowing social distancing measures in one confined space (pubs and restaurants) and not another (theatres). I personally find it almost shameful that it took the government so long to respond in uplifting as important a sector as the arts sector (though I take my hat off to Nicola Sturgeon, who provided quick and adequate support to the Scottish theatre community) - a sector that is essential to employment and culture in the UK. I have long felt that the theatre community has been placed on the back burner in terms of priority, but never have I seen that more than in this pandemic.