Theatre, ultimately, is not about buildings or props or sets – it’s about people. The people who make it, the people who engage with it, and the crossover between.
The greatest threat to the vitality of plays, musicals and live performance once the lockdown ends is a drain of people leaving the arts. Audiences who can no longer afford ticket prices against a backdrop of economic strain, reinforcing the idea that culture is “not for them”. Skilled artists – particularly those from lower socioeconomic and working-class backgrounds (yes, we do exist in the arts) – who can’t afford to remain in the industry.
In normal times, theatre is a hugely profitable industry, and one of the UK’s most successful cultural exports. But the industry has always been staffed by precariats. Despite the glamour of the trade, almost three-quarters of its employees, no matter what our backgrounds, are freelancers living from job to job. And a significant proportion of this workforce fell through the cracks of the government’s job retention schemes.
Right now, nothing frightens theatre creatives more than a slowdown or reversal of even modest gains made in recent years in terms of the inclusivity and diversity of the theatre, on stage and off. These included Natasha Gordon becoming the first (and sinfully late) black British woman to have a play in the West End, with the extraordinary Nine Night, and the National Theatre’s commitment to 50:50 gender representation. But there’s still so much left to do.
The postwar settlement in 1945 was built on the passionate belief that “art for everyone” was vital to people’s wellbeing and social cohesion. Our aspirations for the future of the industry should be just as hopeful and as high. Assuming the industry survives, it’s incumbent upon us to hardwire radical, imaginative, hopeful strategies into its recovery, ensuring greater access across society.
For this reason, class barriers require our full attention. Theatre has a class problem. Few would deny it, but there is often a squeamishness in talking about this particular area of representation and a lack of confidence in how to define it. I myself have wrestled with the existential angst that once you reach a certain level in the industry, you must abandon any claim to this identity.
There are also justifiable suspicions, particularly from black, Asian and minority ethnic artists, that the term “class” is deployed as a proxy to mean exclusively “white, working-class men”. So it is vital that any discussions of class must wholeheartedly intersect with every community, identity and culture in Britain, and for white working-class writers to amplify and champion their even more neglected peers.
The socio-economic group you were born into and the levels of social deprivation you’ve experienced are the most decisive factors in whether or not you go to the theatre, let alone carve out a career within it. It seems that half the country goes, half the country doesn’t. And the half who don’t are unlikely to want to if they can’t hear their voices or see their own stories represented on stage.
There are glimmers of opportunity in this crisis. Zoom networks offering peer-to-peer support in quarantine have sprung up, including the digital coffee mornings for working-class artists led by Common, an arts and social justice organisation I’m a patron of, alongside the director Matthew Xia and writer Nessah Muthy. Such engagement should continue as leaders listen to the lived experiences of their freelancers when deciding how to rebuild.
Theatre outreach and education departments have been some of the most dynamic during the pandemic. In Leeds, the theatre company Slung Low, based at The Holbeck, an old social club, has been active in distributing food and care packages in the community.
But other mountains feel steeper to climb. The cultural disparity between the south-east, where much of the arts and theatre industry is concentrated, and the rest of the country could grow wider as smaller local organisations and touring groups collapse. The unforgivable demise of arts education in state schools over recent years may further narrow the already limited pool of artists and audiences.
Most importantly of all, of course, are cheaper tickets. Cheaper, cheaper, cheaper, cheaper tickets. We know this will be even more challenging for theatre companies barely able to make ends meet. Whatever new, inventive, convention-defying methods that artists, fundraisers, producers and sponsors can collectively devise, our new theatre culture can only claim to represent contemporary Britain if everyone who lives here is allowed to come and see it.
• James Graham is a British playwright and screenwriter