Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

“All that work is in the bin”

My Year of Theatre

Closure , Theatre of United Kingdom , December 31, 2020
My Year of Theatre by Closure My year of theatre was a year that lasted nine weeks. I saw ten productions and then everything ended.

The consequences were immediate and profound. The economic structure of theatre and live performance is essentially project-based, salaried pensionable members being a likely minority. COVID-19 left a swathe of artists across a span of crafts and skills without any livelihood.

The disease discriminated as to who it affected in its morbidity. The financial devastation made no discrimination.

A roadie wrote an eloquent account of his life plunged into stasis. Figures with recognisable names from film and West End were interviewed. Psychological torpor and an everyday inertia were common in response to the abrupt loss of all activity and income.

The support schemes were not able to cover the complex mix of income streams of the self-employed. People who aspire to work in the arts are in the lower quartile in the earnings range in normal times. An article on this site in February is titled "A Frank Talk About Cash". 2020 left theatre's self-employed poorer.

Savings, more often than not, are not high in the first place. The full extent to which their capital was depleted will probably never be known. The group collectively gathered under the banner of Excluded UK, numbering three million. A sizeable proportion are from the arts and entertainment sector.

It goes beyond money. 2020 was a year in which many, week on week, sought to find meaning and purpose.

The largest companies in theatre pleaded to be allowed to open and to earn. In South Korea theatres operated systems of tracing, temperature checking and physical spacing. Andrew Lloyd-Webber pleaded that the same processes be allowed for his theatres in England. They were not.

The furlough scheme in the first wave was successful in saving redundancies among the salaried. It delayed the redundancies that began in the autumn.

The second lock-down in England laid waste the plans for late, saving and cheering winter shows.

“Treat us like adults”, said Tom Morris of the Bristol Old Vic in early November, “Give us a definite date. My team are exhausted, confused and frightened. And the impact financially and organisationally of having to undo all we had planned is massive. All that work is in the bin.”

Articles on this site at the turn of the year, July 1st and 2nd, were headed “the Arts In Ruin.” The hard cash forecast at the time was £74bn drop in revenue for the creative industries, 400,000 jobs gone, 119000 salaried and 287000 freelance.

There are so many voices and every voice its own. This is just a single one that came my way.

“Let's talk finances. The government keeps insisting they have supported the industry with £1.57bn for the arts and the Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS). I successfully applied for the SEISS. However, the period taken into account for this were the tax years from 2016 - 2019. Due to the averaging over this period, where I was starting out as self employed, the total government support I have received personally to cover mid March to mid September is £3763.00.

“I have been lucky - due to the many hoops which had to be jumped through and cliff edges, several of my friends have received nothing. I managed to get a short term customer service job to top this up - several of my friends also haven't been lucky here.

The crux of it from this backstage worker :

“The government have decided that sitting in a carefully managed, vast theatre with a mask on for 2 1/2 hours is somehow significantly more risky than taking a long haul flight in a cramped enclosed fibreglass tube. Most industries are facing a tough time right now. Restaurants can serve fewer covers, demand for hotels has dropped, and footfall for retail businesses is down. My heart goes out to all of my friends in these sectors. But all of them are allowed to operate.”

In Cardiff there was activity a-plenty. But it was behind a webcam. Reports from the north were more regular. Tamara Harvey returned to the theatre during lockdown. “There were weeds growing through cracks in the pavement, the grass was really long. It felt like we’d abandoned it. Theatres should never be silent.”

She heard music and found a 16-year-old who had been allowed to use the Anthony Hopkins theatre to keep up his dance training. The teenage dancer’s usual ballet practice was curtailed by his school’s closure during the pandemic and he did not have the space at home to train properly.

“In that moment, when it felt like we weren’t going to get through this and bring the building back to life, seeing him dance on that stage was the thing that carried me through the next few weeks.”

Gwennan Mair, director of creative engagement, appealed to the public to donate “rainbow shoeboxes” to vulnerable children. Each was decorated and filled with a mixture of arts and crafts materials, toys, treats and seedlings. In the summer the theatre employed two dozen freelancers- actors, directors and visual artists- to work with young people.

If there is solace in history a voice supplied a reminder:

“From 1603-1613 London's theatres were in lockdown for over seventy-eight months. The Kings Men toured. Other companies and theatres closed.

“Of the 3,000 plays written only 543 survive. But they survive. Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” and “Macbeth” in virtual quarantine.”

Picture:

The forecourt of the National Theatre is where the queue for day tickets assembles. It is a regular place for me, six or eight times a year. In the summer of 2020 it was deserted, the doors locked, as they are once again.

The queues are amiable and manageable. When the star of “Breaking Bad” was performing they ballooned ridiculously. There was money to be made, a day ticket changing hands for £300 before the curtain rose in the evening.

Theatre is a coming together. More normally the queue is a communal place for young and old with a common purpose and a common interest. A German couple: “We have to come to Britain to see theatre for grown-up people.” I once heard the tale of a Hungarian family who fled the 1956 Uprising and became prominent as theatre impressarios.

A man from a small college in the Californian Sierras taught languages. It emerged, strangely, that we had shared the same teacher of Welsh in Lampeter.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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