‘It’s like the seven stages of grief,” says Paula Varjack, of the way Covid-19 has affected the world of theatre. As a freelance theatre-maker, Varjack will no longer be launching two new shows this summer at the Edinburgh fringe – the fruit of years of careful strategy – while all her other engagements are indefinitely on ice. But after the denial, anger, bargaining etc, Varjack thought she might at least end up at some sort of acceptance; maybe she could even come to see the closure of theatres as an opportunity to reimagine the art form wholesale. There’s been some of this, says Varjack, but she’s also realised that grieving for your livelihood – for your whole vanishing industry – isn’t simply a process. “It’s a cycle,” she says.
I’m struggling to get past the shock stage myself, and I’m not (or at least, no longer) a freelance artist – although as artistic director of Camden People’s theatre, I work closely with many of them. The point of CPT is to support emerging theatre-makers, particularly those making innovative or socially engaged work, so that they can get a foothold in the industry. We’re only as good as the artists we work with – and those artists are, in the era of Covid-19, in serious trouble. Those we’re closest to – artists from marginalised backgrounds, and at the fragile start of their careers – are more vulnerable than most as their work dries up.
Not that support hasn’t been made available. There’s the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), and the Arts Council’s emergency fund for creative practitioners. But the Arts Council can’t cater for everyone: some terrific artists have been refused funding. And many more aren’t eligible for the government’s offer. Those whose income derives jointly from PAYE and freelance work can find themselves excluded. So too artists whose income is too small, those who’ve freelanced for less than a year and foreign nationals whose visa status disqualifies them. Together, those categories cover a lot of theatre-makers; 70% of the industry’s workforce is self-employed. Many are now left with no earning power and no institutional support.
In its place, there is at least solidarity. I’ve been speaking to freelancers about their plight, and everyone comments on the spirit of mutuality that’s come to the fore. At CPT, we financially compensated all the artists whose shows were cancelled when we shut down – possible mainly because audience members donated the cost of their tickets, and several fellow artists “paid forward” their cancellation fees. Elsewhere, superstar live artist Bryony Kimmings initiated her #GigAid support scheme, raising £40,000 for artists who’d lost work due to Covid-19, while theatre-maker Scottee offered paid mentoring sessions for producers and artists, and micro-commissions to create digital work for home viewing. Online round-tables and peer support networks have proliferated.
I spoke to the artist Haley McGee, whose 14-Day Creative Quarantine Challenge is an online programme for artists seeking to stay creative during lockdown. It’s been so successful – more than 1,100 people have signed up – that McGee has had to automate the service. Manchester’s Contact theatre had a similar initiative, A Week’s Notice (“For seven weeks, seven freelance artists each suggest seven creative ideas to help you Take Notice …”), aimed at safeguarding the mental health of the isolated – and giving artists work. “People want to be doing something,” says McGee. “Not just watching more live streams. We’re already all watching too much TV.”
I hosted a Zoom meeting from CPT the other week, to reunite six artists we’d been supporting to develop new shows before the lockdown struck. Mid-conversation, one of the participants announced: “This is the first time I’ve felt like an artist in four weeks.” It’s not just artists’ jobs that have evaporated, it’s their identities – which, without work, can start to feel very brittle. To have no income is bad; to have no role or purpose in the so-called “new normal” is worse.
Which partly explains the current boom of theatre online. Here, the National Theatre streams its greatest hits. There, the Gateshead International festival takes place, to great acclaim, on Zoom, and indie collective Forest Fringe launches Forest Fringe TV. It’s a tribute to the sector’s indomitability: if we can’t find audiences in our auditoriums, we’ll hunt them down in their homes instead. It’s an exciting creative challenge in itself. Paula Varjack’s live work has a digital element; now she’s exploring how to make digital work with a spirit of liveness. “I’m seeing it as just another form to play with,” she says. “It feels like there’s a lot of genuine experimentation happening right now, which people are receiving in an open and forgiving way.”
But there’s a flipside. Some see the rush to digital as a panic – and that the urge to show how easily theatre can be reproduced online downplays what makes it unique. Some feel under pressure to deliver #content, while lacking the skills to do so. “I haven’t been excited at watching a single filmed show,” says the theatre-maker and playwright Annie Siddons. “I’m not a film director,” she says. “The skill sets are different. And those who don’t have video material good to go are panicking, because they’re not being swept up in the new wave of digital content splurging. They’re just feeling even more left behind.”
Then there’s the concern that digital – and the effects of the lockdown more widely – privilege the well-resourced and entrench elitism. To make and distribute digital theatre successfully, it helps to have resources, staff, an archive of recorded performance and an established audience. And then: how on earth do you monetise it? David Loumgair runs the sector support organisation Common, which represents working-class theatre-makers. He’s concerned that recent progress towards diversity will be reversed by the lockdown, citing a recent commission that offered £150 for new digital work – “barely enough to cover the artist’s time,” he says, “far less the up-skilling required.” The website What’s On Stage also drew heavy criticism when its Lockdown Playwriting prize offered only £500 for new hour-long playscripts. It has since cancelled the prize.
But then, freelance artists have always been taken for granted. If there’s a positive right now, it’s that the exploitation and insecurity has become impossible to ignore. Research at the online magazine Exeunt into the plight of freelancers ineligible for government support found that 40% are considering a career change, 1 in 3 are experiencing housing insecurity, and over half are struggling with depression and anxiety because of their financial situation. It is alarming – and yet different only by degrees, perhaps, from many artists’ pre-lockdown experience of freelance theatre practice.
Dominic Garfield co-runs the grime and hip-hop theatre company HighRise, who work extensively with young people and were developing their UK Drill Project, on the relationship between drill music and criminality, before life got locked down. He told me that current conditions aren’t such a change for HighRise, who are all too familiar with job insecurity and living hand-to-mouth. They’re also, like most independent theatre-makers I know, light on their feet and resourceful, which can be useful skills in a crisis.
Garfield’s experience of lockdown so far has been perfunctory treatment from several venues with whom HighRise had bookings (being strung along; gigs cancelled at the last-minute; no compensation), and small acts of generosity from others. With emergency funding from the Arts Council secured, they can at least sustain – albeit digitally – their New Gens project with young people. Garfield also hopes to put the company’s recent show Lil.Miss.Lady online, but won’t consider charging for it (“we’re competing with people who can do screen entertainment a lot better than us”) and won’t do so until he’s worked out how to generate online the crackling sense of event that attended its live performances.
Can that be done? What does “liveness” even mean in the era of coronavirus, when our closest relationships are mediated by screens, and a crowded room could be a death sentence? Everyone in theatre knows that, even after the lockdown is lifted, there’s no quick return to normal for an art form that draws its lifeblood from “social gathering”. “I don’t know what theatre is now,” says Garfield. “But I know that it’s dumb to think about it. It’s time for something new.”
Maybe that “something new” can be a revolution in how the industry treats its freelancers. There’s been much discussion of a blog posted by ex-Battersea Arts Centre director David Jubb, proposing a new funding model that delivers money not to buildings and organisations, but straight to artists. Might the worst of times also be the best of times? Some see an “incredibly exciting opportunity” (in the words of performance-maker Xavier de Sousa) to reimagine what theatre is and how it’s made. Others, justifiably, can’t see past this month’s rent payment, and simply long to be back in a theatre, doing what they do.
“What I really want,” says Varjack, “is to be able to perform the shows I’ve developed in a live space as soon as possible. But that’s not going to happen any time soon.”