Last week, like many who list Performing Arts on their LinkedIn profile, I was invited to contribute to an online discussion of what the performing arts needs to recover from the current crisis. It is fair to say that the performing arts have been put through the wringer over the last few months, our very survival in doubt. Whilst last week’s announcement of extra funding is welcome, as I said in my response, it is a fight that we should never have needed to fight. There is nothing for freelances especially the “Forgotten Freelances”. I had stepped back from social media for much of lockdown, it was adding to my stress levels not helping but I decided to come out of hibernation for this. We need the voices of performing arts practitioners to be heard at this time. Writing it made me think about the possibility of our future.
We need a wholesale change in the attitude to the performing arts sectors by Government, Opposition and others in power. Creative subjects are neglected in education and regularly derided as soft options along with the now regular annual report of studying creative subjects at Higher Education leaves to poor job prospects and salaries. Rarely do we see the sector recognised for all it brings to the life, health & well-being and education of the country or what it contributes to other industries or to the education of those who go onto follow other career paths. Performing arts careers are proper careers, its workers are hard working, highly skilled and multi-disciplined as is demonstrated time and time again by the work we do. Not least by the response of performers and companies to both producing work and supporting their communities during this crisis.
We need to extend the understanding of what the performing arts does to Government but also much of the general public; and what we could do with the right support (not just financial). Plenty of attention is given to Oscar winners and winning films, star casting in the theatre, headliners at Glastonbury: but the sector is so much more than that. How much attention is given to companies who work with disadvantaged communities, young people at risk, those living with disabilities: the work with elders, those living with Dementia or Parkinson’s. There are companies dedicated to small scale and rural touring, others bring educational and issue based work into educational settings and work within the criminal justice system:all using an array of theatre skills. And that is barely the start of what we do. Somehow the message of what the performing arts really does in this country needs to be told.
Sadly as a sector we need to also look at our own house and make some changes #MeToo has been a big wake-up call but there is much to do to ensure that everyone in the performing arts and their work is welcome no matter their gender, age, race, sexuality, class or economic background. Bullying in all its forms, sexual harassment and discrimination can have no place in this industry. We also need to look at our training models and are they really fit for the future, do they serve those who want to train for a career in the performing arts, are they inclusive? Given the number of articles I had read before lockdown and in recent weeks on this subject I suspect that changes are needed.
We also need to look at the stories that are told and the work that is made. There has already concerns raised that as companies recover and with economics and budgets tightened there will be a fall back to less risky more safe programming. Theatre in whatever form needs to reflect the world around us if it is to be truly relevant. We must tells the stories of all of those around us no matter what gender, age, race, sexuality, class or economic background. Personally I didn’t become an actor to tell my story but to tell the stories of those around me, those who’s stories and lives I know nothing of. As a theatre visitor it is work that tells these stories that I seek out to see. Performing as a whole needs to become more inclusive in who we are and what work we produce.
We also need to look at the status of freelances and micro companies, there is no performing arts without us. Our lives have always been precarious but this pandemic has utterly shown us how precarious. Many will not make it through this; they will either decide or be forced to give up, moving into other better paid, more secure industries taking a wealth of talent, experience and future potential with them and leaving the industry poorer. We need a better deal for freelancers.
These thoughts are not a complete, definitive action list: but my thoughts one afternoon when our future seemed possible.
Joe Stummer: “The future is unwritten”