Theatre’s plague year

A delicate ecosystem has been disrupted. The effects are dire

Gemma Bodinetz

I have been the Artistic Director of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatres since September 2003. In early March 2020 we had a sold-out, critically acclaimed, world premiere of a Jonathan Harvey play on the Everyman stage and what was looking like our best ever selling Playhouse season. We were beginning to feel that now, with our reserves rebuilding again after a bumpy ride through austerity, and with a new business plan rooted in positive social change, embedded talent development and artistic innovation, we could begin to be the very best of ourselves. And then we were instructed that all theatres should be closed until further notice.

A report produced by UK Theatre and its sister organisation SOLT (Society of London Theatre) found that the UK’s creative industries stand to lose about £1.4 billion per week during 2020, with more than 400,000 jobs at stake as a result. This research suggests that the UK’s creative sector will be hit harder than many others by the pandemic —and twice as hard as the wider economy. Theatre can’t survive without an audience and the economics of socially distanced audiences are not sustainable. The future of theatre is on a knife-edge and it is important that we all understand what is at stake.

I am perhaps better placed than some to comment on what the future might be like after lockdown if theatres like ours don’t survive. The Everyman and the Playhouse are roughly a mile apart and have very different histories. Liverpool is a city that has experienced more than its share of economic hardship and when I first arrived both theatres had been closed in recent history and/or were only able to receive work produced elsewhere. In 1999 Arts Council England and Liverpool City Council made the decision that they should be run as one organisation. In this way they could share staff and not compete with each other for audiences. Although neither theatre was fully closed for long, the effects on the theatrical landscape in Liverpool were profound and were still felt until recently.

Both the Everyman and the Playhouse in their day had had wonderful and rightly lauded youth theatres. When I arrived, the Playhouse studio was closed and it had no
official youth theatre. At the Everyman, a group of volunteers courageously tried to keep a tiny youth theatre going.

Theatre is part of an intricate ecosystem. Without a thriving youth theatre, you will see fewer fringe outfits evolving into the next Wise Children, the next Kneehigh—innovative, thrilling theatre companies. The Everyman and Playhouse youth theatres launched such actors as David Morrissey, Stephen Graham, the McGanns, Daniel Craig, Cathy Tyson, Ian Hart, and many more. In the performing arts, the UK punches well above its weight. Disrupt the eco-system at a regional level and watch your national and global talent pool shrink.

Three years ago a member of our youth theatre, Darci Shaw, played one of the younger sisters in my production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Everyman. She was only 15. Last year she played the young Judy Garland in Judy, starring Renée Zellweger. And YEP (Young Everyman and Playhouse) now has hundreds of members. As well as YEP actors, we have YEP producers, playwrights, technicians and directors.

The former UK Theatre executive director David Brownlee completed a report, just before lockdown, on how theatres have coped with austerity. Thirteen regional theatres contributed to it, including us. Brownlee says of regional theatres: “They are a partner and a leader in their broader artistic communities. They are major civic organisations working to improve places and lives . . . They change lives and they make lives worth living.”

Before lockdown our Playhouse, in partnership with Merseycare, was serving as a “Life Room” during the day, offering workshops for people recovering from addiction and mental health issues. It is one of many initiatives we have, often in partnership with education establishments, community centres and health providers, to use the skills associated with performance to improve the quality of life and skills of our many communities.

During lockdown we have been running many of these workshops with our communities via Zoom. Not to keep us busy—but because we are aware of how important they are to the people that experience them.

Looking around Europe, several of our neighbours recognise the importance of the performing arts in this holistic sense. Italy has invested €220 million to help sustain its industry. Germany has invested €1 billion in a fund to help cultural organisations reopen. Last month Spain’s culture minister unveiled a rescue package of extending credits and specialist finances worth €760 million alongside a €76 million fund to help them survive.

SOLT and UK Theatre have already issued a set of recommendations to our government including an emergency rescue fund, long-term loan, and a Cultural Investment Participation Scheme. We have written to our MPs and pray that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, can make good his pledge to “look at what further support we can give theatres during this challenging time”. The “roadmap” he produced last week needs detail and a financial package attached, if it is to take us to a safe destination.

Closing a theatre means more than losing a venue in which to watch a show. It’s potentially the loss of the hub at the centre of the wheel. And though you can close a theatre in the blink of an eye, recreating its relationship with the wider theatre ecosystem and regaining the faith of its audiences can take years.

Prior to Covid-19, Liverpool had a burgeoning theatre scene which involved many more theatres, companies and artists than just the Everyman and Playhouse. We are a symbiotic family. More drama graduates and local artists are choosing to stay in Liverpool because there might be enough work for them here without moving to London (as they used to do in their droves). This talent retention is great for local theatres but it is also good for our associated industries of, say, restaurants, pubs and baby-sitters. And all of that is essential for a visitor economy such as Liverpool’s, founded on its cultural vibrancy. And so the wheel spins beautifully.

The future of theatre is essential for our cultural well-being locally and nationally but that is not to say that the future should be the same as the past.

This enforced pause has made many of us reflect on what our art form should look like in the future. How can we be more diverse, more inclusive, serve our artists and communities more equitably? We need to evolve. We need to make sure that everyone can benefit from all that we bring to our regions, our cities and our souls.

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