Brighton has always had a flourishing arts scene and cultural history. Including the Fringe, Brighton Festival is second only to Edinburgh Festival in terms of scope, size and ambition, and is the largest and most established annual curated multi-arts festival in England. This year the Festival was due to celebrate its 53rd birthday with poet Lemn Sissay as Guest Director. All of this was thrown into freefall when coronavirus struck: both the Festival and the Fringe suspended all activities and closed their doors.
This news came as a devastating blow to the many freelancers, theatre makers, performers and producers who live and work in and around the city, of which I am one. I had to cancel two shows, the first a site-specific piece called Savage Beauty for Actors of Dionysus that ironically had just received Arts Council funding before the lockdown, and the other an award-winning aerial show called Everything I See I Swallow.
Both of these projects have been put on hold and my general manager and I have spent the last few months fire-fighting: trying to convert the former into a digital platform whilst attempting to salvage the latter; applying for every single emergency fund we could find (and so far getting nowhere) and cancelling a multitude of educational school workshops. I know I am not the only theatre maker or arts manager that has to juggle more than usual in an industry that is precarious at the best of times.
The most overwhelming feeling I had right at the beginning of lockdown, apart from the confusion, was a sense of loss akin to bereavement – in not performing and having to cancel – then the concomitant guilt that I was lucky not to have actually lost a loved one to the virus! The furlough scheme helped of course and the small amount of money made available for freelancers like myself, but the creative industries needed more… and there was still no word from the government. Losing all ticketing revenue meant that theatres and venues were now reliant on dwindling reserves, donations and emergency funding to survive. Although I don’t manage a venue I knew what this would mean for us and the future of touring: things would never be the same again.
A live audience is the life-blood of theatre. It is the fuel that sets it alight and the nourishment that keeps it going. A lot of theatre companies made free content available online, such as our #dailydose: at least we could offer something to schools and the general public while we weren’t allowed out. But without an audience and that vital box-office income, how would we survive?
So it was with some relief that we finally heard culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s announcement of a £1.57bn rescue package for the arts. But is this too little too late? According to the government, “the money, which represents the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture, will provide a lifeline to vital cultural and heritage organisations across the country hit hard by the pandemic”. That’s great, but some venues weren’t able to wait over three months to hear this. Some have already folded, such as Nuffield Southampton Theatres and a regular touring venue of ours: Square Chapel Halifax, the lifeblood of its city.
And since the government’s announcement, it’s all gone quiet. I’ve spoken to a few venues and what they need more than anything is clarity, often a forlorn hope where this government is concerned. For example, if social distancing won’t be relaxed until the end of 2021 venues need to know now, so that they can plan ahead.
There’s also a sense from freelancers that they also need some allocation of these funds, especially when a recent survey revealed that 36% of the freelance workforce in the performing arts “received no support from the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme or Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.” The report also warns that “the rescue deficit will widen” if the commercial sector is offered a financial package without the benefit being passed on to freelancers, and calls for the commercial sector to be required to extend support to freelancers as a condition of any funding received. It’s a very dense and complicated matter.
One thing is certain: the UK makes some of the best theatre in the world and we need to preserve this, make even better, more inclusive work and #BuildBackBetter, as many have been saying. And we need a government that appreciates just how much we contribute, not just to the economy, but to well-being, mental health and our collective spirit. The government’s response is welcome, but how effective it will be remains to be seen.
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