It can't be showbusiness as usual

It can't be showbusiness as usual

It can't be showbusiness as usual

Rebecca Manson Jones

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The £1.5 billion Government bailout for theatre is great, but it can't be 'showbusiness as usual' for the industry post Covid-19.

A lot of people might be expecting me to feel £1.57 billion richer this week. I should be breathing easier and, like many of my colleagues, I should be saying thank you for the package announced by the Government to bail out theatre industry, which has been haemorrhaging cash since it was forced to cease production back in March. And to some extent, I am.

I’m the Artistic Director and co-CEO of a small and mighty National Portfolio Organisation. We’re a touring theatre company which receives regular funding from Arts Council England to work with learning disabled artists, older people especially people living with dementias, and women with experience of domestic abuse or violence. So, I’m delighted that the ecology of venues and all the staff who work in them looks to be protected. Cheers are due we hope for Manchester and Cardiff, and I have everything crossed for colleagues in Plymouth, Pitlochry, Keswick, Southampton, the West End and London Theatre – just a few of the places where theatre closures and/or redundancies have been announced or threatened.

The Government are claiming that this cash injection is a world-leading move, and I really hope it is, because despite the headline calling for “showbusiness as usual,” that is the last thing we need.

As is the case for the rest of society, the old ways weren’t working for the majority of people in theatre. The effects of lockdown on our industry demonstrate this: the people at the top tables leading discussions are mostly white males, and the people losing their roles and having projects cancelled have least back up. The under 25s will be the most affected by loss of earnings, while BAME and disabled artists are hit hard because although representation is better, equality is far from embedded.

We need this £1.57bn to go to the right places and not just the obvious ones. For example, we must not forget that 70% of people working in theatre aren’t in PAYE jobs. A majority of these are women. Because of HMRC rules, many move between PAYE and self-employment so were excluded from the Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) from the outset of lockdown. They won’t benefit directly from the theatre institutions being protected. The lobby group Parents in Performing Arts is already warning that women will be the first to drop out of the industry as things get harder.

It seems that Oliver Dowden has listened to the plight of freelancers but he still doesn’t understand what they all do. We hope that the Freelancers Taskforce, paid for by 180+ organisations including mine, will get to meet him.  And I really want them amongst other things, to ask Oliver how much of the £1.57bn is destined for construction projects – ie: not arts jobs at all, more like jobs for the construction boys.

Before lockdown started, the creative industries were the fastest growing sector in the UK, with the areas of arts and culture being the exception to the increasing number of jobs being lost to automation. We play important roles in local communities and for every £1 invested in subsidised arts, £5 goes back to those communities. We help society discover its potential, its joy, to build resilience and overcome prejudice, to explore its fears and taboos.

The Conservatives have been complacent about our arts world. They haven’t understood that making and participating in arts is important and a right listed by the UN. Their education policy indicates their complete lack of understanding that if they don’t invest in new and diverse talent, the well will run dry.

With all the recent rallying cries to decolonise our thinking, this could be the golden time to reframe what we are doing, who is doing it, how we do it, and for whom. It could provide time to include the work of women in orchestra repertoires, to re-address the validity of the “old masters”, to commission projects and productions from across the population, and to actively promote the existing and future work of BAME women and disabled artists in the UK.

We need arts and culture, the nation’s health depends up on it. So I ask the Government - and my fellow colleagues - to insist that we invest this money in an equal future, not merely use it to continue to bolster an unjust past. 

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